Monday, 22 August 2011

Gamification in history: game mechanics as social models

Being a grown-up is not fun and games. To amend this, some cheerful people from a nice part of the world, probably California, invented gamification. I've seen some Stanford computer science lectures on iTunesU from a few years ago that seem to express the first buds of gamifying theories. Now we are beginning to see the fruits of those theories. Apparently more and more workplaces and commercial enterprises have modified their working practices to incorporate reward badges for hitting targets, points systems, sometimes level-up mechanics to represent your productivity/consumer loyalty.

As has been said time and again, gamification often, but not always, boils down to pointsification. Points systems do not automatically make a job into a game. That bit in Mary Poppins where you 'find the fun, and snap! the job's a game' wasn't about creating points and merit badges. It was about animating the dull world of chores, seeing the things that other people can't see that make the world a bit more awesome. My jobs feel like games because I get to do them in my underwear at 3am while drinking tea and listening to punk rock.

Points are, of course, analogous to money. They're not the same as money, but in a time of redundancies, unpaid internships, high unemployment, and consumer price inflation above wage inflation, points are sometimes the best we can do. Game mechanics (and meta-game mechanics) that reward effort with points and reward points with status labels reflect a very specific vision of how a heirarchical society functions. They depict the conceit of meritocracy - the people at the top are far superior to those on the bottom, not because of arbitrary social distinctions such as taste, dominant personality types or place of birth, but because the people on the top have superior skills and have put in more effort. The people at the bottom are there because of their own ignorance and laziness. No, it's not equitable to live in a heirarchical society, but at least people get what they deserve, and in any case, if there weren't any losers in the world nobody would have any hope of becoming a winner.

I believe that one of the addictive things about games is that they take heirarchical distinctions out of the hands of fate and put them in the hands of players. The heirarchies of points mechanics can be gamed, while the heirarchies of the real world can't. I know some people think they can 'win' at life by creating games out of business or seduction, but I reckon that those people tend to learn very little about the parts of business or seduction that lie outside of their game mechanic - economic crashes are a case in point, as is the inability of pick up artists to really love a woman.

Edo period Japan didn't have gamification, but games were used as analogies for society and politics. The mechanic used was not pointsification, but the 'rock, paper, scissors' mechanic, known as 'Janken'. Janken games were modified to incorporate social metaphors, such as 'kitsune ken', a drinking game performed with the whole body that equalised the feudal social heirarchy - village elder trumps huntsman, huntsman trumps fox, but fox trumps village elder because foxes were believed to be magical, mischievous creatures that could possess the elder. Therefore, although the heirarchy remains intact as a part of the game mechanic, it is revealed to be preposterous and empty, because the person on the bottom-most rung can overpower the person on the top. (There's a chapter about this in Japan at Play by Joy Hendry) In the print above, the characters are playing a game of janken that analogises scholarly debates over civilisation dominance between India/Buddhism, China/Confucianism, and Japan/Shinto.

Songs were written about janken games, and then parody janken songs were written to spoof recent real-world events. Woodblock prints depicted further layers of playful metaphor. Throughout this early-modern example of transmedia creative output, the janken meme always applied the circular mechanic to a social order that was supposed to be a perfectly linear heirarchy. Janken games made people feel like they could game the system, because they could finally play with heirarchy rather than quietly live under it. Ultimately, janken made the entire system appear futile, because if its true circularity - those at the bottom can topple those at the top. 'Rock, paper, scissors' is a game of chance - one's final position remains in the hands of fate, and cannot be changed by simply trying harder as in a points system. However, in janken, the heirarchy itself is exploded into a ridiculous playing ground.

When applying game mechanics to our own society, there is more at stake than might first meet the eye. One thing that interests me as a historian is the way that game mechanics have both reflected and subverted the existing order. Game mechanics create an order of their own that must make sense to the player, must speak to something that is real for the player, and might lead to creative constructions of player agency. Many points systems reflect our heirarchical and capitalist society, and focus on the extent to which that heirarchy is meritocratic to create a system in which anybody can become a winner. In Edo Japan, janken reflected a fixed heirarchy that could not be changed or gamed, but demonstrated the preposterousness of that heirarchy.

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