Mar 302011

Recently Heather Chaplin wrote a criticism of Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, over at Slate.  I responded very negatively to her article, and I’m still trying to figure out why, exactly, this set me off.  I sat around last night and wrote some thoughts, which may or may not be worthwhile and certainly aren’t academic in nature, but just in thinking through my own reactions I’m baffled by the depth of the emotion.  I’m not, frankly, the largest supporter of the ‘gamification’ concept per se (and I hate the word).

My personal thought is that the ‘jury is still out’ – we might change the world through a game-like interaction layer, but might not- we don’t yet know what could be effective or the forms that it will take.  That’s what makes it worth the research: huge potential, but we don’t know “how this works” or even “if it works” just yet, and certainly not in all the contexts that either Jane puts forward or that are cynically derided in the Slate piece.  And yet, the underlying “this is just another tool for corporate control” context of the piece is so incredibly distorted from the original work I just can’t get it out of my head.

From the article:

“Chore Wars is a benign example—if pretending you’re being rewarded helps you do your chores, fine. But it reveals that McGonigal is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want.

What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they’re achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples’ lives into games so they feel as if they’re doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don’t notice how miserable they are? You could argue that peasants in the Middle Ages were happy imagining that the more their lives sucked here on earth the faster they’d make it into heaven. I think they’d have been better off with enough to eat and some health care.”

What a crushingly cynical and unimaginative view of the human condition.  Change isn’t ‘real’ if it’s a change in perception?  LOL, the entirety of the human mind disagrees.  The article implies that Jane wants to ‘simulate these feelings of satisfaction’ – I disagree: the point of her work is that by building a meaningful layer and interaction, people can legitimately feel these feelings of satisfaction: there is no simulation of the feeling, the simulation is the interaction and/or perception shift leading to it.

Two (small) examples from the “real world”.  1) My wife is a ‘to do’ lists person.  She makes lists of things to do, and then goes and does them.  We’d call her ‘organized’ and when she was working in the corporate world that was considered to be a positive trait.  Now riddle me this: aren’t to-do lists a way of framing your perception of a given period and scope of responsibility?  Aren’t they a way to simplify your perception of a number of disparate items into a seemingly single overarching theme, and in fact a simplistic narrative?  And is her sense of accomplishment at having checked off the list not as meaningful as if it were for the individual items on it?  Because I can assure you, when she has 1 item left on the list and it is mundane, she will make damn sure its done not because the individual item is meaningful or rewarding in any way, but rather to have completed “the list”.  And, interestingly, this view of work and accomplishment is not translatable to everyone: I’ve tried to be a ‘to do list person’.  I’m not.  I find the making of the list to be a chore, I don’t care if I complete everything on this list, or even if I do my pride and accomplishment will be for the 3 things on the list I cared about doing, not about the fact I got them all done, or that I was organized in constructing the list.  She places value in it, either consciously or unconsciously, and I do not.

Is her sense of satisfaction at crossing off all the items not the exact same thing Heather is attempting to pillory above when it comes from a more game-like interaction?  People have been using tricks in perception and rationalization (and even narrative) to motivate themselves since the dawn of human cognition – to say that change of that kind is not “real” is to define anything in the world that is not physically tangible as unreal: someone’s feelings are not real?  Someone’s happiness is not real?  Someone’s sense of accomplishment or pride is not real?  I can assure you that to most human beings their feelings are very real, and very tangible.

2) Heather mentions Jane’s example of Chore Wars and scoffs at the notion of virtual rewards or questing narratives: if someone ‘rewarded’ themselves each week with a carton of ice cream and a trashy TV show if the chores were done, we’d just chalk that up as ‘normal’.  So it’s the adaptation of game-specific interaction mechanisms and the virtuality of rewards that define the sense of ‘realness’ and of ‘doing something worthwhile’ in the first but not the second?

From the article: “In a gamified world, corporations don’t have to reward us for our business by offering better service or lower prices. Rather, they can just set up a game structure that makes us feel as if we’re being rewarded. McGonigal goes even further. She talks about an “engagement economy … that works by motivating and rewarding participants with intrinsic rewards, and not more lucrative compensation.” This economy doesn’t rely on cash—rather, it pays participants with points, peer recognition, and their names on leader boards. It’s hard to tell if this is fairy-tale thinking or an evil plot.”

And: “For McGonigal, Wikipedia is one of the most-convincing gamification success stories—a user-generated encyclopedia built on 100 million hours of free labor. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with people volunteering to write encyclopedia entries. But to advocate this as a model to build on, explaining that “positive emotions are the ultimate reward for participation,” is thoughtless at best and diabolical at worst. People might get off on points, but they need to be paid for their work.”

I’ve read Jane’s work, and nowhere in it do I get the sense that there is the notion that corporations should expect to receive work for free to the eventual enslavement of the majority of the population.  Rather, what I see is a “stinging criticism” that people are now understanding, to a greater and greater degree, that we are not motivated by compensation alone, and particularly not motivated by compensation in the abstract.  People are, in fact, motivated by a sense of meaningful reward, a sense of contribution, a sense of accomplishment, by their sense of enjoyment and engagement with work, etc.  How many times have we given the advice to our children “Do what you love” rather than “Do what makes you the most money”?  The point of the Wikipedia example, in my reading, is not that a corporation somehow got a bunch of work “for free” but rather that a group of people created something immense, powerful, and capable in a manner that allowed them each to feel personally involved, engaged, and that their contributions had meaning and value to the degree that each of them wanted to contribute or be involved.

That is the argument behind gamification, not the nonsense of corporate greed: every point cited in the Slate piece that refers to the monetization and corporate hijacking of the gamification movement is a comment made by a CEO or similar figure that (of course) is seeking to use these concepts to maximize their position.  It goes almost without saying that a corporation will act in the interest of the corporation, and (as recently proven) not necessarily in the humanitarian interest of the general population.  Citing a bunch of gamification examples from companies that seek to extend the control and market position of said company is the lowest of low-hanging fruit – but there is nothing in the notion of gamification that says that these efforts can or must spring forth from corporations, or that efforts from corporations must by necessity be taken up by people over other efforts.  Gamification efforts could come from communities, professional societies, governments, educational institutions (ahem), and others – the degree to which they are effective will be the degree to which they engage and endear the communities that interact with them and whose players derive value from that interaction.  Yes, corporations do that rather well and sometimes rather callously, but to lay that at the feet of the gamification concept is shallow at best.

Furthermore, pointing out examples of attempted corporate hijacking of motivational concepts doesn’t negate the power of the human psyche or the fact that as individuals and groups compensation and “real world” rewards ring hollow to many (or most), that perception of these ‘rewards’ is the only thing we have going.  The logical extension of the arguments in the Slate piece, that one’s perception of reward/compensation is irrelevant, that only the actual intrinsic ‘value’ has weight is truly the cold face of corporate capitalism and materialism: what message could be more enslaving to the corporate cause than one that defines worth through monetary compensation and material rewards alone?  Is there one?  I can’t think of it.

The other interesting point of Wikipedia is, of course, is that as things become ‘gamified’ they become community driven.  There is currently no better check on the power of corporations and commercial interests than a well-informed, highly engaged, and connected community.  What if, instead of the cynical and antagonistic view of the situation that forms the backdrop of the article, gamification efforts results in a populace that is happier, healthier, and more engaged with both its government and the education of its citizenry?  What if, through this work, we come to understand more about motivation, interaction, engagement, and the human condition, and that as a species we begin to focus both groups and individuals on problems that fall outside the narrow commercial interests of the corporate world?  What if people are motivated, through a ‘change in perception’ to focus significant portions of their energy not on the perpetual message of “I have it pretty good as a serf in a feudal society” but rather on the message that “I and my fellows can change the world, and that each of us can have a meaningful contribution in doing so”.  How’s that for a ‘change in perspective’ ?

Finally, I’ll close by saying that I specifically wrote this as a rebuttal, and the truth (if there is any) is probably in the middle.  But when you start out by putting a piece on slate and posting to twitter that “I can’t take all the gamification BS anymore.. Got some of it off my chest in Slate today: #gamification” – well then that isn’t asking for rational discussion and commentary, either.  I’d like to read a careful and well thought out piece in dissonance to Jane’s work, such as the what Ian posted at  Also, this picture says it all:

And finally, I absolutely want to be a super hero.

 Posted by at 8:08 am

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