Life is just a game

Using games to motivate behavior is a growing means of social control

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Amsterdam celebrates Queen’s Day every year with a carnival on April 30. Because they’ve been drinking all day, some men urinate in the streets and canals.

The police tried fining offenders, but nothing made much difference until the Waternet company, which is responsible for the canals, installed temporary public urinals with electronic sensors and video displays. Carnival-goers could urinate in them and immediately see an image of their avatars linked to a score based on how much urine they had passed; at the end of the day, the winner of the competition had the cost of his last domestic water bill refunded. Elements borrowed from gaming—a screen, points, rankings and a prize—significantly reduced anti-social behavior.

“Gameplay isn’t just a pastime … Games can be a real solution to problems and a real source of happiness,” wrote Jane McGonigal, the high priestess of gamification, in “Reality Is Broken.” She believes that prompting people to adopt desirable behavior in return for symbolic or material gratification in a game-playing context could enable us to “reinvent everything from government, health care and education to traditional media, marketing and entrepreneurship.” It could even bring about world peace.

This is being taken seriously by businesses, government departments and local authorities that want to steer people toward good behavior in entertaining and effective ways. Gamification is inspired by the much debated theory of “operant conditioning,” a term coined by the late psychologist B.F. Skinner, who tested it first on rodents: The theory holds that actions can be influenced by either positive extrinsic motivations (the desire for pleasure, the attraction of reward) or by negative ones (repression, fear of punishment). Amsterdam’s urinals come into the positive category.

The current move toward gamification springs from the conjunction of the proliferation of personal screens, the explosion in data storage capacity and processing power and a powerful ideology that believes human beings are like machines that calculate their interests and pay attention only to things they find entertaining or profitable.

“Few gamification enthusiasts emphasize this parallel, but the way in which game mechanics have invaded and colonized our lives closely mirrors the spread of market logic to our social, cultural and political institutions,” writes new technologies analyst Evgeny Morozov. “Using games to get people to take their medication or quit smoking or go to school is not all that different from paying them to do so.”

The idea of changing the world through video games has been tapped by independent developers who want to use computing to reveal social dynamics and raise political consciousness: The McDonald’s Videogame casts the player as a manager in the company to get across how the fast-food industry operates, from lobbying the U.S. Congress to corruption in developing countries. Antiwargame, created by the artist Josh On, lets the player become a U.S. president engaged in the war on terror and reveals the collusion between economic, military and media interests.

These “persuasive games,” as sociologist Ian Bogost has called them, have little in common with current gaming incentives. For in rewarding good actions, gamification acts on effects rather than causes.

When Nissan awards points to drivers of its latest electronic car for avoiding unnecessary acceleration — your score appears on the dashboard along with those of other local drivers — it is encouraging the acquisition of a reflex, not an understanding of why saving energy matters. The virtual medal for the most frugal driver could just as well go to a well-trained baboon.

A points system, with instant smartphone updates and the appeal of simplicity, makes comparison and competition with other “players” easy. It also provides opportunities for variations. Deloitte Consulting suggested in a report this year that prisoners could be encouraged to observe parole conditions by a smartphone app that awards points (convertible into a reduced sentence) every time they are punctual for a meeting with a probation officer and deducts point if they go outside their designated area.

A way to influence behavior without people realizing what has happened obviously appeals to the commercial world. Businesses quickly realized they could benefit from the gaming world in staff recruitment and training, increased productivity, customer loyalty and advertising. Gartner Industry analysts predict that by 2015, 70 percent of the 2,000 biggest global companies will be using game technologies. By then, the gamification approach in the United States, worth $100 million in 2010, will be worth $1.6 billion.

New York-based Next Jump, a specialist in gaming reward systems, has Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and AT&T on its client list. “We are in the middle of an arms race for fun,” says Gabe Zichermann, who organized the first Gamification Summit in January 2011. In Hong Kong, Coca-Cola no longer broadcasts ads for viewers to absorb passively; the “Chok! Chok! Chok!” app invites players to shake their smartphone when a Coke ad comes on television. Those who shake most vigorously get a money-off voucher. On launch day, the app topped the chart at Hong Kong’s Apple Store.

Gamification is also a powerful tool in personnel management, updating traditional strategies for getting employees to compete with each other. Microsoft’s Language Quality Game ranks and rewards employees who spot bugs in the Windows operating system. U.S. restaurants, inspired by call centers, are using an app developed by Boston Objective Logistics to rank wait staff. Those who serve the most customers and earn the biggest tips win “karma points” and the chance to serve the highest-value tables on future shifts.

This digital Stakhanovism is like workers’ competitions in the old Soviet Union. It makes the secondary rewards of games (points, levels, rankings, medals) into the main attraction: The game itself holds little interest. Rather than making work attractive by making it possible to produce goods and services that are useful, in good working conditions and for a decent salary, companies are inventing external stimuli to encourage participation in alienating, stressful and often badly paid work: The reward, not the work, is the motivation. According to Mr. Bogost, these are “perversions of games,” what he calls “exploitationware.”

A game inflicted on checkout operators at Target stores has perhaps pushed the deception furthest. When staff scan an item, a green sign appears on their screen if they have put it through quickly enough, and a red one when they haven’t. A score above 82 percent earns congratulations from the boss; a lower score risks demotion or even dismissal. You can lose, but you never truly win.

Pierre Rimbert is editor and Benoit Breville is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique. Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique — distributed by Agence Global.

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