The “Gamification” of Life
You’re driving your electric car down the hill to your favourite grocery store. As the car is rolling down effortlessly, a colourful graphic on the dashboard is showing you the regenerative braking system that’s charging the battery as you’re driving. Good strategy to stretch the battery’s life, and lower your carbon footprint. Also the car insurance algorithm running in your phone might flag you as a safe non-speeding driver. May be that will lower your premium next year.
Inside the grocery store, on your way to check out with a cart half full of produce, you suddenly spot a deal. If you buy two big size boxes of your second favourite breakfast cereal, you will get 20 reward points, you think to yourself that will get you pretty close to 1,000 points, silver member status, you can get points even faster with the silver member status, which in turn will put you closer to the coveted golden status: 10,000 points. Ah, you would finally afford your dream all paid trip to Hawaii… or was it the Bahamas? who cares, some warm island with palm trees and coconuts.
These were two pretty familiar scenarios where companies use basic gamification to guide us into buying more products or behaving in a certain way to increase virtual stats that we see as beneficial. The stats can be in the shape of shopping reward points, your health app leader-board, even likes and replies of online comments are stats, but these are mostly bestowed upon us by random strangers, still, we feel really good when our witty comment gets lots of strangers likes.
Another nascent field where gamification plays a significant role is food delivery. As a food delivery driver, the gig already feels like a candy-crush type of game, your screen suddenly pops with a new delivery notification, the app tells you to drive to the “Lazy Dragon” Chinese restaurant, shows the location on Google Maps, and lets you know it would be good if you make it by 10:34, you do your best, get there at 10:35, not bad, you now have to swipe your phone, confirming you’re at the lazy dragon, the app keeps guiding you through the elaborate steps of how to get a Chow Main takeout and how to deliver it to Dennis M, who for some reason has two cars on his driveway, but can’t get his favourite “lazy dragon” meal.
If this sounds like a simple fun way to make few bucks on the side when you have an hour or two to kill, well, there’s more. You see, these food delivery companies lead you to believe that you will be your own boss, you can work any time you want, however long you want…but…they have stats, driver ratings, things like the total number of deliveries you performed, the percentage of deliveries you declined (because who the hell is driving across town to the lazy dragon for $5.00?!!), and customer reviews…etc all create a driver profile that the computer algorithm keeps track of, and uses, to determine who gets deliveries, or who gets the “good” $20.00 deliveries. So at the end, it’s a competitive game between several drivers of who has the better stats.
Now as artificial intelligence algorithms are embedded in every phone and computer, and internet of things sensors and wearable technologies are allowing companies (and governments) to track all kinds of data about processes and workers, do you foresee a rewards by gamification coming to a workplace near you? the employee of the month game is about to get much more intricate.
These stats can be thought of as extra perks for being a model employee or citizen. if you push the idea to its limit, you can think of your credit score, bank account size, investment portfolio, even your degree and job title, as societal and financial stats that vary in importance among different individuals in different societies, but which hold some form of real world value. A degree in mechanical engineering is your society’s way of recognizing you as an individual who can design mechanical systems and rewarding you for your smarts and hard work in university. This is a tangible reward for real effort.
Your bank account and investment portfolio are, for the most part, the capital markets and your government’s way of rewarding you for good savings habits and sound investing strategies. This is also a tangible reward (money), but earning money in capital market has become gamified in many aspects. Anyone with a phone and extra money can nowadays gamble hard earned money on shares in publicly listed companies, and either end up a millionaire overnight or owing an unpayable debt for life. It’s a worldwide casino that you can access on the palm of your hand and play any time, the money you make (or lose) becomes a green (or red) shiny number on your screen. You don’t even think much of what you will spend it on.
The previous examples can be thought of as mature people oriented games, they concern work and finances and serious matters of the sort. What about video games? well the Mario Bros games of the 80s and 90s are a bit more serious now. Kids these days spend most of their time roaming online virtual worlds where they win, buy, trade and design virtual items that are useful or look nice in the gaming realms where their avatar reside. It’s no longer a matter of playing video-games, it’s a matter of “living” in virtual worlds. I celebrated birthdays with my family in one of these virtual worlds, in a decorated virtual house, with a virtual cake, and received in game items as birthday gifts. One of my colleagues was dating a person from another country and they spent most of their together time in one of the games, they owned a medieval house in the middle of a forest, and few dragons. One day she was very upset, and when I asked what’s wrong, it turned out their house was raided by night and their dragons stolen, but she said they will rebuild and it will be fine.
You might think these virtual items only have sentimental value to their owners or other players of the same game. Well, think again. In a game called Entropia Universe, a club called Neverdie Club was bought for $100,000 then sold for $635,000. One year later in the same game, a planet called Calypso was bought for over 6 million dollars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and value is in the eye ( and pocket ) of the buyer. Food has value because it nourishes, gold has value because it’s shiny, a virtual sword has value because it can slay virtual evil monsters, and money has value…because government says so.
Without going into too many historical or technical details about money creation, inflation and monetary policies, cryptocurrencies were created as a virtual form of money that doesn’t need banks or central authorities, it was thought of initially as a revolt against a greedy all controlling banking system. These cryptocurrencies hold because they are programmed to prove ownership and transactions without a bank confirming so. This led to the proliferation of thousands of these cryptocurrencies, that can go in value from pennies to thousands of dollars over few years (beats your retirement fund returns for sure, but they can also go bust in a matter of days), and to the creation of new financial ecosystems that feel half like monopoly, half like the wild west, but with real (although extremely fluctuating) monetary value.
I believe if you never researched cryptocurrencies that an example is due, I bought a cryptocurrency called CAKE (40 CAKES for $10 each, the symbol of this currency is a pancake), then I staked my CAKES (think of it as putting your money in a savings account) for an interest rate of 150 % per year, what is your bank’s savings account rate? 0.5%? The CAKE currency return is 300 times that, and one CAKE value went from $10 to $40 at one point, before crashing back to $15. Talk about making mockery of the banking system. Some people think this is the future of financial institutions. The same technology behind cryptocurrencies, namely blockchain, allows to prove ownership of virtual items, think digital pictures, videos, game items etc… A digital drawing made by an artist named Beeple was sold for 69 million dollars. Anyone can take a screenshot of the same picture and “own” it, but the “original” was sold for that amount.
Where does all this lead us? A collision between virtual and real, I foresee a future where most of our activities will happen in front of a screen, or virtual reality headset, or whatever futuristic display…These activities will be heavily gamified, and we will be rewarded with virtual items that have functional or aesthetic value in various virtual realms where we spend most of our time, either working or having fun. We will also have stats and numbers that we are proud to increase, as a show of skill and hard work. The lines between real and virtual will be heavily blurred, and we will start confusing the two.
I’m not sure what the societal and philosophical ramifications of the virtualisation and gamification of life will be. But I know that reducing the human experience to a job title, a bank account and favourite brands of clothing and restaurants has pushed us away from the real meaning (or the honest exercise of finding) of what being a human being is. Now adding an extra abstract layer full of virtual artifacts and stats will push us further away from finding out what living is all about.