Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gamification (or the Romance of Accumulation)

I haven't yet had a chance to discuss Mark Sample's recent, very compelling post about "gamification," the tendency to turn everything into a game (for points) whether or not it's appropriate. Mark writes:
I oppose the general trend toward “gamifying” real world activities—mapping game-like trappings such as badges, points, and achievements onto otherwise routine or necessary activities.

A better term for such “gamification” is, as Margaret Robertson argues, pointsification. And I oppose it. I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness.

I mostly share Mark's sense that gamification is a scourge. But I'm also extremely curious as to why it's compelling. The mere accumulation of points, which is predictable and sequential, should be incredibly boring. Incredibly boring. And yet somehow it isn't; somehow it's at once soothing (five points...six points...) and anxiety-inducing (Will I make it to seven points?...Cliffhanger!).

As someone who studies experimental literature, I'm not deeply committed to either meaning or narrative as self-evident goods, and I am actually one of those weirdos who enjoys reading Stein, but the narrative power of mere counting remains a puzzle to me--an interesting one.

I'm pasting my comment on Mark's post below, not because I've said anything brilliant but because if anybody has any leads, I'd like to hear about them.

It strikes me [...] that the proverbial elephant in the room is the pervasive gamification of learning, through grades, credits, and the like, which leads to the perverse practice known as "grade-grubbing." (Not to mention the mistaken impression in some quarters that the letters "B. A." have, or should have, the powers of the One Ring.)

I mostly hate grades, and not just because I hate grading.

But I do think there's something to be said for having to discipline oneself into a practice--to do something before one understands why one is doing it. (Learning to code almost always starts out like this, or at least it has for me--just follow these instructions, use this syntax, make this thingy that says "hello world." A week later, you understand why you were doing what you did, and you understand it because you did it.)

With thinking persons, usually the extrinsic motivation of the grade flips over into an intrinsic interest in what it is that one is doing--it has to, because it's just too boring to merely do things to rack up points. When that flip doesn't happen, we get grade-grubbing--people who think the points are (as it were) the point.

Perhaps that flip happens when you start to understand enough of what you're doing that it starts to become more interesting than racking up points. Racking up points, which is a sort of degree-zero narrative, is more interesting than a series of arbitrary, meaningless, and repetitive tasks, which is how some people see school. (And it's worth noting that, to the beginner, most complex things seem arbitrary and meaningless--until they don't.) So gamification is a relief from such tasks. As you say, the desire to gamify life processes seems to signal an inability to imbue them with more complex or interesting narrative (or, say, poetic!) significance. But it seems as though there are moments when gamification can be, and is, used strategically as a bridge into significance.

There's a very striking section of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative in which Equiano is going about trading various goods (limes, glassware, turkey). It's all about the numbers, and what I once called a "romance of accumulation" (in a seminar paper lo these many years ago) takes over the "interesting" narrative. Equiano's racking up points. But he has to give some bulk and narrative to the tedious process of accruing enough money to buy his freedom, so the romance of accumulation must serve. A similar racking up of points appears in Thoreau's Walden, when he is literally bean-counting.

Which is to say that "gamification" is an old and strange narrative strategy. I don't quite know what to do with these C18/19 examples, but I've long wondered about them, and the role of the romance of accumulation in American literature and culture more broadly.

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