Those kids over at Gizmodo (yes, one of those sites) are at it again! No, not a stolen iPhone to be found, this time it’s a nonsensical rant about gamification. See, there’s a new site called Badgeville that basically gives you rewards for being on the internet. In vile response, author Sam Biddle did his best to ravage the idea that people should be rewarded for ‘frilly, stupid things’. But he’s missing the entire point: it’s not about the carrot or the stick, it’s about the road it takes us down.
If you’ve been anywhere nerdy on the internet in the past few months, you’ve probably heard of the book “Reality Is Broken” by game designer Jane McGonical. As designer of the (in)famous I Love Bees alternate-reality game from Halo 2‘s promotional campaign, she promotes a worldview in which all things are games. She’s not just talking about massively-multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, or something deviously simple like Tetris or Farmville, she’s talking about very fundamental games, tied to our day to day lives.
The first applications of these ‘games’ were for economic and political strategies. How can we determine how well our forces will work against theirs? How can we best summarize how much energy we consume on an annual basis? These questions are solved on a daily basis by games. The first champions of game theory were mathematicians who developed theories on how a game can be generated from virtually any scenario, factors known and unknown. A star in this field was John Nash, who would end up winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his work, which was followed by Sylvia Nasar in ‘A Beautiful Mind’. The military used these simulations to produce complex wargames and, coupled with the DoD’s immense budget, allowed for the creation of the first flight simulations and virtual reality combat environments. Games are rendered in private rooms to determine weather patterns and future economic conditions as much as they are in Xboxes and PCs to shoot dudes.
When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox 360 in 2005, they announced the addition of Achievements: a unified system of ‘extra rewards’ that developers could give to the player on top of the game’s internal progression. Where a game might reward you for completing a chapter in the game, an Achievement could reward you with stealing five Coke cans in a particular room, a feat that could only be fittingly acknowledged in an external way. Achievements became their own metagame; gamers would rush out to find specific games merely to boost their Achievement score in addition to the conditions of those games as well. (Not that anyone would sit down and play the Avatar: The Last Airbender video game, mind you.) In a weird way, Microsoft’s Achievements system seems to have started a whole new wave of Web 2.0-based games like Foursquare, in which people “check in” as they’re at various venues for points, which they can then use to compete with or against their friends. This opens people to exploring new places if only to get a new badge – or mere “block of pixels” as Sam would put it – but while he would ramble on about how these more minute forms of gamification are frilly and useless, he forgets their origin and their practicality.
In the 1970s, arcades emerged and we began to see the first video game metagames. That you could play Star Castle, Pac-Man, or Tempest was fine and dandy, but the reality was that you weren’t alone. You weren’t the first, and you certainly wouldn’t be the last, to put those cabinets through their paces as evidenced by each game’s immortal scoreboard. Blowing up a bunch of airplanes and tanks wasn’t good enough, you had to be better than everyone else on that board. It’s that strive to be in the top spot on that leaderboard that changes how you play the game, how to best manage your resources, control your avatar, so that you can be more efficient this time. It’s from these primitive scoreboards that we saw the origin of Achievements, of gamification.
While visiting some new movie theater to unlock a new badge or beat a friend on Foursquare may not change the world, that’s not the goal of any of these individual games by themselves. We can’t deny games any more than we can deny mnemonics to assist us in memorizing things. It’s through the gamification of the world that its values are better exposed, our experiences become more weighted, and our lives richer as a result.