The Terrifying Future Where Everything Is A Video Game

A new report predicts that soon "however many points you have at work will help determine the kind of raise you get or which office you sit in."

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Mar 6 2014, 10:00pm
Image: Pac-Man

"Everyday life will begin to resemble one long game as companies, governments and other institutions attempt to influence the public via new types of competitions," The Economist wrote in its look ahead for 2013. The trend the magazine was discussing is gamification, a wide-ranging practice that involves applying principles of game design to real world tasks to increase the efficiency of their outputs.

Everything from personal fitness to client onboarding has been gamified in recent years, and according to a new report from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the list is about to get a lot longer. By the end of this decade, the report predicts, more than 85 percent of "daily tasks" will be gamified in one way or another.

It's hard to say what that will look like, exactly. The IEEE report credits the ascent of gamification to the ubiquitous reach mobile technology now has in modern post-industrial societies. If we're just talking about smartphone apps, whether or not you buy into the gamification of things remains a personal choice. Whether or not health, fitness, or dating apps are effective or insidious is certainly a topic worthy of debate, but if you want to use a smartphone app that awards little badges to help spruce up your sex life, that's your call. (And that of whoever's helping you level up, I guess.)

Gamification gets a lot more morally complicated when those principles are applied to social and political institutions like schools, hospitals, government bodies, and any modern workplace—which is accelerating as well, according to the IEEE. As senior IEEE member and tech consultant Tom Coughlin said in the report, "By 2020, however many points you have at work will help determine the kind of raise you get or which office you sit in. Outside factors will still be important, but those that can be quantified numerically will increasingly be tracked with 'game points.'"

Predictably, game designers have recoiled at this thought for a while. In a famous 2011 essay titled "Gamification Is Bullshit," Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost described the concept as "marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway."

Gamification reeks of insincerity to people who are more interested in the creative merits of games than their potential for exploitation by sales teams. That's understandable. What's more disturbing to me is the way that gamification accelerates another trend by essentially dressing Taylorism up in new app-friendly clothes. In late 2012, I asked Kris Duggan, then the CEO of the gamification startup Badgeville, what he thought the difference was between the modern-day practice and the controversial management style introduced in 1911 with The Principles of Scientific Management.

By 2020, however many points you have at work will help determine the kind of raise you get or which office you sit in.

His response was that gamification, at least on the enterprise level, has more in common with Taylorism than what we think of as "gameplay" when struggling to reach the next level of Candy Crush. Therefore, we shouldn't criticize gamification in the same way that we consider something designed purely for entertainment.

Taylorism has been controversial ever since it was first introduced, however. Workers rights advocates have consistently critiqued it as means to disempower employees by encouraging infighting and competition. Economists and historians, meanwhile, have pointed out that it can have disastrous consequences when misapplied as it was, say, by the Soviet Union to arbitrarily boost production of one industrial product over another without keeping track of a desired goal.

People working at startups or call centers aren't toiling in factories to churn out nuts and bolts for the Soviet war machine. But is the ethical concern really all that different? Duggan told me that companies applying gamification to their workforce need to be "very thoughtful around the metrics that you want to drive" because of the risk of "unintended consequences."

"And the reason that that’s so important is because gamification is actually really effective," he added. "Whatever you decide to do reward and recognize people for, that’s what they’re going to do."

And who decides what to "reward and recognize people for?" It's certainly not the person in human resources who gets a happy face sticker for processing the most invoices that month, or the salesperson rushing to unlock another achievement in lieu of an actual raise or monetary bonus.

Gamifying an office may very well help incentivize employees to complete specific tasks. But when it's viewed in the broad context of looming technological unemployment, a much darker picture emerges. The expansion of the freelance market and the simultaneous erosion of unionized labor don't help either. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Evgeny Morozov's scathing takedown of the "sharing economy," in this light gamification "amplifies the worst excesses of the dominant economic model: it is neoliberalism on steroids."

Rather than focus solely on how to better apply game mechanics to the allocation of human resources both personally and professionally, perhaps we should also be thinking about what it means for people to "lose" in such a world—both individually and collectively. The tech entrepreneur class loves to lionize failure as a process that abets innovation. But how many people will actually get a second life?