Can Gamification Be Saved?

I ultimately think no, but the debate should probably be had.

I originally made two posts about Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken when I read the book, and you can find them here: First, second.

On the second post, a thoughtful commenter calling himself Larry B. posted this:

As a radical and animal lib activist, I of course agree with you on many things, but I do think you mischaracterize McGonigal’s argument a bit–and it might lead potential readers to never get an important lesson. The book admittedly smuggles in the mainstream episteme that someone with mainstream politics inevitably has, but it is really a strategy guide for how to achieve certain ends efficiently. If your ends are to create a world more compassionate to animals, you can use the principles she outlines to design an alternate reality game that can be the means.

I think that if you wanted to be more constructive and actually help animals and activists, you might have focused on critiquing the strategies she outlines themselves. For one, we should recognize that for most people who are sympathetic to the animal lib cause, activism is not intrinsically rewarding. Most people do not like protesting, and even those of us who do it regularly think we should do it more. We might use the information in the book to design a social-networking game that creates intrinsic rewards for protest and action) which I happen to be doing the concept work on right now).

For instance, considering that picketing KFCs doesn’t ever seem to get them shut down, many activists become discouraged and the campaign attendance rates often drops off. But what if activists were accumulating experience points for ever protest, every demo, every letter to the editor, which would allow them to level up their and get new abilities in their online activist community? We would feel a better sense of accomplishment. And we could better track exactly how large the scale of our efforts is by looking at the total statistics of different activist groups.

I think we should use McGonigal’s research to our advantage–you know our enemies are.

I posted the following in response:

This is really just a fundamental disagreement about methodologies. McGonigal’s book, at the root, asserts that the neoliberal strategies of the past are applicable, and desireable, in games. McGonigal advocates directing the desires of players toward “good” goals, producing what she calls epic actions, and that those actions can be directed toward what she thinks of as positive ends, like increasing education, market value, etc. What you are putting forward is ultimately, for me at least, a “master’s tools” kind of argument. Gamification arrests desires and puts them in the hands of the game designers, and worse, addicts the player to that system. I’m not sure that it is an ethical form of game design. I am also not sure that I am as concerned with the end result of the games that are designed this way, since most of the games McGonigal has created had good intentions and results, but rather that I think the purposeful manipulation of actions and desires toward the goals of the designers is ethically suspect.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to give people experience points for protesting. I think the ethics are problematic, and the obligation created by “treadmill” games as applied to protesting leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. McGonigal, and the design ethic espoused in Reality is Broken, is essentially one of creating “game designer overlords” who want to world to be shaped by the games they design. I’m wary of that project.

Larry B. makes a smart argument that I, at the end of the day, simply distrust. Gamification is, more than anything else, a disciplinary practice. Because these kinds of games rarely have end-game scenarios, playing the game becomes a state of constantly winning. Every time you click a cow, every time you would get an experience point for protest, the game draws you in further. It structures the world in such a way that the player cannot think outside of being an operator for the game system–at the very heart, that is why gamification works.

I just thought that everyone would like to see the discussion, whereas I know that no one would have seen it in a post from six months ago. That said, everyone have a great weekend.

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