Does something in your life suck? Then turn it into a game! This is postmodernism’s infantile version of the consolatory techniques of stoic philosophy. Digital technology may now be used to project a virtual skin of motivation and delight over the real world. Through the phenomenon burdened with the unlovely term ‘gamification’ – in principle, the application of game mechanics to everyday life – gaming threatens to become not just ubiquitous but a conceivable way of living: a lifestyle.
Such is the promise, for example, of Chromaroma, just announced at the time of writing: a game for London commuters that hooks into the journey data saved by their prepaid travelcards. Routes and stops are then visualised in a groovy 3D Defcon kind of way; you join teams and plant traps at stations for the opposition, earn bonuses for discovering new routes and so forth, and the developers envisage the concept spreading to other cities. Perhaps it will be fun. But the initial report in The Guardian was already crassly overhyping it: the headline called the game “the makeover London commuting has been waiting for”. Actually, the makeover London commuting has been waiting for is a more reliable service, with Tube lines that don’t close every weekend and trains that can hold more than 17 people. Overlaying a game onto the current state of the system is not a makeover; it’s a spangly sticking plaster on a festering wound.
The first wave of silly hype about gamification has already created its own backlash, of course, such that sensible promoters of the concept no longer think it’s cool just to stick points, badges, and mayors on everything. As a former Edge editor pointed out, just adding points (‘pointsification’) doesn’t make something a game. (Though perhaps scoring systems can work for those who will respond to extrinsic motivation. Some of those strange folk who run for pleasure report having fun with the Nike+ system, and being inspired to run more.) And isn’t the idea of being ‘mayor’ of your local Starbucks or indie equivalent, as is possible in Foursquare, rather strange? You don’t become mayor in real life just by turning up at the town hall more than anyone else. Otherwise Tommy Carcetti would’ve had a much easier time of it.
Unfortunately, it seems the people who are still most uncritically excited about gamification are, as one breathless report puts it, businesses who want to “inspire customer loyalty”. Of course, the whole idea of being loyal to a business, such as a supermarket with a ‘reward card’ (which was already an embryonic kind of gamification, or at least pointsification), is deeply suspect: loyalty between people is symmetrical, but a supermarket doesn’t care about you except as an aggregation of purchase-preference data and a soft target for spamming its new ‘offers’ (which is supermarket argot for requests that you give it more money).
So it comes as no surprise that some of the most interested parties buzzing around the new London transport game are advertisers excited about what the Guardian euphemises delicately as “the storytelling and message side of the project” – in other words, they want to build giant virtual billboards in the gamespace. This isn’t gamification of the city but imitative pollution of its virtual abstraction. In 2007, billboards were banned in São Paulo, Brazil, a decision that met with the approval of 70 per cent of residents. Advertisers hope that if a version of Chromaroma takes off in that city, they’ll at least be able to emblazon the virtual version with their ‘messages’, in which case the gamified São Paulo will be, depending on your point of view, either a utopian site of informational freedom, or another grim victory for commerce’s colonisation of cyberspace.
Among other common human activities besides commuting and drinking coffee, the practice of warfare especially is already highly gamified, in the sense that drones bombing civilians in Afghanistan are controlled by joystick jockeys in America. We may wonder how such developments might dovetail with the Chromaroma developers’ vision of entire cities competing against one another in their game. If Rome loses against Tokyo, should it get nuked? Gamification would only be useful in this arena if it virtualised conflict completely: if warring parties agreed to conduct their disputes entirely in the gameworld without destroying anyone at all. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.
Let’s not be too pessimistic, though, about the prospects for gamification improving real life. Imagine a social game, built around a website and iPhone and Android apps, about going to the dentist. You could compete with your friends to see who can get the most holes drilled in their teeth over the shortest period of time, the winner getting a colourful image of a person with horribly sunken cheeks and eyes radiating pain to use as your avatar while posting drive-by insults on Comment Is Free.
Steven Poole is the author of Trigger Happy: The Inner Life Of Videogames. Visit him online at stevenpoole.net