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A Declaration of Independence From Gamification

Ian Bogost's recent "Gamification is Bullshit" piece has caused a predictable wave of responses. This piece proposes not a negative opposition to gamification, but a positive design-driven attack on the field.

Christian McCrea, Blogger

August 10, 2011

6 Min Read

"Isn't a little play better than none?"

Lian Amaris, responding to Ian Bogost's "Gamification is Bullshit." 

No, its not better. Its much, much worse. The opposite of pure consumption isn't consumption filtered through a dream of leisure, but less consumption. Bogost and other critics aren't confused about what gamification means; everybody agrees that's there scope there to addict people to systems that have social good, like education systems. Fine, roll out the barrel. Some of us just think that overall, its a lie. The language of 'purists' even suggests that there's some interpretation of a previous group and then some new wave. 

I don't want to focus on Lian's response because there's a whole other context there. Nor is she the target of the rest of this piece - the dread consultants are, who I've written about before. Her piece is merely a launching point. But if the defence is "gamification is not any worse than dog racing or a carnival" ... than as Jon Stewart said to the hosts of Crossfire, "we're in big trouble."

Gamification consultants are not trying to interact with the game industry at all, but often use the rhetoric in such a way that they do. These consultants have come to harvest the first scintilla of cultural respect that games have found in their existence. Rather than come away with a key to unlocking a digitally-connected generation (which is what they thought), they've come away with the same old dreams that failed the last time, but bolstered with the realisation that the bed of technology is there for some of it to stick. Gamification is a content question for a world thats gotten used to highly connected networks; and its absolutely natural to ask questions about how those networks can change behaviours. 

However, what many of us find sickening is that its a gang of predominantly North American technocrats who - after squaring the circle between the nihilism of business marketing culture and the evangelical psychopomp of TED culture - have declared that they, not actual game developers, can take us into the new age. 

The same notions are summoned again and again - 'consumerism is just the way it is, and this can make it more fun' - but that's precisely the idea that causes the gulf. Not the definition of the word. It is often suggested that the critics like Ian Bogost are forgetting what games are all about; play. I would suggest he knows quite well. We all do. Its just that some of us - having read those books and played those games - are thoroughly unconvinced that play can be harvested and systematised. True play - not systemic organisation - would put the product and the advertiser at genuine risk. Real play could topple the order. What gamification consultants want is the glamour of play; the legitimacy of its culture. They have come late to the party and want to talk about their job. 

But games aren't just there to amuse us. Play isn't a social MSG we can sprinkle on our spending to make it go over a little easier. Mr. Jensen from 1976's film Network was wrong. We do live in a world of nations and ideologies. There is no vast and ecumenical holding company. Men do not work to serve a common purpose, or hold a share of stock. Necessities are not provided. Anxieties are not tranqulised. Boredoms are not amused. 

Gamification is going to stick around and poison the landscape for a while more. Good people will re-style themselves to capture the new capital, and sympathetic artists and designers will soon be piling in using the word gamification where they might have once used games. This seems sadly, quite inevitable. 

But the inverse is also possible. The disquiet and distaste that surround gamification may itself constitute a grouping. It is not a case of a whole (gamification proponents) and a lot of tiny oppositions (the critics.) As a whole, if our criticisms are coherent, then we are a whole. We can begin to ask some very interesting questions if we share more that a simple distaste:

One, why do we presume that 'games' and entrepreneurship culture share their agendas? This cozy relationship requires examination.

Two, a reinvestment in the concept of play as a force which both grows and diminishes power - a spectrum we used to call design, before they took away that word as well. 

Three, a total war without end on the infantilisation of the consumer. On the assumption of his or her inexorable fate, most of all. 

These aren't even idealistic or particularly left-wing goals. Entrepreneurs and educators, artists and designers, developers and critics all have something to gain by the three questions above.

I'm tired of being cast as a grouchy critic of some rising tide of optimistic enthusiastic young go-getters just because I have lines over which I won't cross, relationships I won't liquify into dollars. I'm bursting with enthusiasm for where games will go by the time I truly get old and grouchy. Of course game dynamics will be everywhere, embedded within everything - thats absolutely the reason I do what I do. Nor am I stupid enough to think it won't be partially driven by the hazy dream of publicity. 

However, I won't cede to anybody casting themselves as a visionary technologist who can rake in the dollars when real game developers and designers get fired from a broken industry. These consultants are stealing what little oxygen there is to furnish their egos. We are letting the language of 'innovation' pervert the culture of entrepreneurship to the point that it becomes a leisure activity. (Something that Ian Bogost also recently touched on in another post.) Talented people put on a bonfire while shirts are pressed in preparation for talks about the future of games by people who barely play them. What's wrong with this picture? People want to cherish games growing up and becoming part of culture, and someone takes their dream and sells it on eBay for a trendy charity. 

These three goals - questioning entrepreneurial culture, politicising play, and a war on the infantilisation of the consumer - are microscopic issues in a huge set of complex global problems. But they only seem strange to people who think that consumer capitalism is working perfectly, or worse still, 'that its the best system we've got'. Which you see a lot in the comments sections of gamification articles. Because to believe gamification is good, you ultimately need to believe consumer capitalism is good. 

Yes, I think consumerism is a problem. I'm not ashamed of it and I won't be marginalised and I won't be told that I can't participate in the world of games because I believe it. I put the burden of proof back on those who wish to defend the status quo.  In case you haven't noticed or looked out the window lately, the status quo isn't as stable as we were told. In that context, contemporary business culture is one of deep and depraved nihilism. If people from that world are telling you that 'play is a great way to engage your customers', you're taking neckwear advice from vampires. 

We can do better. Businesses and entrepreneurs can do better. But the rest of us absolutely need better.

You can follow the author on Twitter : @playstayxian

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