Gamifying Our Lives


Games are EVERYWHERE. It’s scary. It’s like everything is being turned into a running joke via video games. It’s like …peak hedonism, if we may. Gamification, when abused, teaches us that we ought not take anything seriously. Just think about it: Gamification means we take some ordinary routine human activity and turn it into sport in order to encourage us to want to engage in it. So we consume games on every topic imaginable with a strong emphasis on violence of all varieties (physical, emotional psychological, etc) for the purposes of entertainment. This isn’t an essay on how games create murderers, but it’s important to point out the ways in which companies use gamification these days to sell us things we’d ordinarily find repulsive. As an experience it feels like they think that if they just make a game out of a serious topic it’s some how less serious, something we can be cool about and regard as No Big Deal. Happens all the time? Prevalent on every corner? Are games are trying to send the message that if you just “level up” in your life you’ll overcome and things will be better and you’ll win recognition as one who has triumphed over the evils of the world? Or something like that.


Today, iBeg is now called Homeless and it’s developers have tried to make it more sensitive by doing more community outreach.

It’s not clear why we need to gamify homelessness. Not sure at all why we gamify rape. What in the world are we trying to achieve by gamifying war? No, really – what is supposed to entertain us about war …or even ask: are we supposed to be learning something? Why is this a game? Why do I enjoy this? Maybe the real question is whether war is actually just a game and societies just try to make them into something we should take seriously. Hmm, maybe we’ve got it all wrong …

And what are games supposed to be doing anyway with these topics? There was a time when our fascination with games was their ability to work up our imaginations and make our brain cells sizzle with delight as we solved problems. It didn’t matter if it was leaping from platform to platform, aiming objects perfectly, stacking blocks at high speeds or anything else. Today, however, games have the ability to teach us things without us having to actually do them. The lesson is more potent when there’s a realistic chance that the thing we’re doing in the game syncs with things we need to do everyday. In this sense, games broaden our experience and extend skills, while also being capable of showing us the problems of things we may previously have believed to be harmless.

All of that depends on developers actually giving a damn about more than shits and giggles. It depends on them seeing the nobility of their own craft, its potential as something far greater than an instrument of entertainment. In the cases of poverty and violence, it means less focus on glory or comfort, and more emphasis on the realities of how and why these things happen. Humans love learning. We find it immensely satisfying and exciting. Games won’t suddenly lose their appeal if we begin to actually benefit from their mechanics. All the same, every game doesn’t have to be a serious thing. I just think they don’t ever need to trivialize serious matters to be entertaining. I think this is precisely where many games go completely wrong.

On the ultra nerdy side of things, if we look at gaming for what it is we’ll see it’s just really elegant and fascinating equation design for human behavior. Games are translating the rhythms of our daily life into algorithms, mathematical expressions predicting how people work, how things happen, and how we can mechanize our daily activities. Just think about that for a second: Games are basically well designed loops which predict and encourage human behavior in order to entertain us. You can’t play Super Mario without jumping, thumping gumbas, and banging your head on boxes. But why would someone feel compelled to keep doing that? There’s an equation for that. What about the more complex games like Dragon Age? It’s like swordsmanship can be reduced into simple arithmetic. How hard you hit that monster relies on a simple formula that calculates just how much force is required by a character of your skill to lop his head off in one stroke. Just an equation.

These guys will actually just stare at you until you get too close ...then they'll *think* about killing you ...yikes.

These guys will actually just stare at you until you get too close …then they’ll *think* about killing you …yikes.

Of course this is a gross over simplification. There’s way more maths involved in programming our most complex games. The ones with the AI that’s spookily responsive, like say an old favorite, Demon’s Souls. The computer knows you’re there and there’s a lot of thought that goes into making the computer recognize human activity …AND RESPOND TO IT! Math, math everywhere.

So gaming is essentially a history of how developers are getting better at mapping out human interaction through equations. And who says math is useless?

As gaming ages, it becomes important to think more about what we’re doing with gamification. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes its weird and sometimes it’s totally inappropriate. Games are one of the most important developments on the map of human progress. For the first time, we can learn about the consequences of our actions without killing living things. That is, of course, the other edge of the sword: consequences are important to training our morals. As we age with our newfound technology, we will have to be conscious of developing ways of maintaining our humanity and reverence for life.

Scree Tags: #gamification #socialissues #gamertalk

11 thoughts on “Gamifying Our Lives

    • I got into that same train of thought while writing this! The question, I think, is whats actually real about games? For example, you say games have answers. Then perhaps our concept of games is what’s screwy, our concept of life. Perhaps gaming provides us exactly the same things “life” does. In that case, they’re not games at all ….right?

      There’s no doubt that some of us get things out of games we can’t get out of ordinary life. I think that alone is proof that we’re evolving our definition of life. What do you think?

      • Games have evolved, a lot. A game 10 years ago is as complex as some mini-games today. I will venture to say that The Sims was the true watershed moment for gamification. GTA3 was the next step. Fable, sort of. They were all “real life simulators” but obviously to an extreme.

        One of my odd personal passions is philosophy/psychology, and one topic in particular resonates here – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s old and been replaced but conceptually sound if you look at it from the bottom up. Games really only focused on Esteem for a long time but as they grew more complex, they went into the Social level (everything is multiplayer and therefore shareable) and into the Actualization level (say, a decision point in an RPG to save a villager and get rewarded or take the loot yourself and be tagged a criminal).

        Life can be stressful and boring at the same time. Game provide a fantasy outlet to try different things, with other people and share experiences. High scores aren’t just in Nintendo Power anymore. Your sidebar of links to Gaming Social Science is reflective of that. Games allow you to test your morals, learn other social ethics (EvE anyone?) outside your community and provides answers to many “what if?” questions. People can take comfort in winning a game while at the same time having a really crappy work/personal life.

        We are by our very nature curious beings. Games allow us to test that curiosity, often times in a social setting, without having a drastic impact on the real world. It’s almost a risk-free trial system.

      • I couldn’t agree more with your point about training ourselves. Games give humanity one of the safest methods to date to test out our theories of morality. I do not believe most developers look at their craft in this way, though. And that’s not just tragic in my opinion, its thoroughly irresponsible. I say this not because I think games ought to be serious affairs 100% of the time, but because if we don’t respect their power and potential, then we’ll ignore their consequences. And I see this happening all the time. Players are very fond of the “its just a game” slogan. It shows that developers have helped to convince us that our experiences in games aren’t real. In the end, developers who feel this way ignore the actual impacts their games have on their players, regardless of the developer’s intent.

        Like I said before, you can’t fake emotions and experiences. They are always real. That’s why I think gamification, while useful, is sometimes highly inappropriate and I think Rapelay and iBeg are just two examples in a sea of examples.

        Like you, I enjoy philosophy and psychology. They always yield interesting questions 🙂 I think I kinda like the idea that often there’s no “true” answer, just a lot of opportunities for adventure. I wish more game developers valued these in their games.

  1. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around most of this. In some ways to me, games are “just games”, as in, they are a vehicle for having fun both by myself and with others. Throw-away experiences akin to hanging out at a bar after work or at a concert with friends, or simply exploring a new system to figure out which buttons the developer wants me to push. They don’t really teach me anything, but I suppose you could argue that those experiences are all “real”, though.

    One particular paragraph above stuck out to me. The question about what gamification of war teaches us. I’ve always enjoyed the CoD single-player campaigns. The visual and sound effects have even coaxed me into labeling those types of FPS’s “combat simulators” in the past. However, if I think about it, there are plenty of problems with that. First of all, I’ve never been in combat but I have my doubts that CoD or any other game can come close to simulating that experience. Second, war is messy, complicated, and often without a clear cut “good guy” and “bad guy” regardless of what various propaganda may be attempting to convince you. In these games that I enjoy, I’m very clearly fighting for the greater good within the framework of that game. It’s somewhat the “hero mentality”, I guess – trying to save the day by putting my virtual self in harm’s way to single-handedly accomplish what no normal human is physically capable of. It’s part adrenaline rush, part puzzle solving (since there’s usually only one right way to accomplish a mission). But does it really teach me anything – even about myself? Maybe that I like being the hero, but I can’t think of much else.

    • I love strategy games. I can’t think of a single one that isn’t based on a war framework. I own lots of them. I usually play them to see how far I can get without raising a sword. Of course, those games can never be bloodless. So what I do get out of them? I like the act of thinking. I like games that ask me to solve them. It doesn’t matter if it’s war or not. I also like playing heroes in games, can’t love RPGs without it 🙂 I think it’s less a case of learning what you personally get out of it than asking simply: what is the point? All of our experiences are real, so we take them with us into the world and into our games.

      As I said, games don’t have to be 100% serious. They just don’t need to trivialize serious things. So when I see kidnapping used in games as a plot device, I see that as an abuse of a serious matter that was completely unnecessary. I’m not saying kidnapping cant be in games. I’m saying designers should ask why they put certain things into their games. Make it count if you’re going to use it.

      There’s no such thing as “just a game” any more than eating is “just a meal”. We are what we consume, don’t you think?

  2. We are what we consume, don’t you think?
    I’m having a really hard time figuring a way to argue against this, especially considering my desensitization post last week that pretty much implies the same!

    Great post, thanks

  3. I see games, and am attracted to games because of it, as a test. A game differs from mundane life in the fact that you “play” it with the express purpose of testing yourself in some way. Whether it be spatial awareness, strategic skill, reflexes, puzzle-solving, morals or ethics, ways of looking at existence, or other issues, I am certain that every game contains a test in one way or another. And in these cases – unlike in real life – there is little to no consequence (beyond time spent) in failing the test, yet usually some reward in completing it, even if it’s just the satisfaction and confidence gained from that completion.

    I think that is what separates games from just “play”. You can have some children playing with a bunch of Lego, and they’ll have fun just doing whatever they like with it. As soon as you introduce some kind of test, though, like asking them how many different animals they can build from the blocks they have, it becomes a game.

    Relevant to the post? No idea, to be honest. You tell me.

    • I tend to think the same as you do on the question. I think the example with children is interesting, because it seems as soon as you introduce some kind of “test” into the environment, you reduce creativity in some way. Let the kids play freely, and they’ll come up with all sorts of amazing stuff. I think the words play and game are definitely different. Its unclear what the true value of “game” is and I think thats exactly what we’re talking about here, so its very relevant 🙂

  4. Pingback: Quest Log: What’s a Game? | XP Chronicles

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