Playing or Being Played?


Once upon a time there was a city nestled on the shores of a lake in the mountains. The city was very dirty because citizens threw rubbish on the street; stinking sewage ran into the lake, polluting it.

Stricter laws were enacted, but reprimands and fines were of no use; even jail had proved ineffective. The citizens had become accustomed to malpractice, they had become accustomed to the stench of the open sewers and the toxic fumes of the piles of burning garbage. They had tried everything but every remedy had failed miserably. Those who could not stand the situation had scarpered long ago; the others had resigned themselves. After all, they would have behaved properly, but if the others continue to behave badly, then who cares?

One day an entrepreneur arrived in the city. He proposed to resolve the situation for free, provided that the city government entrusted him with full powers over the matter. If something had gone wrong, if the citizens had complained, they would have given it a go. He got a complete mandate.

The entrepreneur’s technicians installed many rubbish bins and launched a fantastic prize game. Anyone could participate: it was enough to follow the rules for separate collection, and extraordinary prizes could be won, everyone had a lot of fun. It worked so well that in a few months the city was clean.

But public transport was in crisis: wild parking lots, insecure streets, lack of cash. The entrepreneur also got to manage the other sectors in difficulty. Citizens registered with name and surname and address on his social platform. They were telling each other what they were doing, and what their friends and acquaintances and the people around them were doing. The more details they told, the more they accumulated points and credits.

These and many other actions made it possible to enter special rankings; distinguished players could level up, and access exciting new rewards thanks to their status. With a sophisticated system it was possible to accumulate credits in the form of digital currency on the accounts managed by the companies of the entrepreneur.

The list of correct actions was updated continuously. Denouncing a neighbor’s bad deed, for example, allowed three minutes of shopping in one of the entrepreneur’s supermarkets; five minutes if he was a citizen who had never been caught out before. Discussion groups came up with ways to level up faster, and to showcase your achievements. The credits supplanted the currency within the city. Each interaction could be quantified on the basis of the credits, which could be bought and sold: the bank of the entrepreneur retained only a small percentage on each individual exchange.

The city government was dissolved. It was replaced with the technical governance of the entrepreneur, a private organization, with great savings of time, money and energy. The city became a model for the whole world. They came from afar to study this miracle. They all agreed on the most remarkable feature of the system, true realization of heaven on Earth: there was no longer any need to think in order to choose, a magnificent system of notifications informed all players of the next moves to be made to earn a reputation.

The rare dissident rumors claimed that the players acted as automatically programmed machines, but as an initially skeptical citizen confessed, he finally felt truly free, for the first time in his life. Nobody wanted to return to doubt, uncertainty and the difficulty of choosing.

And everyone lived trained and happy.

Understanding: Elements of Gamification

This story encompasses the main elements of gamification, one of the management systems of digital governance.

The basic mechanism is very simple: to transform what is described as a problem into a game, or, to put it better, into a game scheme. The repetition of an action considered correct action is stimulated through prizes, credits, access to a higher hierarchical levels, publication of rankings.

From a regulatory point of view, instead of punishing infringements of the rules, respect for the rules is rewarded. It is a totally full and positive normativity, devoid of an ethical dimension, since the value of behavior, its axiology, is determined by the system, not by personal and collective reflection on the action itself. Gamification contributes to concretize the Performance Society.

Mechanisms of customer (or voters) loyalty management have been known for centuries. However, the pervasiveness of interactive digital connection systems opens up new scenarios for mass training techniques. It is a cognitive delegation that becomes a delegation of social organization. The automated interaction procedures, managed by private companies, are refined through the use that users make of their tools. Participation in building shared worlds turns into behavioral training.

Obviously this is not an apology for punishment, a praise of repressive systems. Repressive prohibitionism usually intensifies the desire for transgression and it is therefore a negative reinforcement system. But in positive reinforcement mechanisms, not all that glitters is gold.

Anyone who had been in relationship with a child knows that rewarding him or her is easier than educating him. Except then realizing that the child addicted to the prize wants an ever bigger prize, and there is no way to convince him or her to do something more without promising an even greater reward. And then often we fall back into the punitive system, which reveals itself as the opposite analogue of the reward system. The prize, like punishment, denies the intrinsic pleasure of the process, because it refers to an external system.

Education, on the other hand, has nothing to do with observation of rules, much less with obedience. Plato says that the usual old Socrates, wanting to educate citizens to citizenship with his own example, not only broke the rules of the city, but invites others to disobedience, to follow their personal daimon.

Automatic education is nothing but training, and leads to subjugation; although apparently it can produce good results, in the sense of measurable performance, it certainly does not create independence or responsibility. Instead of fomenting autonomy, the ability to set rules for oneself, it induces the infantilization of society and annihilates the possibility of ethics.

What Game is This?

Is it possible to realize that you are repeating a gamified procedure? Yes, provided that you keep your attention awake, and train it to focus on your interactions with devices. Observing your feelings related to the passage of time, being aware of your interactive habits, knowing your emotional reactions and knowing how to verbalize or communicate them creatively are all examples of de-gamification.

In fact, flow states are based on the absorption of the awareness of the individual in an automated procedure. In some cases, such as the exercise of intense physical activities, the flow states are appreciable and indeed necessary. A human body to make a perfect dive performs an internalized procedure, without asking itself what is happening, without doubting, in order not to invalidate the dive itself.

The same happens during interaction with machinery, from the simplest to the most complex. We do not constantly ask ourselves how we keep our balance on a bicycle, nor how we drive a car. Ever more so an expert surgeon, like any other craftsperson, interacts with sophisticated machines in states of flow. The ability to stay in procedural automatisms is often vital.

However, in the case of the gamified procedures, the state of the flow is induced quickly, without the need to involve the user or to spend many hours in patient apprenticeship exercise. This gamified state of flow is very pleasant for who experiences it, because of the chemical pleasure caused by dopamine discharges, a neurotransmitter active in the brain.

In the moment in which we perform an intentionally critical activity, the moment of separation and observation of one’s own activity, the state of flow decays. Experimenting with it is very easy, even in situations completely unrelated to digital: just immerse yourself in a demanding physical activity, which requires skill and concentration. For example, imagine playing ping-pong. You are very good, you take them all… until you ask yourself: will I take the next ball? Point for the opponent! In other words, awareness is inherently non-gamified.

Gamified Games

Some elements to consider to understand if you are in a gamified pseudo-environment are:

  • predominant stimulation of sight: the eye dominates the other senses
  • spatiotemporal modified perception: time seems to pass very quickly
  • environmental abstraction: the environment outside the procedure does not reach the conscious perceptual stage
  • tendency to increase the quantity of game sessions
  • the presence of simple and repetitive actions to be performed mechanically, “without thinking” (use of procedural memory), easily quantifiable
  • the presence of numbers, figures that measure and express quantitatively the player’s effort
  • the presence of prizes, rankings, status, badges, rewards
  • the absence of explicit marks that delimit the space-time of the game, which is continuous and pervasive compared to “normal” space-time. Explicit formulas are not used to enter-start (let’s play this game!) Or exit-finish (referee’s whistle; end of time available; handshake)
  • the impossibility of changing the rules of the game in an agreed manner, negotiating them with other players

The typical example of a gamified pseudo-environment is Facebook. As is the case in many video games, the eye is overstimulated to the point that the user-player does not feel when called or even touched; s/he can walk on the street and not notice a danger, turn into a real smartphone zombie, a smombie, because s/he is immersed in the gamified procedure; s/he tends to connect more and more often to the platform that delivers the game sessions; repeats simple actions mechanically (like, post, scroll the screen, etc.); s/he is oriented by figures that measure her or his activity (number of notifications, posts, likes, etc.).

The “rules of the game” change according to the sovereign will of the platform. On the other hand, the entry and exit into the gamified space is not significantly marked, because the login and logout are automated and can be performed at any time and place.

It should be noted in passing that the activity of scrolling the posts on a touch screen, regardless of the platform, presents extraordinary analogies with the gestural sequences of the interactions with the video lottery slot machines. The finger slides across the screen (from bottom to top or from top to bottom, less frequently from right to left), until it encounters something that catches the user’s attention. At that point the game freezes, in our analogy it is as if the sliding of the virtual reels of the slot stops. A few moments, and the scrolling action is repeated.

For a detailed analysis of gamification mechanisms in gambling, see the ethnology conducted on the field over the course of fifteen years by Natasha Dow Schüll, in her Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

Not Gamified Games

Some elements to distinguish not gamified games are:

  • the presence of defined limits, for example explicit ritual syntactic marks: “let’s play a game, a match”.
  • explaining the game objectives: spending time together, warding off boredom, etc.
  • the presence of known rules that can be renegotiated by the players (e.g. we play football, known rules; but we could decide to have three teams, and then we should negotiate new rules for the game).
  • awareness of the explicitly conventional and instrumental value of scores, status, etc. which are not attributed automatically, but usually established by negotiation (okay, your point!) or by the use of an external authority recognized by the players (the rules of the game, the referee).