Gamification is not always an easy sell – and this is the case even when you’re not trying to sell something. There are genuine and reasonable concerns to be had around gamification in certain contexts, particularly when the thing being gamified is consumer behaviour. Yet rational critiques are not always the staple of a society bombarded with moral panics at every turn. The unfounded – or at least unbalanced – negative attitude toward gamification held by a large number of people serves as a significant obstacle to those who wish to gamify certain aspects of human motivation and behaviour for productive pursuits.
The seemingly innate skepticism toward gamification on the part of many stems from the term’s rhetorical connection to the even more loaded terms ‘game’ and ‘gamer’. There is a stark divide between those who look at this image and see a young boy who is distracted and desensitised and those who see him as engrossed and entertained (when neither party really has any basis or right to make a judgement about him at all). Ongoing notions of gaming as being a waste of time at best and destructively dehumanising at worst have inevitably filtered through to popular perceptions of gamification, and this has been perpetuated at multiple turns by popular culture.
I’ve written elsewhere of the simplifying, even trivialising, role that many films within the ‘surveillance cinema’ sub-genre play in demonising surveillance to the point where they actually reinforce its necessity. A similar blurring of genuine concern and exaggerated paranoia can also be found in a growing number of cultural representations of gamified practices and processes, which might – like a good number of mainstream surveillance-themed movies – be counter-productive to understanding the actual phenomena they seek to portray. Unsurprisingly, a majority of these fictional narratives take place in a familar setting: the not-so-distant future.
As a keen admirer and fan of science-fiction generally, I’m the last person who’d ever suggest that dystopian imaginings can’t provide immensely valuable insights into the past and present. However, they do have their limits when a particular trend develops and familiar tropes are deployed and re-deployed from many angles. This series of blogs on ‘Gamified Dystopias’ takes a look at several instances where the meaning(s) attached to gamification are conveyed through a dystopian aesthetic.
I thought I’d start with the short film Sight (2012), created by the student filmmakers of Robot Genius and widely viewed and shared online. I certainly see this film tweeted on a regular basis by at least a few students in each digital media cohort I teach. Given its reasonably short length, I’ve used it myself from time to time to kickstart conversation about contemporary screen culture and the discourses surrounding it. As with entertaining texts in any given context, however, the ideological implications of what a film suggests are often and easily overlooked. Before I look at this example in some depth, it’s worth having a watch here if you haven’t seen it:
The opening moments of Sight set a clearly pessimistic tone for the film’s various depictions of gamification through a broadbrush denouncement of gaming culture generally. The pleasure that the protagonist (Patrick) experiences in completing the skydiving simulator is signified by a facial expression that can only be described as orgastic (yep, it’s a word and if you don’t believe me, watch the film again!). Given Patrick’s soul turns out by the end of the narrative to be as empty as his apartment, his engagement in – or rather, reliance on – virtual play is immediately depicted as shallow, if not perverse. Shifting immediately to Patrick’s use of the ‘Chef Master’ app while he cooks, the app’s generic music and sound effects, and the resulting ‘othering’ effect of the game’s apparently Asian origin, suggests that gamifying the slicing of vegetables and frying of eggs has somehow made these tasks even more mundane than they were to begin with.
Most importantly, the protagonist’s response to failing to gain a perfect score connects environmental waste (i.e. his disposal of perfectly good food) to the common sentiment mentioned above that ‘play’ involves a frivolous waste of time. The ‘Galileo’ app Patrick uses later that night – software that appears to substitute for actual night sky star-gazing by allowing this to occur virtually and indoors – further underlines the barrier that gamification has erected between humanity and the natural world. Yet it is gamification’s detrimental effects on the nature of humanity itself that Sight gives most attention to.
Beyond the social awkwardness that presumably stems from living constantly through immersive contact lenses/eyeball implants called ‘sights’, the progress of Patrick’s date with Daphne is governed by disturbing data analytics and real-time feedback. Patrick’s accumulation of achievements on the heavily gendered ‘Wingman’ dating app increases alongside Daphne’s vulnerability as he manipulates every aspect of the evening to his advantage. At the same time, the app’s advice to him at frequent intervals to ‘look interested’, ‘act cool’, and so on suggest that he is also in one sense being controlled. Of course, the ominous climactic moment when Patrick hacks into Daphne’s ‘sight’ software when she rejects him and is about to storm out of his apartment links gamification with impending sexual assault. Daphne’s final denouncement of Patrick as a ‘creep’, ‘disgusting’, and a ‘frigging game junkie’ (even though she seems also to rely heavily on gamified apps in her everyday life) brings the film’s portrayal of the perversity of play full circle.
The dystopian representation of gamification has taken on a number of guises, and I’ll look at another very different example next week, although it’s notable that the dehumanising impact of digital technologies generally, and gamification specifically, proves to be a common thread that connects these. In Sight, one need look no further than the obstructed vision of the characters themselves, whose ‘sights’ blur their perceptions just as the audience is forced to watch much of the film through the mottled reflections of Patrick’s first-person perspective, as if peering through a grimy shower screen. Does gamification – and digital culture more broadly – really blind us to ourselves? Google Glass may have fallen by the wayside (for now), but with Samsung’s recently being granted a patent for smart contact lenses with in-built cameras, our view of the future might be transforming soon enough…