Original Post Date March 21, 2012
Original Post Date March 21, 2012
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.
 based on work by Ian Gibson
In Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground, Kevin Poulsen regales the reader with ominous tales of gaps in computer security that enable hackers like Max Butler to access personal financial information for profit. While the reader is left disappointed, if not outraged, at the purposeful ignorance financial institutions and even the government choose to keep victims of cybercrime, as well as the seeming simplicity of precautions that could have prevented these violations, the book also imparts a sense of inescapable vulnerability as the price of participation in the digital age. Yet the word “participation” itself belies how difficult it would truly be to remove oneself entirely from digital communication and transmission without a serious if not critical impact to one’s quality of life. Given our obligatory membership in the digital age, exploitation in some form seems an inevitable and frightening consequence.
However, the properties of personal computers and the World Wide Web that contribute to their vulnerability to hackers such as Iceman also make them generative technologies. In Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, he defines generativity as, “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” (2009: 70). For example, consider the Microsoft PC. The success of the Windows platform is contingent upon the innovations from third party software developers who can use the Windows platform as a springboard for their own products. The generativity of Windows made possible the development of everything from games to word processing programs. These innovations of course depend on the system’s capacity to accept and execute unfiltered contributions. Even the Apple II, perhaps one of Steve Job’s most significant contributions to computing, invited and enabled its users to fill in the blanks unhindered by regulation or quality control processes (2). Contrast that to the iPhone or iPad which subjects each third-party submission to its platform to a rigorous screening process and we have an example of what Zittrain terms a “sterile appliance,” secure and consistent at the sacrifice of generativity (3).
If we look back to some of the network vulnerabilities that Max Butler and his hacker compatriots exploited, they are also the characteristics of personal computers that contribute to its generativity. For example, one of Max’s first adult acts of mischief was to use a buffer overflow to insert his own rootkit in machines including some which belonged to the U.S. military (26). While buffer overflow attacks can largely be prevented by limiting the length of a user’s input so it can never spill over onto the stack, the fact that any user with a bit of CS knowledge is able to access the internal architecture of memory in a personal computer is at once terrifying and empowering. Thus, a tension exists between the fear of cybercrimes and victimization at the hands of hackers on one hand and the need for platforms that allow users to innovate freely on the other. While the impulse to turn inwards to applications that provide us with a consistent and secure internet experience is tempting, we need to assess what the consequences of this protectionism might mean for the future of the digital age as a holistic whole.