My Life as a Game

Ⓜ️ From the June edition of the Metropole print issue. Subscribe or get a copy at newsstands now. 

Nine years ago, an Irish mathematics professor topped Blackberry’s Brick Breaker leader board. He had “gamed the system” by pausing play to rack up points. Months later, he deleted it. “I was addicted to an activity that was essentially wasting my time,” he admits a little sheepishly. Like the cursed hero in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, he’d got lost in the game.

In a gamified world, your smart device is your guide and your compass.

To the €375 million gamification industry, however, gameplay is time well spent – a powerful driver in what Jasmin Karatas of Accenture Digital Interactive calls “the fourth era of industrial development,” dominated by the smartphone.

Gamification helps companies like Google, Facebook and Tinder apply game mechanics – the elements that engage players – to non-play activities: training, e-learning, friendship, dating or unfulfilling work. A 2017 Gallup poll reported 85% of the world’s workforce “hate their job and especially their boss.” Making work – the majority of waking hours – fun could have workers spending less time on smashing virtual bricks and more on the real thing.

“Games are systems defined by rules and procedures. They’re uniquely capable of making an argument.”

Smartphones, combined with social media, opened the monetization floodgates: M&M and Nike entice users to share the brand with viral rewards. Blockchain gaming promises virtual fortunes. Gamifying high-value interactions with “behavioral economics” data “empowers businesses to create true loyalty,” confirms Bunchball founder Rajat Paharia.

Simulated games make people discover their surroundings
Games like Pokemon Go turn whole cities into a playground.

“Games are systems defined by rules and procedures. They’re uniquely capable of making an argument,” defines Fares Kayali, a game designer and professor at the University of Vienna. Their simplicity – risk, reward, outcome – makes games so manipulative. “Processes influence us,” wrote the game designer and academic Ian Bogost in Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2007). “They seed changes in our attitudes, which in turn, and over time, change our culture.”

For better or worse, gameful design, light years from board games like Stratego or 1970s arcade games, is now powered by AI, machine learning, augmented reality, sophisticated algorithms, neuroscience, biometrics and behavioral psychology. Satisfying our need for positive feedback has opened the door to intrusive tracking and monitoring. The gamifying expert Yu-Kai Chou warns developers against “bad hat versus good hat” gamification.

MyoBeatz is a rhythm-based music game for myoelectric prosthesis training, developed by the Medical University Vienna.

To win a game, you must avoid the “losing condition” – the bomb hitting your space invader. In the Gamification of Life, who’s in control of the joystick?

Gameful Employment

Gamification is now unavoidable. Download a skiing app and get a “badge” just for taking a lift. Gyms encourage us to share workouts. Uber’s video game icons track drivers and passengers, nudging both to constant rating. Airbnb hosts jump like seals to reach Superhost status.

Gamification is, essentially, a Pavlovian system of rewards. “Players” earn points and badges from tackling challenges or engaging in activities; get feedback and reviews (likes, follows, shares) via AI or peers; and rate themselves against others in leader boards. Conditioning pings and red dots on apps remind players to continue.

Gamers are developing “crucial 21st-century skills to help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the world around us.”

“Businesses like gamification because it leverages psychology concepts like self-determination theory – the desire to progress and master skills – relatable,” explains Daniel Meusburger, an Austrian UX (User Interface) design manager at Accenture Digital in London. “You strengthen intrinsic motivations into a project by incorporating tailored game elements, such as onboarding, challenges or a quest.”

The spread of gamification, following the financial crash, was partly inspired by Jane McGonigal’s influential 2011 book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. The game developer and Stanford researcher proposed that far from being antisocial slackers, gamers were developing “crucial 21st-century skills to help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the world around us.”

Jane McGonigal’s bestseller shows how games can make the world a better place.

Skills such as “leveling up” via extreme obstacles to achieve “Epic Wins.” McGonigal concluded raising gameplay globally from 3 to 21 billion hours could save the planet.

“Game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work,” wrote McGonigal, speaking in particular about the “collective intelligence” of Alternative Reality Games and Massive Multiplayer Online games. In McGonigal’s World Without Oil, players communicated via blogs and texts as if living through an actual crisis.

It’s a perfect example, says Kayali, of letting people work things out in rehearsal. “People take what they learned from the game into their real life.”

As boundaries between work and play blur, in a paradigm shift from analog (driving a bus or serving customers) to digital (coding the software for self-driving buses and automated warehouse management), “gamification is one of the keys to doing digital transformation the right way,” stated Karatas at a 2017 Gamification Conference.

Homo Ludens

Inspired by Clark C. Abt’s Serious Games (1970), governments began creating games to solve global issues, partnering with academic affiliates like the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative, and the MIT Game Lab.

“Now game elements are everywhere,” remarks Kayali, who designed Myobeatz, a rhythm-based music game to train amputees to control prosthetic limbs. “But people still have no idea of their positive potential.”

Can you save a climate-challenged pika from overheating and predators?

Earthgames’ Life of Pika is a runner game to save a climate-challenged pika from overheating and predators; the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s Race for Risk Reduction serious game prepares for “thinking and decision making under pressure.” Playgen’s Choices and Voices interactive simulation discourages teens from extremism and violence through dialogue.

Participants at the 2017 Davos World Economic Forum played A Day in the Life of a Refugee. Assuming a refugee identity, attendees simulated fleeing war zones, negotiating with smugglers and facing interrogations.

Participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos step in the shoes of refugees for 75 minutes.
The real refugees’ journey may in reality take weeks, months or even longer.

The WU in Vienna is a global leader in e-learning. Thorsten Händler researches how gamification and serious games can motivate software developers to better identify and remove “code and design smells” in corrupted systems, using analysis tools like SonarQube.

Gamification makes change fun rather than dispiriting, drawing gamers into a collaborative “social fabric,” dispelling isolation and depression. Learners cooperate in gamified MOOCs (massive open online courses) across international boundaries. The side effect of Pokemon Go is to get people walking.

Players travel around the world to catch pokemon at real locations or trade them with locals.

Games may identify the perfect talent – the US Army uses Proving Grounds, a first-person shooter, to impress young hopefuls. The recruitment giant Mercer invested in Pymetrics, which used MIT neuroscience data and AI to develop games to promote bias-free hiring.

Can AI-driven games tackle pervasive social ills such as gender pay gaps, racism and social isolation?

Gamification can put a band-aid on austerity pains. Appointment apps assist doctors and patients to navigate the UK’s overloaded NHS health system. Meusburger designed a UX for Age UK’s Elderly Care Pilot, using Amazon’s voice-activated Echo Show to help seniors “live more independently and socially connected.”

Thus, full-circle, turning grandad into a gamer, absorbed in a screen, like Vashti in The Machine Stops. Is that better than investing in more IRL socially minded care homes? Can AI-driven games really tackle pervasive social ills such as gender pay gaps, racism and social isolation?

The Games People Play

Humans produce a mindboggling 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, much of which is gameplay ripe for complex analysis.

The smartest gamification tools engage us in extended, analyzable, rewarding interactions, stimulating the powerful “D.O.S.E.” nexus of neurotransmitters and hormones: dopamine for the rush of tackling an adventure; oxytocin associated with hugs and drugs; serotonin for sense of achievement; and endorphins for the joy of the “burn.”

Yu Kai Chou promises “the cheat codes to win the game of life” by Accessing the “eight core drives of human motivation.”

It’s an ethos derived directly from traditional gaming. Zynga’s “social game” FarmVille 2 retains Daily Active Users in extended “sessions” addictive enough to avoid the dreaded “churn” – players like the mathematics professor who stop playing. Players share cheat tips in the Zynga forums.

The “conversion rate” is key – the number of players who buy virtual items with real money (premium, hard currency), converting a free-to-play game into a monetizing “freemium” opportunity. The ideal “flow” is a stable balance between players “sourcing” (earning) virtual currency, and “sinking” (spending it). Zynga projects a rise of 27% in revenue to €1 billion.

Chou calls his Octalysis Gamification framework “the cheat codes to win the game of life.” Accessing the “eight core drives of human motivation,” Chou promises to increase employee satisfaction and decrease turnover, to better satisfy customers and double “upsells.”

Additional benefits of the Superhost status entice Airbnb landlords to up their game.

Airbnb saw a 30% rise in “Wish List” use when it changed the clickable symbol from a star to a heart. “The star is utilitarian (functional), while the heart is aspirational,” explains Chou. “Core Drive 4, Ownership & Possession, tells us that when we love something (or someone), our perceived value increases.

”The wish list keeps daydreamers browsing longer, sharing their lists via social media, and encouraging awareness of enhancers and upsells like local “experiences.”

Language matters as much as symbols. The UK government’s Behavioural Insights team, aka “the Nudge Unit” (named after Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s landmark book Nudge) “tweaks” us to pay more tax, drive better and behave nicer. Crunching “behavioral surplus” data revealed that vegetarian food described as “field-grown” rather than “meat-free” was twice as attractive to consumers.

laundry room workers suddenly found their productivity measured in real time, and their performance “scores” displayed publicly via “traffic” lights

Nintendo was one of the first company to bring video gaming to the masses; today, a smart device and the internet is often all that’s needed to play.

But behind the industry speak of Engaging UX design, Data-Driven Feedback, Adaptive Micro-learning, Deep Gamification, and GPRS-compliant data capture (the cuddly version), there’s the questionable aspect of manipulating people’s core needs through sophisticated behavioral and neurological tools.

The House Always Wins?

In a form of Foucauldian “Biopower,” West Virginia teachers faced losing their healthcare when their insurer (PEIA) forced them to submit to Humana’s Go365 biometric fitness monitoring game. Already poorly paid, some elderly or disabled, teachers had to pay unaffordable higher premiums if they couldn’t reach the game’s health targets, or lose their insurance.

In 2008, at the Disneyland Resort Hotel in California, laundry room workers suddenly found their productivity (i.e. number of towels pressed) measured in real time, and their performance “scores” displayed publicly via “traffic” lights – flashing red measured behind, amber slow, green good. Workers couldn’t stop watching the lights – they called it the “electronic whip.”

Every activity is judged and scored
in China’s gamified social credit
rating system.

The whip is the problem, says Marigo Raftopoulos, who conducted a five-year longitudinal study of corporate early adopters of “enterprise gamification,” such as Oracle, KPMG and SAP. “A light flashes, you push a button. The outcome is ‘Buy my product! Do your job! Learn your lesson! Behave as we tell you! Teach others to do the same!’,” notes Raftopoulos.

“It’s the result of classic gamification hacked by bad behaviorism and technology,” – too designer-driven, closed loop, pushed by persuasive technology with a system conform default.

Modern video games on smartphones take many cues from gambling – including addictive mechanisms to keep players “hooked.”

“The potential of gamification is much bigger than just slapping game elements onto non-game situations,” says Kayali, who smarts at the assumption that learning needs to be made fun (it should be inherently). “It may work in the short term, but long term, it might even swing the other way and hinder ambition and motivation.”

Social Scores

Every activity is judged and scored in China’s gamified social credit rating system – the largest game of all – driven by Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba. Daily announcements in pilot cities (the entire country will participate by 2020) condition citizens to participate or be punished. This whips citizens to hyper-competition.

“A person playing video games for several hours during the day would be considered idle, while someone buying diapers frequently would be considered a responsible parent,” wrote Zahy Ramadan in his 2017 paper, The Gamification of Trust: The Case of China’s “Social Credit.”

“Would you like to compare yourself in every aspect with others? Is that really good for you?”

“Befriending people with high scores while unfriending those with low scores would improve one’s rating.” Ramadan reported, “As consumers’ lives become more closely intertwined with the internet for basic, needed services, there will be hardly any option to opt-out of this rating system.” To date, millions of Chinese have had their travel restricted and their social ratings publicly disclosed.

China scores its citizens on a range of measures which can then affect every aspect of life, from whether you get a discount at the supermarket to whether you are even allowed to board a plane.

“You can see your whole life as a game,” says Händler. “You have to ask yourself would you like to track every action you perform? Would you like to compare yourself in every aspect with others? Is that really good for you? In some areas it’s meaningful, in others, not.”

“Gamification in 2019 is making its way into areas that have been somewhat hesitant to embrace it. These include politics and civic institutions,” confirms Gabe Zichermann, the author of The Gamification Revolution (2013). It influences how we vote and reinforces polarization. The now discredited Cambridge Analytica boasted it used thousands of data points to “better persuade and mobilize” a unique voter.

War has always been gamified, from drawing troop movements in the sand, to gaming out regime change scenarios via “robust decision making” at the RAND corporation. For LSE’s USAPP blog, Joseph Pugliese noted that drone pilots describe “telewar killing operations” as a “gamer’s delight.” For the pilots, “The stakes are asymmetrical, the gambles are ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘jackpots’ are, for the targeted civilians of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, fatal.”

US Marine Corps infantrymen participate in a heavy huey raid exercise during Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course 2-15 at Yuma Proving Grounds – all in the tactical shooter “Prooving Grounds,” the official game of the US army.

McGonigal disparaged gamification in a 2012 The New York Times article: “If the game is not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.” We’re a long way from 2012.

A Super Mario World

Who remembers Pong? Silicon Valley giving free sweeteners to strip-mine personal assets is old news. Applying AI to our complex “digital exhaust” – the online decisions we make while purchasing a suit, texting grandma, or communicating with Siri – developers pinpoint why we say yes, not just how we get there. We’ve jumped from predictive text to predictable behavior.

small child dressed as Mario
Games like Super Mario have been entertainment mainstays since 1985.

Last year, WeWork, the €42 billion co-working space provider, bought Euclid’s Spatial Analytics platform. Euclid redefines “the workplace experience of the future” by minutely tracking employees’ Wi-Fi location, like Super Mario characters. It’s invasive, but who’s stopping it?

Awesome technology, combined with a laissez-faire attitude to data privacy and autonomy, opens us up to remote control. Gamification is deep-rooted to a future in which unpredictable humans will coexist with manageable robots. The data feedback from gamified systems, in Karatas’ words “so linked to us and who we are as human beings” provides a wealth of opportunity to help AI and robots be better at being us – what she calls “reverse gamification.”

In the 1936 masterpiece Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin was comically reduced to a twitching automaton by the “time and motion” pressures of the modern factory. For Raftopoulos, gamification is the same paternalistic system, just with more technology. At last year’s Gamification Europe, she urged designers toward open-ended, co-
designed “First Person Walker” games like Dear Esther.

These real-world scenarios “slow the pace to enable real human thinking, not driving people to think a certain way, but giving them space to think for themselves,” pleaded Raftopoulos. “Like walking through an installation.”

Tech’s unintended consequences are hardly new. Facebook’s livestream has been used as a gamified propaganda tool for white supremacists, Incels and ISIS. And gamers have been blamed for everything from social media narcissism to school shootings.

Artist-driven games like “Kabul Kaboom!” and “Madrid” inspire empathy in the face of war and terrorism.

“Digital cannot be reversed,” said Karatas at the 2017 Gamification Conference. “We have to struggle with how to deal with gamification … Who tells us that what we tell you to do is the right thing?”

Citizens have real super powers, such as voting and speaking out. The West Virginia teachers went on strike, declaring healthcare shouldn’t be a reward. Go365 was canceled by PEIA (although the program continues elsewhere). In 2013, Brandon Bryant was the first drone operator to reveal the horrific realities of drone warfare to GQ.

We can also gamify better. Artist-driven games like Kabul Kaboom! and Madrid inspire empathy in the face of war and terrorism. Amnesty’s street funding campaign #360SyriaVirtual Aleppo gave passersby VR goggles that turned London into an Aleppo-like war zone. App stores can pull apps like Absher, a Saudi government e-services app that has been used to track women.

Our smart devices – digital gateways or shackles?

McGonigal’s Gameful Collaborative is “a secret headquarters for people who want to change the world through games.” Karatas’ start up Myndset hopes to “inject emotions into the process of gamification.” The 2019 G4C Student Challenge invites students in economically devastated Detroit to create games “about issues impacting their communities.”

To Bogost, games “are expressions of being human. And the logics that drive our games make claims about who we are, how our world functions, and what we want it to become.”

Reality may still be broken, but we can direct our Super Mario heroes to make the repairs.

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