It’s No Game

  • Rob Horning

This tout on Lifehacker by Alan Henry for a browser extension that turns responding to emails into a game seems innocuous enough. Henry’s summary, however, touches on some of the rhetoric that makes gamification so insidious:

The developer behind The Email Game reminds us of the time when getting email used to be fun, and says it can be again with the help of The Email Game. If you’re the type who can’t help but earn arbitrary points and badges in online games, The Email Game is perfect for you.

Each message you open or respond to starts a timer, and you’ll get points based on how quickly you decide what to do with it or how quickly and concisely you respond to it. Accumulate enough points and you’ll level up. In the end, the goal is to get you to play your way to a cleaner inbox and better email management habits.

Gamification delivers on what the Internet, by capturing people’s attention, promises. It closes the trap the Internet sets, locking us into patterns of compulsive productivity that have little to do with us, substituting placatory and infantilizing pseudo-goals for whatever motivations and larger personal aspirations we might otherwise have had. Of course, the gurus of gamification assume that we are not capable of conceiving of such aspirations, that instead we are floundering, waiting for technology to enhance the dreary substance of being and make our lives “fun.” Who doesn’t want to have fun?

The ruse behind gamification is to seize upon apparently innate human addictive tendencies, the irresistibility of having ourselves mirrored in quantified form, and exploit them for seemingly benign purposes of enhanced personal productivity. It cheerfully assumes from the start that most of life’s tasks are inherently not worth doing — generalizing the stultifying effects of the division of labor and the alienation of wage labor, taking them as natural inevitabilities — and contrives a motivational system that precludes the possibility of working from inspiration in accordance with some intrinsic personal desire, some self-conceived goal. Instead gamification tells us that no motivation we can draw on from our inner resources is likely to amount to anything — the soul’s vocation is irrelevant to relations in capitalist society. There’s no badge for not selling out.

What is relevant is competition for its own sake, a theoretically unlimited need to beat others and to take satisfaction in that simple fact alone — winning the contrived game is held to be satisfying in itself, providing the incentive that makes meaningless tasks rewarding. And in return for this satisfaction, one voluntarily quantifies one’s behavior and allows oneself to be represented online as captured data. One participates in turning oneself into what Deleuze calls, in the “Postscript on Societies of Control” (PDF), a “dividual” — less a self than a floating set of code open to manipulation and reconstitution by outside programmers. (Robert Gehl notes the link between Web 2.0 protocols and dividuation in this paper at First Monday.) Becoming a dividual allows, for example, recommendation engines and content filters to tell us what we want to have, what we want to know, and thus to a degree what we will become. The more we mediate ourselves through online activity — another bonus of gamification is that it weds us to online forums — the more data we generate about ourselves, and the more our “self” and our subjectivity can be redeployed, reconsitituted by outside institutions. We become what the data tells us we are.

With online gamification, competition for its own sake requires no concrete opponents and entails no unpleasant confrontations; the implicit participation of others is guaranteed by the network and translated by the structure of many gamification schemes into a series of levels that imply different percentiles of achievement. The zero-sum game of economic exploitation hidden in our online laboring becomes on the surface a game we play against ourselves — we can’t lose! This mode of life offers a refinement on the idea that the person who dies with the most toys “wins”: whoever is the most efficient and productive “wins” (no matter who profits by it).

In the Lifehacker post, this translation is explicitly stated in the idiom of role-playing games (“leveling up”), which is increasingly being naturalized. Adulthood, not unlike Dungeons & Dragons, is basically a matter of quantitative character building through campaigns that present various scoring opportunities. Life is a mere matter of accumulating sums of experience points, which lead to more or less linear progress up a hierarchy whose arbitrariness we accept unquestioningly. This, the post suggests, will restore the lost “fun” of engagement with the world, which always disappoints or burdens us with unwanted and ambiguous responsibilities. (No one wants the trouble of being the Dungeon Master; that’s not “fun.”)

But maybe gathering experience is not a game of quantities, not a matter of mere accumulation. Perhaps “fun” is not the only reason to rouse oneself to action. Maybe personal development is not a linear matter of acquiring more experience, more things. Gamification discourages us from seeing alternative possibilities to what is an essentially capitalistic imperative. “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” By creating a meaningless currency of success, gamification simplifies everything for us; it makes motivation clean and convenient. It shields us from confronting the fact that the ambitions we might come up with on our own frequently lead directly to the recognition of just how much the social playing field can be tilted against us, how many inequities hamper us before we begin to play.