BoingBoing pointed me to Tim Rogers’ (long) essay, Who Killed Video Games?, about the rise of social gaming, specifically the use of behavioral psychology to convince (the nice way to put it) or con (the not-nice way) people into paying money for ‘imaginary’ benefits like a bigger in-game house, a purple cow, or whatever. I’m not certain about this divide between ‘imaginary’ goods and ‘real’ goods – I mean, maybe you can’t trade your in-game Four-Headed Sharktopus or whatever, that you’ve bred on your Super Monster Breeder Facebook game, to another player, so on some level it’s not *yours* in the way, say, a physical Four-Headed Sharktopus would be (until it ate you). But you recognize the existence of a Four-Headed Sharktopus when you encounter it in-game. It becomes a part of the world you interact with. It’s bound by rules – but so are all real things, like actual honest-to-God eat-your-slippers golden retriever puppies. So, is the Four-Headed Sharktopus real or not?
Setting that aside – Rogers’ essay is a nice counterpoint to the rapturous talk about ‘gamification.’ Yes, better-designed experiences could produce cool effects, like kids who really want to do their homework. But who’s designing the experiences, and why? Experiences produce chemical effects in the body that can be habit-forming – an ‘adrenaline junkie’ could actually be addicted to danger. Weightlifters can come to depend on the post-lifting endorphin rush. Part of the elation I feel after an evening of fencing is emotional, but part’s chemical too. If we’ve reached the point where we can make games that compel participation, we should be asking ourselves – as consumers, as producers, and more importantly as human beings – what the consequences of our actions will be. For example – do we really want kids addicted to doing homework? There’s a world of difference between loving your homework and loving the hard work of creating, building, discovering something worthwhile – the sort of play Neitzsche talks about. Powerful, serious play. Maybe if we make math worksheets as captivating as a Zynga game, we’ll end up strangle people who might otherwise think – ‘under what conditions can we draw a triangle whose angles don’t add up to 180 degrees?’
The whole concept of engagement wheels and intermittent gratification, the image of rats pressing levers until they shrivel and die, puts me in mind of the Entertainment from Infinite Jest, which is so fascinating that once you see it you never want to do anything else again, ever. Which gives me the howling fantods.