Response to Kelly’s “Rage”

There is great value, of course, in being able to draw on internal strength and fortitude to face disaster or negative circumstances with an attitude of forbearance. There is also value in going through life looking for aspects to enjoy and concepts to embrace. Conversely, people who spend every day in a sea of negativity and complaint are dull and unpleasant.

Tadhg Kelly’s “Your Rage is Pointless” article, however, is not about those kinds of situations.

While I can understand frustration with people who only complain and never construct, if there is a consistent sense of rage within some general area, it is almost certainly not pointless. In fact, it almost certainly points to some central problem, some central issue that ought to be discussed and confronted.

The rictus of universal cheer is a touchy spot for me, both as a mother and as someone who has struggled with depression in the past. I personally perceive prescriptive positivity as a symptom of our society’s encroaching Harrison Bergeron-ization. Mr. Kelly lives in London – I’m not sure how it is in the UK, but here in the US there is an over-medication of our kids combined with an educational system that discourages critical thought and encourages unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. This is anathema to me.

Likewise anathema is the suggestion that negative reactions are universally destructive. We need critical thinking and criticism in the games industry just as we need it anywhere and everywhere else.

All is most emphatically not created equal. Things exist on bell curves and on spectrums. Giving everything and everyone the same “special snowflake” treatment is unfair both to the edges of bell curve and the middle. Some things are better than others, and some trends are downright bad. Popularity can never be a measure of worth.

Kelly seems specifically concerned with the rage around social games and gamification. I personally see these as very separate fields, and I do think there are valid reasons for anger pertaining to each.

Taking one at a time, I think a lot of the anger about social gaming concerns the fact that its popularity is removing funds from other game development areas. Given the extremely – and objectively – limited nature of Facebook and related games, as well as the current demographic of people who have not historically been serious gamers, it ought to be easy to see why people rail against the current popularity and ubiquitous nature of these games. Particularly the latter – people who have spent their lives thinking about how to make great games, as well as people who have historically played a much richer set of games than current FB and related games, are now confronted on a daily basis by this nascent genre that is designed to appeal only to the most limited of gaming instincts.

This anger is not pointless. It shows us that there is much more that can be – and should be! – done with this genre. This anger is rooted in the fact that money is being poured into yet another FarmVille clone that could be used to develop something innovative and interesting. Venture capital is often a zero sum game, and this anger is not wholly unwarranted, and to say it is is disingenuous. Some of the people who are angry about this are of course simply sitting there being mad. Some people are working on ways to change this status quo, and some people are working despite the status quo. Simply claiming that “any game is a good game and any new gamer is a good new gamer!” is naive at best and plain stupid at worst.

The reasons for the anger surrounding “gamification” ought to be as obvious as anything, though. Sure, there are a couple of people who are trying to do good and interesting things in the area. They are so few and far between as to be difficult to locate. I am uncertain how anyone could possibly make the argument that gamification typically even represents the development of real games, even if one were attempting to argue that “more games is always better than fewer games” (a highly debatable point in any case.)

Can games [help to] “save the world”? Insofar as any one thing, sure, I suppose they could get their hand in there. Some smart people sure are trying. But I’m pretty sure that neither gamification - even that ostensibly designed to, um, make me “better” – nor the current incarnation of quote-unquote social games are going to save the world.  As far as I’m concerned, in fact, the former is actively doing it harm.

Why wouldn’t that make me angry?

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Mark Nelson’s Soviet Gamification

This is super.

The whole essay is fantastic, but I want to take a second to point out something of an aside of Mr. Nelson’s:

“…perhaps we could also read from the large body of research in areas like cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes a lot of thinking on quite relevant questions, such as how to use extrinsic interventions in a way that guides a user towards intrinsic motivation, rather than making them dependent on Skinner-box-like motivational approaches”

I find this very relevant. In short form, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is open, versus the closed “Skinner box” system.

Skinner somewhat famously treated the brain and mind as a “black box,” claiming that we could not speculate about what goes on in there, merely measure inputs and outputs.  (Later, after he had a stroke, he regretted this line of thinking.) He almost single-handedly disrupted a productive era of psychology and ethology – as well as many associated fields, such as linguistics – and delayed quite a bit of research for, in some cases, decades.

It’s a very simple-minded approach to human behavior – that we are what we eat, so to speak – and nothing more.  Reward the desired behavior and that behavior shall be effectively encouraged until it is normalized.  To some extent we all operate like this – we do respond to rewards and punishments, certainly.  But mere rewards and punishments do not comprise either life or behavior.

CBT, on the other hand, is a goal-oriented therapy approach that helps a person understand their behavior and learn ways to change it. It’s much more nuanced and complex than Skinnerian behavioralism.

It also involves the person in the process.

Perhaps it is this that is the most critical factor.  ”Gamification” is something done to one at this point.  Sure, one may participate (one must participate, to be certain), but it is wholly external.  You are not involved in the gamification of your universe.  People want you to do something, and so they dangle carrots in front of that thing.  Some of those carrots are more effective and better thought-out than others, sure, but it is nevertheless a fantastically simplistic version of the user.

It also seems founded on the basic assumption that the user must be tricked into participating in the desired activity.

Employing CBT approaches, however, makes the assumption that the user wants to participate in the activity.  Is this not reasonable?  Oughtn’t we bring the user/player/actual human being, ffs into the fold, and actively involve them in developing the systems that will drive them to fulfill their goals?  Goals that we theoretically share?

Gamification as it stands presently-defined treats people like children – and often worse: like rats who are effectively controlled via shocks and pellets.  It represents an attitude both sinister and egregious; that of superiority.  An attitude of control and further – a belief that that control is warranted and appropriate.

No wonder “gamification” is looked upon with such reproach, such cynicism.

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Skinner-style control (via gamification)

Reading Ian Bogost’s accurate and well-phrased Gamification is Bullshit essay, with which I agree almost completely*, I am struck by the thought that I’m not sure the greatest appeal of the concept is that it is related to games – one doesn’t frequently hear large companies wishing they had some video-game-related idea to apply to their management style (until now.)

I think it might be that it creates the hope for B.F. Skinner-style control – over employees, over customers.

That is a concept with dramatic appeal for many managers and most marketers, and I think gamification appears to make that promise on some levels. Behavioral principles have been a part of marketing and management theory for as long as those theories have existed, but few are so brazen as to come right out and say so. Even behavioral economics remains the purview – largely – of academics and economists moreso than corporate management and marketers. Gamification has introduced those concepts in the past year in a big way, and it’s a big draw.

Gamification really gives you the idea that you can deploy behavioral concepts to create rat-lever responses in your employees and/or customers.

I don’t think it can, for the most part, but I think that notion is one big reason the whole thing feels so tremendously exploitative. The exploitation may not be functional, but the picture of it is on the box.

* Only “almost” because I do think that it’s plenty high time to be thinking about interesting ways for people to learn new things and accomplish drudgery. I just don’t think gamification is that thinking, and I agree that when that thinking does finally happen, it won’t be called anything-ification. Some good people are doing interesting things that might fall into what might be called the gamification bucket, but they probably would have been doing them anyway. Plus the mere word “gamification” gives me hives.

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Link: On gamification and terms

This article strikes me as very tip-o-the-iceberg, at least insofar as what it is potentially expressing or trying to express, but it’s handy either way.  I do kind of hate the whole “gamification” thing, though.  I mean, real life already is like games in a billion ways; “gamification” does two things only really: 1., it changes the nature of the rewards offered by existing behaviors, and 2., it inserts marketing into the equation.

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