Seven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society. I come back to it often, as it was a bit of a warning that, if we all outsource our news-reading and information-gathering to algorithms, then we’re in trouble.
I wrote that post at a time when Twitter was proposing to turn its previously “raw” feed into an algorithmically-curated one. It completely spoiled the social network for me, and my use of it has dwindled since 2014. It’s also had nefarious effects, amplifying hate and disinformation — as we’ve seen with countless examples around the world. Our democratic institutions are at stake.
Listening to the latest episode of It’s Not Just In Your Head, a podcast from two mental health professionals exploring how capitalism, I was fascinated by their most recent guest’s insights. Dr. Alfie Bown, a lecturer in Digital Media Culture and Technology at Royal Holloway in London, and author of a number of books, spoke eloquently about gamification in our everyday lives.
Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users This is generally accomplished through the application of game-design elements and game principles (dynamics and mechanics) in non-game contexts. (Wikipedia)
What I found particularly interesting was Bown’s inclusion of social media in his tallying-up of everyone who plays “video games” around the world. As he points out, the feedback loops and rewards for certain types of behaviour on social networks certainly mesh with what we’d consider to be video game mechanics.
I’m a gamer, and have been most of my 41 years on this earth. The games I see my kids playing, though, are quite different to the ones I used to play at their age. There’s a very positive angle to this, as they’re a lot more positive and social than many of the ones I played when I was younger. But there’s downsides as well, and that’s what I want to talk about here.
As an example, I’ve played the FIFA football (soccer) game series ever since the very first one came out over 25 years ago. Over the last few iterations, instead of just being a particular team and playing against another player or the computer, it’s possible to create your own ‘Ultimate Team’. Having experimented with this again recently, I was shocked at how little time I ended up actually playing a football game, and how much time I was spending ‘grinding’ — i.e. doing things to unlock or upgrade things.
As Dr. Alfie Bown pointed out in the podcast episode, everything is gamified these days, from work to dating to shopping. It’s like everyone’s competing in a slightly-different ARG. So this post is a marker and a reminder for me that I can choose to gamify my own life, or have it gamified for me.
There are multiple ways to do this. One very simple one that I’ve found to be unreasonably effective is to use Loop Habit Tracker to define habits that I want to build over time. They could be exercise or nutrition-related, or something else entirely. Right now, I’m trying to do each of the following at least twice a week:
- Go to the gym
- Go for a run
- Go on the exercise bike
Each time I succeed, I put a tick in the box under that day and activity, and it strengthens the habit.
Gamification is not something that is good or bad, in and of itself. For me, it’s all to do with whether you’re being controlled or manipulated into acting in a way which is in alignment with your values and goals in life. For example, I’ve found Duolingo useful for language-learning, and it includes a lot of gamification techniques.
As we enter a new year, I’m on a bit of a mission to remove unhelpful gamified elements from my life, and to add in ones which will help me flourish as the human being I want to be.