Gamification as ideological vector

Sorry about the abstruse title, but I couldn’t think of a concise way of summing up the point I want to make, inspired by this innocuous-seeming tout on Lifehacker for a browser extension that turns responding to emails into a game. (Also I’ve been reading Negri — not good for anyone’s prose style.)

This summmary touches on all 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 promises in capturing people’s attention — 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.

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 or “fun”. Who doesn’t want to have fun? But gamification takes as its starting point that most tasks are inherently not worth doing (a generalization of the stultifying effects of the division of labor and the alienation of wage labor) 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. 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 institutional 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 restrict ourselves to 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.

In online gamification, competition for its own sake requires no concrete opponents; their presence can be taken as implied by the openness of the network and is translated by the structure of many gamification schemes into a series of levels that can imply different percentiles of achievement. In this post, this tactic is explicitly stated in the idiom of role-playing games (“leveling up”), whose seemingly gratuitous appearance in the Lifehacker post serves to reinforce the alleged appropriateness of that language for articulating adult problems and personal goals. Life is a mere matter of the raw accumulation of quantities of experience and achievement, which leads to more or less linear progress up a hierarchy whose arbitrariness we accept unquestioningly. It’s a variant 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). 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. The game simplifies everything; it makes motivation clean and convenient.

But maybe gathering experience is not a game of quantities, not a matter of mere accumulation. Maybe convenient “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.”

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