Critical gamification.

Too often, “critical” whatever (film making, poetics, art practice) just means peppering a form with references to social or political concerns are at the top of the practitioners agenda: what was called, in Japanese film history, was called the “tendency” film, or art engagé. When these politics are well-understood, Mark J. Nelson’s somewhat snarky definition of radical critique makes sense:

radical critique (n.) – applying well-worn tools in the conventional way to reach the expected conclusion

If it makes sense to distinguish between engagé practice and critical practice, then, the latter should reveal and de-naturalize something which has become epistemologically unavailable, which has receded into the texture of everyday life as constitutive. This is harder and rarer than it seems, and many projects which claim to be critical are often, at best, merely oppositional.

A recent trend in marketing is “gamification” – the application of game mechanics and logics to presumably ungamelike things, such as consumption, routine work (exercise, dieting), civic engagement (cf. Jane McGonigal) etc. In some ways it is an outgrowth of the “serious games” trend, which sought to use games for purposes other than entertainment (even when those goals might be furthered by making the game entertaining: which leads us to ask whether every commercial title, whose “goal” is corporate revenue, should be characterized as a “serious game.”) The idea is latent in things like customer loyalty programs, frequent flier miles, even the old “send in 5 proofs of purchase to get the secret decoder ring” promotions from breakfast cereals and other youth-oriented food products in the 20th century:

The idea that systems of “points” would provide an extrinsic motivation for activity that is otherwise inadequately motivated informs Jesse Schell’s 2010 DICE talk (called, by some, “the gamepocalypse”) is an almost Swiftian interpretation of ubiquitous gamification:

What is, of course, obscured by this longing to colonize the banal with play in this way, is that there already is a very powerful and effective “point” system that motivates and de-motivates: money, as wages, as capital, etc. Aside from the obvious naturalization of capital that is implied by this appeal to an external point system that is more “game-like,” the development of these more “fun” types of alternative currency miss the mark that Huizinga and Caillois already made about fun, play and games – it is the very disinterestedness of play, the negotiability of its consequences, that make it possible to be experienced as play. When the signifiers of a “play” system perform in world-significant contexts, they cease being elements of a play system.

(To be fair to Schell, what is important to him is less the idea that the spirit of play inhabit the otherwise dreary quotidian, but rather how “points” – a surrogate for money itself – can use sensing and networking technologies to infiltrate the nooks and crevices of human activity at the smallest scale, to make every action and interaction an opportunity to influence the decisions, the attitudes, the behavior and even the attention of citizen-consumers. He is clearly ambivalent about this: that his vision here was dystopian is something he made explicit in subsequent talks.)

Alex Galloway suggested the term “counter-gaming” to describe game design against a certain grain. That many of the aesthetics – the invented physics, the foregrounding of mechanics, etc – have become part of the language of a style of game design that doesn’t really fulfill the critical ambitions of his “counter-gaming” concept is notable, yet the idea itself is a worthwhile one. But perhaps we can start to consider a “critical gamification” as a project: one the works by revealing the covert and invisible “gamification” that motivates the contemporary episteme. In organizations, in labor practices, in social relations, in cultural institutions, there are systems of value and invisible currencies which implicitly determine our activity and our conceptualization of the world we think we are inhabiting. Those which were easy to monetize – reputation, brand identity and loyalty – have become the target of many gamification projects; sometimes set in a language of democratization, but always with an ontology that is familiar, on bedrocks of systems of value that remain untroubled.

I think a practice of critical gamification needs to exert pressure against those bedrocks. Some ideas: representing the labor that each of us performs in different places, identifying who benefits, and capturing as a game-able resource the concentrations of work-for-another that is often tied, either physically or by networks, to nodes of wealth and power. Another: a marketplace for unfulfillable desires – not to fulfill them, but to diagnose them – that turns the engineering of disappointment into game mechanics.

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