Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gaming Reality

Heather Caplin has a good commentary on "gamificiation" over at Slate. The basic idea, which she argues against, is that people find life too boring and a way to make them more satisfied and motivated is to sturcture tasks as games. This, they hope, will give life an "epic" feel and provide more rewards (e.g. experience points) for mundane tasks.

I think gamification has some value, and Caplin would admit this. What she is arguing against is extreme gamification--she worries about what will happen when most of our lives have been gamified:

What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they're achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples' lives into games so they feel as if they're doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don't notice how miserable they are?
She doesn't put this argument in context. It is really part of a longstanding debate about the importance of connecting feelings with reality. Nozick's experience machine illustrates the tension. Brave New World and Inception provide commentaries in the arts. In popular writing, Barbara Ehrenrich makes essentially the same points about the "positive thinking" movement in general.

As you can guess from my previous posts on Ehrenrich, I think these fears are overblown. All that matters is how people feel. Reality is just instrumentally valuable for generating happiness, which is the only thing we really want (except more life so that we can be happy). When Caplin ironically comments:

This economy doesn't rely on cash—rather, it pays participants with points, peer recognition, and their names on leader boards. It's hard to tell if this is fairy-tale thinking or an evil plot.
the joke falls flat for exactly this reason. The real economy already relies on points (called dollars), peer recognition, and "keeping up with the Joneses" (unofficial leaderboards). Happiness is more closely correlated with (subjective) status than wealth because the economy  already is, for those in the top 3/4ths of the income distribution, a status game.

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