There was an episode of the cartoon Eek the Cat in which Eek went to Cat Hell. His personal torment was that he had to clean Hell's litter box. Judging by the size of this thing, it was a chore that was supposed to take him thousands of years. But Eek, always the optimist, came back to the devil a few hours later, claiming he had finished. When the devil asked him how he had managed to do this, Eek explained that the job wasn't bad at all; he just made a game out of it.
Now, I can't say from firsthand experience that the rigors of Hell itself can be made less torturous or dreary by making them into a game. Yet the idea of turning things into a game is one that has been taking up a lot of ink and web space lately. There has even been a term coined to explain this: "gamification."
I'm going to be honest here. The term "gamification" drives me absolutely up the wall. It sounds like a word invented in some corporate board meeting somewhere (and it probably was.) While the concept has been around much longer than the terminology, it's finally being taken seriously by marketing agencies and others now that it officially has a pretentious word attached to it.
The idea is simple: in order to get people to do things they don't want to do, make those things into a game. In fact, there's a recent book on this idea, titled Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. The author, Jane McGonigal, claims that people can be made to do great things via gamification.
For example, there could be a website that gives out badges and things to people who take time to improve the environment. The "I Don't Have Gas" achievement could be earned by not driving a car for a week. The "Litter Is Gross" achievement could be earned by cleaning up a certain amount of litter from the streets. Even though these actions have real-world rewards (clean air, clean streets, etc.), people are much more likely to actually do them if there is some sort of game tied to them. Caring for the environment is a lot more fun if it feels like a video game.
Much research has been done, and it's been concluded that people like rewards. Well, that much is obvious. But people even like fake rewards like points, level-up systems, and achievements. In order to make something into a game that people actually want to play, the key factor is determining how to reward them.
However, this idea is quite dangerous. Gamification emphasizes the trivial in order to get people to do things that aren't trivial. It creates a completely backward sense of fulfillment. Obviously, it's more important to breathe clean air than it is to earn a digital medal or a badge. Encouraging the digital achievements over the actual real-world consequences only furthers this backward sense of gratification. It reaffirms in the minds of the population that in order to get something done—even something important—there should be a reward attached to it.
The thing that's really scary is that gamification has the potential to become a powerful form of manipulation. If you can use it for good, you can also use it for evil. If you were to addict an entire generation of people to the idea of gamification, you could easily manipulate them. How about giving achievements to people who commit acts of murder? I guarantee there are people who would get a kick out of being a Level 50 assassin in real life. If these people were already addicted to gamification, this idea would be that much more feasible.
I admit, the assassin example may be a bit hyperbolic. But corporations are already using gamification to promote products. In fact, those of us old enough to remember "Pepsi Stuff" from the 1990s have already been heavily exposed to this. Back then, Pepsi products came with points printed on the labels, which could be saved up and traded for things like free Pepsi, T-shirts, or even bicycles and skateboards. In fact, Pepsi Stuff was recently revived, only it was updated to offer free mp3 downloads. But Pepsi Stuff rewarded customer loyalty (or dumpster diving) with real-world rewards. It's when the rewards are purely digital that this concept becomes dangerous.
My prediction: Gamification is going to be even more emphasized in the future. There is no stopping it. In fact, it's possible that people will one day treat life like one giant video game.
While this will lead to some great things, it will eventually be used for evil. Or just for marketing. Either way, be careful. There are plenty of people out there who would love to be able to manipulate you, and gamification is a simple way for them to get their greedy talons into you.
CCC Editor/Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*