Gamifying Gamification by Making It Less Gamely

Guard TowerIn a recent post on the group blog Play the Past, I wrote about the way torture-interrogation is often described by its proponents as a kind of game. I wrestled for a long time with the title of that post: “The Gamification of Interrogation.” Why? Because I oppose the general trend toward “gamifying” real world activities—mapping game-like trappings such as badges, points, and achievements onto otherwise routine or necessary activities.

A better term for such “gamification” is, as Margaret Robertson argues, pointsification. And I oppose it. I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness.

So, back to my title and what troubled me about it: “The Gamification of Interrogation.” I didn’t want this title to appear to be an endorsement of gamification. Perhaps the most cogent argument against both the practice of gamification and the rhetoric of the word itself comes from Ian Bogost, who observes that the contorted noun “gamification” acts as a kind of magic word, making “something seem easy to accomplish, even if it is in fact difficult.”

Ian proposes that we begin calling gamification what it really is. Because gamification seeks to “replace real incentives with fictional ones,” he argues that we call it “exploitationware”—a malevolent practice that exploits a user’s loyalty with fake rewards.

I’m skeptical that “exploitationware” will catch on, even among the detractor’s of gamification. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Its five syllables are so confrontational that even those who despise gamification might not be sympathetic to the word. Yet Ian himself suggests the way forward:

[quote]the best move is to distance games from the concept [of gamification] entirely, by showing its connection to the more insidious activities that really comprise it.[/quote]

And this is where my title comes in. I’ve connected gamification to an insidious activity, interrogation. I’m not trying to substitute a more accurate word for gamification. Rather, I’m using “gamification,” but in conjunction with human activities that absolutely should not be turned into a game. Activities that most people would recoil to conceive as a game.

The gamification of torture.

The gamification of radiation poisoning.

The gamification of child pornography.

This is how we disabuse the public of the ideology of gamification. Not by inventing another ungainly word, but by making the word itself ungainly. Making it ungamely.

Prison Tower Barb photo courtesy of Flickr user Dana Gonzales / Creative Commons License]

4 thoughts on “Gamifying Gamification by Making It Less Gamely

  1. Thanks for this very interesting post, Mark. In general I very much agree with the sentiments expressed here.

    It strikes me, though, that the proverbial elephant in the room is the pervasive gamification of learning, through grades, credits, and the like, which leads to the perverse practice known as “grade-grubbing.” (Not to mention the mistaken impression in some quarters that the letters “B. A.” have, or should have, the powers of the One Ring.)

    I mostly hate grades, and not just because I hate grading.

    But I do think there’s something to be said for having to discipline oneself into a practice–to do something before one understands why one is doing it. (Learning to code almost always starts out like this, or at least it has for me–just follow these instructions, use this syntax, make this thingy that says “hello world.” A week later, you understand why you were doing what you did, and you understand it because you did it.)

    With thinking persons, usually the extrinsic motivation of the grade flips over into an intrinsic interest in what it is that one is doing–it has to, because it’s just too boring to merely do things to rack up points. When that flip doesn’t happen, we get grade-grubbing–people who think the points are (as it were) the point.

    Perhaps that flip happens when you start to understand enough of what you’re doing that it starts to become more interesting than racking up points. Racking up points, which is a sort of degree-zero narrative, is more interesting than a series of arbitrary, meaningless, and repetitive tasks, which is how some people see school. (And it’s worth noting that, to the beginner, most complex things seem arbitrary and meaningless–until they don’t.) So gamification is a relief from such tasks. As you say, the desire to gamify life processes seems to signal an inability to imbue them with more complex or interesting narrative (or, say, poetic!) significance. But it seems as though there are moments when gamification can be, and is, used strategically as a bridge into significance.

    There’s a very striking section of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative in which Equiano is going about trading various goods (limes, glassware, turkey). It’s all about the numbers, and what I once called a “romance of accumulation” (in a seminar paper lo these many years ago) takes over the “interesting” narrative. Equiano’s racking up points. But he has to give some bulk and narrative to the tedious process of accruing enough money to buy his freedom, so the romance of accumulation must serve. A similar racking up of points appears in Thoreau’s Walden, when he is literally bean-counting.

    Which is to say that “gamification” is an old and strange narrative strategy. I don’t quite know what to do with these C18/19 examples, but I’ve long wondered about them, and the role of the romance of accumulation in American literature and culture more broadly.

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