Everyone likes games. Games are fun. We like doing fun things. Rewards make fun things more fun! More fun things are addictive. Let’s do the fun things again! Let’s game-ify the world!
That’s the thought process behind Gamification, the concept of using the collect, reward and repeat process common in video games which has now deeply seeped into our daily routines. And it’s making us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do.
If your only interaction with a video game was a hoary old Pacman arcade cabinet in 1982, you’re still familiar with the collect-reward-repeat concept. Eat ghosts, beat the level, do it again - all to gain a dull sense of accomplishment that is announced to an envious world via the hi-score board.
Oh, and when Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde killed your plucky yellow puck and ended your Pacmaniacal ambitions, you’ll also be familiar with the automatic oh-OK-just-one-more-go justification that accompanies the insertion of another coin in the machine’s slot. Let's gamify!
The basis of gamification is simple: make something un-fun into something fun by hacking the stupid, stupid human brain - which for some reason equates “being given an utterly valueless ‘reward’ in the form of a number or a colourful token” with “satisfactory progress”.
While that also uncomfortably accounts for the concept of doing your job in order to gain Fiat currency and pay the damn rent, there are recognisable, if simple, gains to be had from being part of gamification.
Some of those things are beneficial for us, on the receiving end. A lot of them are beneficial for someone else on the controlling end. The weirdest part is not even that you probably don’t realise you’re doing it: it’s that you’re doing it and probably think what you’re doing is what you really want to do, even when you probably don’t.
You’ve probably already willingly allowed your life to be gamified. Think back: maybe, in the early 2010s, when you dropped by your favourite coffee place and while that cute barista poured out your daily fix, you religiously, wordlessly, automatically slid your phone out of your pocket, opened Foursquare and “checked in” so that you could maintain your hard-earned “Mayor” status?
Foursquare’s simple, early stroke of genius was to gamify the world; essentially crossing the gotta-catch-em-all-ism of Pokemon with the mundanity of ordering a greasewich from your local burger joint.
And the game was agonisingly simple: check in, gain badges, appear more important. The more you checked in, the higher your score and the more badges you unlocked. It was also agonisingly popular: the 60 million users have “checked in” more than 9 billion times, revealing that we’re more than happy to be players in a very simple game, just so long as we can see a number increase and badges appear now and then.
The game’s rewards worked in two directions. The reward for users was vague real-world social status. Puny human synapses crackled with excitement and swelled with pride.
The reward for Foursquare was billions of data points on human behaviour, user’s purchase information, and vendor ratings. Foursquare’s databases crackled with juicy data and swelled with marketing opportunity.
So, users got a fleeting sense of societal elevation, and Foursquare was able to pivot from a basic check-in app into a fully-fledged, crowdsourced city guide, and were able to subsequently raise an extra $100M in funding. Player 1 wins!
Game of drones
Maybe - if you’ve been tightening your wristband by a notch recently - you’ll have seen tangible evidence of gamification changing your life for the better.
Various fitness trackers makes something as tedious as running - putting one foot in front of the other thousands of times in order to feel pain, become pungent, and install a sense of deep boredom - more interesting by making a game of it, and awarding you medals as you rack up the miles. Or maybe Pokemon Go tricked you into walking around a lot more, gazing at an augmented world through the screen of your phone, as you sought to Catch ‘Em All™.
Narcissism, like the enjoyment derived from being arbitrarily rewarded for repetitive behaviour, is another dumb base human desire, so surely few people care about the wider moral implications if they’gamification is fooling them into becoming more physically desirable.
Put a Quarter in your ass, ‘cos you played yourself
Other examples of gamification are more… morally questionable.
America’s Army, a First-Person shooter video game which is available on major game distribution network Steam, has been using gamification to gently persaude players to do something since 2003. It’s available for the best price of all: free. And the thing it wants players to do? Join the army.
By literally making a game out of the skills taught to soldiers, the game is supposed to indoctrinate players with “core Army Values, such as honor, integrity, duty, and selfless service, as well as realistic rules of engagement,” all while having the kind of fun one can only truly have when shooting people in the head. And you can play the game with a whole caboodle of super-fun killing machines:
“[Players can use] realistic equipment and military hardware such as such as the M9A1 & M1911 Pistol, 870 MCS shotgun, M14EBR-RI sniper rifle, M24 sniper rifle, M4A1 and the M249 Saw. Players can also use the M67 fragmentation grenade, M106 Fast Obscurant Grenade and the M84 Stun Grenade as well as optics that include the M68 Close Combat Optic, M553 Holographic Weapon Sight, M150 ACOG 4x Optic, Elcan M145 and Ghost Ring Sight.”
Phwoar, hold me back. The game's blurb goes out of its way to explain how the game teaches teamwork, medical aid and situational awareness, but one can’t help but wonder if most players might be tempted to play it mainly because it lets you sneak around and shoot people in the head for hours.
Whether using gamification techniques to seduce young gamers into joining the Army is good or bad is down to your interpretation, but whatever you conclude, hot-wiring young brains with a simple reward system to make them readily sign up to become killing machines is as clear a demonstration of gamification’s power as you could need.
But gamification is a complex beast, and other applications of it are a little less cut-and-dried. The mechanics of gamification are also being applied in morally indistinct ways in, erm, video games. Games in games in games. Gamification Inception.
The “Loot Box” craze in gaming might actually be more than a craze - it might actually be an actual addiction. And it’s another form of gamification.
Loot Boxes, a prevalent part of the biggest games like FIFA 18 and Battlefront II, are bought using in-game tokens (which can be won, or, commonly, purchased via an game-world store using real-world money). The Loot Boxes contain random prizes that are potentially useful to the player: superstar footballers, or better guns ’n' ammo.
People don’t just like buying and opening Loot Boxes themselves, they like watching other people do it too. Loot Box Addicts, like any other addict, enjoy hanging around together as they burn time on their addiction. One thirty-minute “Loot Box Unboxing” video has attracted nearly three million views.
Gazing at a screen full of colourful, flashing items and hitting buttons to reveal randomly-selected prizes is no longer use the preserve of the drunk, fidgety people in front slot machines in bars: your 12-your old cousin is doing it on her Xbox too.
Collect, reward and repeat: Loot Boxes are the result of gamification, albeit turbo-charged with connected debit-cards and instant purchase options to help players get Just One More Hit. Some experts have described Loot Boxes a little more sternly, calling them, “gambling for kids” - and the Belgian government agrees, aiming to ban games with Loot Boxes.
The tricks of the gambling companies - as we have discussed on MONTAG before - have “inspired” (read: ‘copied entirely’) firms who design social media apps to literally keep users addicted to their products using gamification. Here, at the messy edge where it’s you, the player, versus a team of hundreds of designers, data analysts and marketers, is where the traits of gamification become almost invisible and insidious.
Using gamification to build systems that encourage people to keep repeating an action over and over can, like any powerful force, encourage people to do extremely good things like tricking you into learning a new language or into working together to help others.
But make no mistake, it will be used for… other things too. The BBC reports that the Chinese government is, “building an omnipotent "social credit" system that is meant to rate each citizen's trustworthiness,” created by, “merging a wide variety of information on every citizen, assessing whether taxes and traffic tickets have been paid, whether academic degrees have been rightly earned and even, it seems, whether females have been instructed to take birth control.”
Remember the timeless mantra of the movie War Games: the only way to win is to not play. Maybe sticking another quarter into the Pacman machine was not so bad in hindsight.