As I've noted before, I once participated on an online forum where the participants quarreled a lot. One of the things they griped about was the way that some members "padded" their post count with lots of very brief entries intended to run up their score. Their goal—due to the fact that every forum member was ranked individually against the entire membership—was to make it to the top of the heap.
I thought the whole thing was rather silly at the time, but I did find myself on occasion being dragged into the competition. I recognized that the larger motive behind the forum's incentives to "reward" quantity over quality was to encourage site activity, and that the forum owners themselves were in engaged in a post-count competition with similarly themed forums. What I didn't know at the time was that there is a name for the way that the site was designed: it's called "gamification."
Gamification is the process by which an activity that is not, in itself, a game, is turned into one. "Players" are ranked according to their levels of participation. This website, for example, is gamified, with all of us ranked, badged, and labeled according to a rather bewildering number of criteria, some of which I still haven't wholly figured out. And, as Stephanie Miller's "The Power of Play: Gamification Can Change Marketing" reveals, a lot of marketing campaigns are being gamified as well, like Domino's Pizza Hero mobile app feature (you can find her article in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). Even educators are looking into gamification as a way of transforming American education.
"Well so what?" you may be thinking. "What's the harm in making things fun?" The problem (and there is a problem) only appears when rampant gamification is subjected to a semiotic analysis. For when it is considered in the context of the larger system of contemporary American culture, we can see how gamification is a reflection of an overall hypercapitalistic tendency to turn everything into a winner-takes-all competition, with all of the "losers" that that entails.
Gamification looks even more sinister in the light of Sarah Mason's exposé of the way that it is being employed to incentivize worker productivity without a corresponding increase in actual income, "High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification." Going beyond her own personal experience as a Lyft driver subject to the sirens of the game, Mason reveals a form of worker exploitation that is intentionally grounded in the psychology of gambling addiction. Here's how she puts it:
In addition to offering meaningless badges and meagre savings at the pump, ride-hailing companies have also adopted some of the same design elements used by gambling firms to promote addictive behaviour among slot-machine users. One of things the anthropologist and NYU media studies professor Natasha Dow Schüll found during a decade-long study of machine gamblers in Las Vegas is that casinos use networked slot machines that allow them to surveil, track and analyse the behaviour of individual gamblers in real time – just as ride-hailing apps do. This means that casinos can “triangulate any given gambler’s player data with her demographic data, piecing together a profile that can be used to customise game offerings and marketing appeals specifically for her”. Like these customised game offerings, Lyft tells me that my weekly ride challenge has been “personalised just for you!”
Former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris has also described how the “pull-to-refresh” mechanism used in most social media feeds mimics the clever architecture of a slot machine: users never know when they are going to experience gratification – a dozen new likes or retweets – but they know that gratification will eventually come. This unpredictability is addictive: behavioural psychologists have long understood that gambling uses variable reinforcement schedules – unpredictable intervals of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback – to condition players into playing just one more round.
In short, what is happening here goes well beyond mere fun. Gamification is at once a form of behavior modification and an extension of the surveillance society in which we live, where everything we do is tracked and data mined on behalf of corporate profits that are not shared with the vast majority of the population. With artificial intelligence—which is grounded in mass data collection and algorithmic analysis—emerging as the newest breathlessly hyped game on the block, we can see that this hypercapitalistic cultural tendency is only going to continue its expansive intrusions into our lives. And that's not just fun and games.