How gamification took over the world

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How gamification took over the world

By Bryan Gardiner | MIT Technology Review | June 13, 2024

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Often pondered during especially challenging or tedious tasks in meatspace (writing essays, say, or doing your taxes), it’s an eminently reasonable question to ask. Life, after all, is hard. And while video games are too, there’s something almost magical about the way they can promote sustained bouts of superhuman concentration and resolve.

For some, this phenomenon leads to an interest in flow states and immersion. For others, it’s simply a reason to play more games. For a handful of consultants, startup gurus, and game designers in the late 2000s, it became the key to unlocking our true human potential.

In her 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” the game designer Jane McGonigal called this engaged state “blissful productivity.” “There’s a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week,” she said. “It’s because we know when we’re playing a game that we’re actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time.”  McGonigal’s basic pitch was by making the real world more like a video game, we could harness the blissful productivity of millions of people and direct it at some of humanity’s thorniest problems—things like poverty, obesity, and climate change.

Broadly defined as the application of game design elements and principles to non-game activities—think points, levels, missions, badges, leaderboards, reinforcement loops, and so on—gamification was already being hawked as a revolutionary new tool for transforming education, work, health and fitness, and countless other parts of life.

Adding “world-saving” to the list of potential benefits was perhaps inevitable, given the prevalence of that theme in video-game storylines. But it also spoke to gamification’s foundational premise: the idea that reality is somehow broken. According to McGonigal and other gamification boosters, the real world is insufficiently engaging and motivating, and too often it fails to make us happy. Gamification promises to remedy this design flaw by engineering a new reality, one that transforms the dull, difficult, and depressing parts of life into something fun and inspiring. Studying for exams, doing household chores, flossing, exercising, learning a new language—there was no limit to the tasks that could be turned into games, making everything IRL better.

Today, we live in an undeniably gamified world. We stand up and move around to close colorful rings and earn achievement badges on our smartwatches; we meditate and sleep to recharge our body batteries; we plant virtual trees to be more productive; we chase “likes” and “karma” on social media sites and try to swipe our way toward social connection. And yet for all the crude gamelike elements that have been grafted onto our lives, the more hopeful and collaborative world that gamification promised more than a decade ago seems as far away as ever. Instead of liberating us from drudgery and maximizing our potential, gamification turned out to be just another tool for coercion, distraction, and control. 

The late 2000s and early 2010s were, as many have noted, a kind of high-water mark for techno-­optimism. For people both inside the tech industry and out, there was a sense that humanity had finally wrapped its arms around a difficult set of problems, and that technology was going to help us squeeze out some solutions.  Adding video games to this heady stew of optimism gave the game industry something it had long sought but never achieved: legitimacy.

Because gamification is so pervasive and varied, it’s hard to address its effectiveness in any direct or comprehensive way. But one can confidently say this: Gamification did not save the world. 

3 key takeaways from the article

  1. Like any other art form, video games offer a staggering array of possibilities. They can educate, entertain, foster social connection, inspire, and encourage us to see the world in different ways. Some of the best ones manage to do all of this at once.
  2. Yet for many of us, there’s the sense today that we’re stuck playing an exhausting game that we didn’t opt into. This one assumes that our behaviors can be changed with shiny digital baubles, constant artificial competition, and meaningless prizes. Even more insulting, the game acts as if it exists for our benefit—promising to make us fitter, happier, and more productive—when in truth it’s really serving the commercial and business interests of its makers. 
  3. So what can we do?  If gamifying the world has turned our lives into a bad version of a video game, perhaps this is the perfect moment to reacquaint ourselves with why actual video games are great in the first place.

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Topics:  Technology and Humans, Gamification

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