Gamify Your Life

Tell me something, fellow gamers:
why do we play games? I can think of
hundreds of cynical answers to that question right off the bat, but I want you
to think seriously for a second. Why
play games at all? Not just video games,
even, but any games? Why engage in an
activity that limits us to certain behaviors and certain rules over which we only
have partial control? Stumped? There is a simple answer: because it’s fun!

we usually pursue the
subjective ideal of “fun” when we play games, and although a serial
killer and
a tax accountant might disagree over what constitutes “fun,” it is
likely that
the mechanics used to measure this fun are the same for both of them, as
engages in a structured and challenging activity in the hopes of
achieving some
sort of reward upon completion. Think
about this, though: “work,” the erstwhile nemesis of “play,” is not so
different in its mechanics. After all,
one “works” toward a challenging goal by following structured rules in
hopes of achieving a reward. Moreover,
the rewards for work are far more tangible than those for play, often
manifesting in the form of money, success and access to mating pairs.
Yet, work is rarely fun. On the contrary, “work” is boring, tedious
and a thousand other derogatory adjectives, which (unless you’re very
exclude the possibility for any sort of fun. Since the two are so
similar, however, why can’t work be as fun as
“play?” This is the root question that gamification theory seeks to

For those of you unfamiliar with this
concept, gamification is the study of how to apply the reward mechanics and
incentive systems used in video games to real-life situations in the hopes of
increasing engagement. In essence, it’s
bribery—but a very specific kind of bribery, wherein the work system rewards
you much more tangibly for a job well done. Since we’re all academics, let’s consider some educational examples;
for instance, for every problem you get right on a homework assignment, you get
a certain number of experience points. More challenging problems would yield higher experience
benefits for completion, and each time you “level up,” you get a tangible
reward—say, bonus experience points, or the ability to take a mulligan on a
test problem… anything you can conceive, large or small, just as long as it
lends a concrete benefit to all the work that went into achieving that
level. The wonderful thing about a model
such as the one above is that it provides an alternative to the
standard failure based model: instead of needing a certain number of A’s to
stave off failure, you need to reach a specific level before you complete a
class. Studies have shown that positive
reinforcement achievement models are nearly always more effective at bringing
out the best in us, and adoption of the model wouldn’t even upset the current
educational system—instead of needing a C or better to pass the class, you
could simply need to achieve at least level 47 to continue, and if you finished at
level 50 or above, you might be eligible for more advanced classes in the same field.

Game-ified models apply to nearly all
walks of life—from office jobs, where cooperation and teamwork would
earn experience and rewards for the group, to parenting, where obedience
and polite
behavior would earn a toy or more dessert for the child. The
possibilities are nearly limitless. However, like all new and inspiring
gamification has a dark side as well, which is already being employed by
many major corporations. Think of how many
stores and services offer reward cards these days, where you scan your
at the time of sale to earn reward points. Every time you amass a
certain number of reward points, you get
discounts and incentives—20 percent off, or a free plane ride, or a free
night at a
hotel—all based around how much money you’ve spent at a store or on
certain branded items. The same
mechanics that could encourage you to do your homework on time can also
applied thus to saddle you with debt and keep you in the thrall of
by making shopping a form of “play.” Unless you’re Paris Hilton,
shopping as “play” is only as fun as your
credit line allows, and unlike video games, the credit card companies
particularly inclined to distribute extra lives.

Despite this nasty potential
flip side, gamification is certainly one of the behavioral theories that
we will see applied to our lives in the very near future. Perhaps it
will lead to a world where work
and play are both considered legitimate routes to take in the
quest for “fun.” Perhaps it will lead to
a situation in which writing papers and doing homework gives us just as
pleasure as beating a boss or winning a death match, or perhaps it will
lead to
a bleak totalitarian future where “fun” is simply another metric for
how much control capitalism has over our lives. I know one thing,
choice is up to us.

(To give credit where credit is
due, much of the information used in today’s column was first presented in the
internet show Extra Credits)

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