Gamification is Awesome and Terrifying

Whoever makes the game, wins?

Posted by fiddlemath on August 23, 2011

A friend linked me Fun is the Future almost two weeks ago; I just, finally, watched it. It is fascinating. I’ve also read through Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. I’ve been excited about the prospect of greater gamification of education for a long time, and it’s exciting to me that the field is getting serious study.

On the other hand, I’m really disturbed by the darker points that he was hinting at. Like, “internal motivation is over”, or “whoever makes the game wins”.

When I’m playing a well-designed, German-style board game with friends, my engagement with that game feels a lot more like intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation. Surely it feels good to win, but it’s enjoyable to handle those mechanics, to concentrate on something pleasant, and to have friendly competition.

I know that the vast majority of the work going on in gamification is from companies trying to increase the involvement of their customers and users. As I value my attention and the attention of others, this seems really damn dark - gamification is then a totally blatant attention grab, from people who know exactly what they’re doing, happening to people who probably don’t have the resources to resist, or understand that it could be an issue.

Certainly, there are other, more globally-positive uses of the same insight. Clever game design, for instance, can simply revolve around getting your players to do awesome, or bold, or particularly self-improving things. (e.g., Top Secret Dance-Off, Rejection Therapy, and Geocaching.) These are explicitly game-like activities that use game mechanics to get players to engage in positive activities, but which the players would otherwise not do, due to fear or insufficient desire. These are awesome, and I want to see more like them.

In short, then: Games are clearly a powerful way to effect people. If you can design a compelling game, you can actually manipulate lots of people in particular ways. This is an amazing boon for encouraging positive experiences, and cementing social organizations, but companies have quite a lot to gain by using games to engineer compliance. I do not like engineered compliance! Is this worth worrying about? Can we inoculate people against succumbing to engineered compliance, without losing the positive benefits of awesome games? (And how much of this can I do in the tiny corners of free time I’ve got left?)

Moreover, just a little googling suggests that there’s lots more reading. I’m interested in finding ways that people can reliably and deliberately design games that improve their local culture and make the people around them more awesome. This, not just by acting as a filter, but by getting many more people to engage in positive experiences, either just outside their comfort zone, or well outside their daily lives.

I would love if we became a culture of day-to-day game players, discriminating in our sense of what a game will demand of us (so that we aren’t easily manipulated, by games, against our best interests), and actively seeking to make and find opportunities to make real-life games. I think this is possible; I do not know how.

Status Games

(2 July 2012)

Will Wilkinson on status games.

In short: status games are not zero-sum. They’re positive-sum to the extent that status-seeking behaviors have positive externalities.

The author omits it, because his point is to counteract the demonization of status games, but status games are negative-sum to the degree that the game has negative externalities or imposes costs on its players.

The only sane criticism of a status game, then, is that it is negative-sum. This is true for any sort of game. If you add up the consequences of people playing that game, and they’re positive… good game.

Given this, do we understand the mechanism of status games well enough to use it as technology? If so, we can deliberately engender status games towards positive behavior? What are the psychological hooks that turn something into a status contest? How do we use this as a positive force, instead of getting people to click cows, give away all their money, or both?

For starters, this is probably how Wikipedia works; wars fought fiercely can be about the actual content, but the “polite” ones are probably status competitions between the participating editors. Volunteers in open-source, working for “egoboo”, are doing the same thing - thus ESR’s conclusions about the need for giving attribution for work. Ditto academic work - it is all about reputation, in similar ways, even when that measure of reputation doesn’t really control access to grants or tenure or resources.

Hypothesis: if positions for open-source programmers ever start to dry up making resources for programmers scarce, then competition to get your work into highly-visible projects will become fierce, and the main authors of those projects will need to institute anti-gaming measures.

More hypotheses spawned by the idea that status essentially drives human behavior:

  • The “components of your identity” - the “labels you give yourself” - are the status games that you play, or at least grant status for.
  • Anytime user’s involvement on some online thing follows power laws, with high involvement above (say) 6h per day, then a status game is happening.
  • If you associate a persistent identity with any visible measure of involvement, quality of involvement, or “success” at some competitive activity, you’ve at-least-weakly introduced a status game. If people are using it, some of those people are playing the game.

Ooh: Someone else has worked on this idea .