I Don't Want To Be a Superhero
Ditching reality for a game isn't as fun as it sounds.
In October 2004, a Bush aide—widely believed to be Karl Rove—informed the New York Times Magazine's Ron Suskind that, as a journalist, he was part of the "reality-based community." It wasn't a compliment. The aide told Suskind, scornfully, that "when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality … we'll act again, creating other new realities."
Unless I'm talking to a quantum physicist, I don't trust people who argue for multiple versions of reality. That is why I'm wary of "gamification," an idea that's been blowing strong through confabs like South by Southwest and is championed by authors, consultants, and startup gurus like Jane McGonigal, Seth Priebatsch, and Gabe Zichermann. The basic idea arises from how engaged people are when they play games, even if they're doing mundane things like running a farm or mining ore. If we make the world more like a game, the thinking goes, we can harness all that energy to solve real-world problems.
It's a compelling idea, certainly. I've been covering video games for more than 10 years and am especially interested in the "serious games" movement; I believe whole-heartedly that wonderful things can happen when people play. But gamification advocates do not preach the beauty and power of play. Perhaps without knowing it, they're selling a pernicious worldview that doesn't give weight to literal truth. Instead, they are trafficking in fantasies that ignore the realities of day-to-day life. This isn't fun and games—it's a tactic most commonly employed by repressive, authoritarian regimes.
McGonigal, a designer of alternate-reality games, is gamification's most passionate supporter. In her book Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Change Us and Make the World a Better Place,McGonigal describes an epiphany she had about the rise of virtual worlds. Looking at the millions of people who spend millions of hours working for points and status, she concluded that people in the real world aren't given enough opportunities to feel the same kind of achievement and satisfaction they do in World of Warcraft. I couldn't agree more.
So, how does McGonigal propose that we bring gaming-esque achievements into our daily lives? A typical example is Chore Wars—a game wherein people do household tasks in exchange for virtual experience points and treasure and avatar power-ups. You can get 10 dexterity points for dusting without knocking anything off the shelves, McGonigal writes, or five stamina points for properly dealing with the recycling.
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.
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.
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.
Photograph of Jane McGonigal courtesy of Avantgame.