Original Post Date March 21, 2012

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In David Perry’s TED talk, he spoke of the convergence between the game world and the real world. He demonstrated not only that audio and video technology is enabling the creation of games that challenge the sensory cues that distinguish it from real life but also that these factors, coupled with the increasingly elaborate fantastical worlds that they enable, also contribute to the power of games to evoke very real emotion in its players.  Notably, Perry shows the video diary of one his students who admits to a video game addiction and describes in detail the rich emotional responses that games trigger in him. While Perry focuses on how games may be converging towards real life, I’m interested in the idea that real life is also undergoing a process of gamification. For example, companies like FourSquare which reward its players with very real discounts and deals from merchants blur the boundaries between the virtual and the real. Actions and consequences flit between realms.

What might this disintegration of boundaries mean for our conception of selves? While our digital avatars are increasingly considered as adequate metonyms for the entirety of our selves, are we becoming reduced to two or even one dimension? After all, games are fun because they exploit the universal themes of humanity but present them in their most pared-down form. Victory and loss are unquestionably distinct states. The path to these states is predetermined and deviance from this path is only present as a limited addendum, to give an obligatory sense of dimension to the game. As players in these games, we are simultaneously liberated and trapped in the confines of simplicity.

In addition, participation in a game represents an acquiescence to play by someone else’s rules. Companies use gamification techniques to engage their audience. In a digital world where the social prevails, engagement with your audience is the key to creating brand resonance and loyalty. Instead of consumers, through engagement techniques, companies aim to give us the illusion that we are active participants in the creation of the products and services we buy. Yet our newfound sense of consumer power is tempered if not negated by the fact that through strategies like gamification, our rewards and punishments are meted out according to their standards and rules. While companies like FourSquare enable consumers to receive discounts from merchants which may not be available through other channels, it also requires them to play by their rules. The cost of “checking in” through an application on a mobile device may seem like a small price to pay, but consider the staggering amount of geo-location data FourSquare has on every single one of its millions of users. Even as a disconnected set of locations this information is frightening but in aggregate, FourSquare has access to our very real physical habits and consumer behaviors.

Thus, to be a player in the game means to implicitly agree to a set of rules and systems of rewards. When real life becomes gamified, it also means to exist and participate in a world where conditions of achievement and loss are distinct and unambiguous and the path to these conditions singular.

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[1] based on work by Ian Gibson

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