Gamification: Ditching reality for a game isn't as fun as it sounds.

The art of play.
March 29 2011 2:14 PM

I Don't Want To Be a Superhero

Ditching reality for a game isn't as fun as it sounds.

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Indeed, gamification is an allegedly populist idea that actually benefits corporate interests over those of ordinary people. It's strange that its advocates don't seem to understand there's a difference. In his talk at South by Southwest, Seth Priebatsch of the gamification startup SCVNGR said there were five problems we could solve if we built a game layer over the world. These nettlesome issues, he explained, included both "customer acquisition" and "global warming."

There's no wonder corporations are so excited about turning the world into a game. One of the movement's central insights is that a sense of accomplishment sometimes feels more meaningful than a paycheck—think about how eager FarmVille players are to rack up currency, or the success of Foursquare in encouraging people to go back to restaurants to receive virtual badges and titles. At a Google Tech Talk last year, Zichermann gushed about the low-cost opportunities this creates for business. He was particularly excited by Zynga's collaboration with 7-Eleven, a deal in which people could buy FarmVille credits along with a Slurpee. FarmVille credits didn't get you the Slurpee, Zichermann explained excitedly. Rather, customers paid real dollars for the virtual currency. "It's all money in and no money out!" he cried.

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.

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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.

Sometimes I feel bad for these gamification enthusiasts. Priebatsch longs to change the term valedictorian to White Knight Paladin. And McGonigal, whose games are filled with top-secret missions in which you get to play the superhero, says "reality is broken" because people don't get to feel "epic" often enough. This is a child's view of how the world works. Do adults really need to pretend they're superheroes on secret missions to have meaning in their lives?

In RealityIs Broken, McGonigal talks about a game she invented to help herself get over a concussion. SuperBetter, as she called it, involved her taking on a secret identity—Buffy the Concussion Slayer—and enlisting family and friends to call her to report on "missions." The purpose of SuperBetter, McGonigal writes, was to connect her with her support system. I felt sad when I read this. What, you couldn't just pick up the phone? You needed to jump through all those hoops just to talk to your friends?

Life is complex and chaotic. If some people need to do a little role-playing now and then to help them through the day, mazel tov. It's another thing entirely, though, to rely on role playing for human contact, or to confuse the comfort of such tricks with what's real. Having a firm grip on reality is part of being a sane human being. Let's not be so eager to toss it away.

Heather Chaplin, the co-author ofSmartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, has covered games for the New York Times, and NPR's All Things Considered. She is an assistant professor of journalism at The New School.

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