Sunday, September 22, 2013

Speculative fiction of gamification

Wait, what is this gamification?
"[...] online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action—these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and 'free' gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to 'level up.'" 
Gamification: experts expect 'game layers' to expand in the future, with positive and negative results (PDF: Pew Research Center).
I hereby present Tales of Gamification.

Future Londoner Nicki (c) Arup

(1) Tim Maughan, "Zero Hours" (2013), free to read on "Zero Hours" is a spin-off of a collaborative project to imagine ten Londoners in ten years' time. The story presents a grim and eminently plausible vision of a young woman's typical day working in the retail sector, picking up a couple hours here, a couple hours there, and unlocking achievements like Shelf Stacker Pro Level 2 and Shop-Cop Pro.

Best read together with Maughan's "With Augmented Reality, You'll Always Know When No Means Yes" (2014), also on To steady your nerves, you may need a stiff glass of the gushing hype of innumerable well-meaning gamification gurus. See also Maughan's "Limited Edition" (2012) and also possibly "Havana Augmented" (2009) in Paintwork. Earlier on this blog: a review of Paintwork. Elsewhere: Today, Tomorrow: my short talk on near future sf.

(2) Charles Stross, "Life's a Game" (2015) in Twelve Tomorrows 2016. Minor spoilers ahead. "See, gamification is good!" It's somewhat expositional, but I think Stross is on form here: there is polymath erudition and cleversticks wit, and the kind of brio and drive that lets you hurtle over the speed-bumps without necessarily getting every reference or fully unpacking every dense little thesis. "Life's a Game" is full of zingers. "Tribalism is the ground state of identity politics in the network age."  "What if Napoleon's, like, following from in front?" "Keep Britain British, for noncommunist values of British." "Hitler was the Boss Nazi in the Cross of Iron game. They don't teach history in British schools, we have real problems now, terrorists, class warfare. Nobody learns history and lands some expert job in history development. There's no business model for that." "You'll realize you'll lose all your guild followers if we do that?" (OK that one needs the context). The narrator is also a satirical portrait of the UK's answer to Red Piller gamer bro types, although I felt like Stross soft-pedals that aspect a bit.

As the story opens, we learn about Peelers, a monetized, massively multiplayer AR game (with integrated social currency) for snitching and vigilantism. Points for detaining shoplifters, points for helping drunk women home, points for persecuting the profane worshippers of Termagant ... you know, the kind of thing which would turn a racist kidnapper like the Farminator into the leader of the biggest guild in under a week.

But Peelers is just laying the groundwork for Stross's real thought experiment, the Movement, a universal gamification model. (The Movement supposedly implements Kant's categorical imperative, which something I would like to write about properly one day. Maybe once I've read Adam Roberts's new Kantfic too). The Movement mines your data footprint and assigns you clan membership and class features. (Or it lurks in wait next to the space where you should appear -- "If you didn't have a Facebook account, Facebook still knew about you from the hole in their network"). Then it starts to procedurally generate missions and scenarios, built out of the kinds of things you'd be doing anyway. Or perhaps, the kind of things you want to be doing or should be doing -- in fact the point of this gamification is to craftily blur together want to and should in all aspects of life, and ramp up the belligerence of that blurred motive. So your missions could involve anything from green activism to trade unionism to financial speculation to bringing back hanging one way or another.

I now almost feel like I could do with some more stories set in this same future history -- one of the most intriguing threads is all about how the Movement decides who you are in the first place. ("We went deep tribal on the players' media bubbles. We mined their search history to find out what pushed their outrage buttons. Then we went long on principal component analysis to model their micro-class identity.") If these identities really were built bottom-up from data, how closely would they coincide with the kind of taxonomies we already use? And could there be micro-classes with different kinds of reflexivity built into them, i.e. what motivates them is learning and changing per se? And/or an anti-tribalism tribe? And what would it be like if you were one of those people (almost everybody to some extent, right?) feeling like you haven't been perfectly modeled, that the essence which the Movement has inveigled from your digital footprint isn't the real you, and that the conditions you are being thrust into are uncannily awry, like a gargantuan circumambient targeted ad?

(3) Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games (1988), for its game Azad. "Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance." See also Consider Phlebas (1987) for the game Damage, where play involves direct manipulation of players' moods. See also Feersum Endjinn (1994), especially the assaults on the princess in her tower. Earlier on this blog: a post about Banks and games.

You know, this is as good a place as any to ask a question I've yet to find any answers to: what is out there, or in the works, in terms of sophisticated computer modelling of human society, that doesn't take anything for granted, doesn't start with a fixed preconception of the human? Any suggestions, people?

(4) Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). I suppose this is a rare example of -- more-or-less -- a positive presentation of gamification. In Doctorow's post-scarcity Bitchun Society, Whuffie, a kind of public esteem metric, has replaced money.
"[...] they called him Keep-A-Movin’ Dan [...] he somehow grew to take over every conversation I had for the next six months. I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward as he accumulated more esteem from the people he met. [...] I’d expended all the respect anyone had ever afforded me. All except Dan, who, for some reason, stood me to regular beers and meals and movies. [...] I think it came down to us having a good time needling each other. [...] I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace." 
Reviews (Craphound). I compare Whuffie & DRM in the last part of this review-essay.

(5) Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Lucifer's Dragon (2004). Nicely oblique, but it seems like the constitution and political order of New Venice is gamified: see review by Lara Buckerton (Quiche Straight from the Bucket), review by Nathan Brazil (SF Site).

(6) Bruce Sterling, "Maneki Neko" (1998), free reprint available at Lightspeed Magazine, or collected in A Good Old-Fashioned Future (2001). Included in the list mainly for the way it plays with crowdsourcing. "'I’ve been studying your outfit for a long time now. We computer cops have names for your kind of people. Digital panarchies. Segmented, polycephalous, integrated influence networks. What about all these free goods and services you’re getting all this time?'"

(7) Diana Wynne Jones, The Homeward Bounders (1981). Immortal hoodies nudging us around in some sort of cosmic Jenga or Carcassonne or Operation R2-D2 or Jellychess or cross-stitched Final Fantasy-themed limited edition Monopoly or whatever is a venerable and pervasive trope. Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic (1983), Neil Gaiman's Sandman (1989-1996), The Iliad etc. But perhaps we can only talk about gamification proper to the extent that there is a confusion between heavenly and worldly events -- when mortals are invited to pull up a chair and perhaps set a hand on their own shiny little head. See also Jones's Hexwood (1993).

(8) Adam Roberts, New Model Army (2010).  When you think about the gamification of war, you probably think "drones" before you think "e-democracy." Perhaps what's going on in New Model Army is probably more like social soldiering (by analogy with social browsing etc.) than gamification per se. See Nader Elhefnawy's review (Strange Horizons), Jonathan McCalmont's review (Ruthless Culture), Lara Buckerton's review (PDF: originally in Vector).

For dronepunk BTW, see Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game (1985), Francis Crot, Hax (2011), & Miriam A. Cherry's essay on some legal implications of the gamification of work, which talks a bit about Ender's Game.

(9) Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer (1995). This seminal work of postcyberpunk and of steampunk is also a seminal work of gamification SF. All the ingredients of a utopian vision of a comprehensively gamified society are present in the story, but connected and motivated in messy, subtle and unexpected ways.

For instance, we've got these "ractors" (actors in interactive media entertainment), who receive work via a kind of ThespRabbit. An individual employment may go on for years, or be as brief as a few seconds. Crucially, the human inputs are mapped onto avatars: if you were to take over from Jennifer Lawrence for a bit in the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, the media system would autocorrect your voice and perhaps your walrus mustache. (Apologies to the community who are Jennifer Lawrence, who must feel confused and left out by this example). Why is this so important? The general point is that what workers feel that they are doing, and what they are objectively doing in terms of the production chain, can be interfered with at an intimate grain. The necessary unity of any task can be interrogated: is there another way to tease this task apart, to give a bit more of it (or perhaps, a bit less of it) to the machines?

There's plenty more in the book related to gamification: Nell's Night Friends -- Dinosaur, Duck, Peter and Purple -- have an aura of a small primitive social media site; the ecstatic Drummers are a kind of grotesque example of "flow," of loss of ego through immersion in action; there's that stuff about the street vs. the telephone switchboard.

But. The altar piece is clearly the Primer itself -- a majestic technological tome, with shades of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a splendid illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's celebrated maxim that "Any sufficiently magical magic is indistinguishable from magic" -- which somehow floats into the hands of a poor and vulnerable four-year-old girl called Nell. The Primer mediates Nell's world for her, spinning her an epic interactive fairytale (starring "Princess Nell") which allegorises her various violent, abusive and increasingly philosophical predicaments, whilst teaching her all she needs to survive and existentially flourish (martial arts, decorum, hacking, obviously). As The Diamond Age progresses, Nell's book begins to feel more and more like a computer game (clearly influenced by 90s point-and-click adventure games). The convention of using a different font to represent the Primer's text becomes more scarce.

Like most good allegories, the Primer's allegory is a slippery one. The Primer's Queen of the Dark Castle is clearly a correlate of Nell's mother, but the Queen does plenty of significant stuff which doesn't seem inspired by Nell's mother, and vice-versa. Nell's brother Harv appears in the Primer as just Harv, but also seems to have a connection with Peter Rabbit (they disappear around the same time, for instance). There's not a one-to-one cipher: correlations come and go. You get the impression that the allegory might work a bit like the racting: 'let's see what's available at the moment.'

Likewise, Nell doesn't simply unlock achievements in her Primer or advance to the next story by demonstrating she has mastered some real world skill. Nor does the Primer elide its fairytale with her surroundings so that winning the game is indistinguishable from winning life. The Primer informs and incentivises, it provokes action, but it also comforts, cares, offers the solaces of shrouds and distortions, and immersive escapism. The relations between game and extra-game world can be just as slippery and mercurial as the relations of allegory.

(10) Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008). Why Collins and not JK Rowling's Triwizard Tournament, for instance? What exactly is gamified here? Well, perhaps governmentality is. Extremely-high-stakes reality TV, and the gladiatorial model welfare state: that's another slippery slope into a huge list . . . compare perhaps Koushun Takami's Battle Royale (1999), Stephen King's The Running Man (1982) and The Long Walk (1979), Matthew Stover's Acts of Caine series, Edgar Rice Burrough's The Chessmen of Mars (1922).

& a few honourable mentions:

(11) Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). I mean the bit where Tom gets the fence painted. (Compare this essay (Quid PDF) on the poet John Wilkinson. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Tom sort of gamifies springing Jim from imprisonment).

(12) Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief (2010). Game theory gets its own reality-mangling super-army. (Game theory seems to be SF's favourite piece of economics (Charles Stross's Singularity Sky and Peter Watts's Blindsight also spring to mind). Economists, typically, don't see fun as in any way essential to the concept of a game. For game theorist economists, a game is simply a class of multi-agent mathematical model within which all motivations must be axiomatic -- you can posit an agent who rationally pursues happiness, sure, or one who wants misery or funereal squalor all the time. GG economist dudes).

(13) Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken (2011). This is futurism and polemic, not fiction. "What if we used everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality? [...] I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality." The book fizzes with neologisms, some of which are probably useful. One of the great things about McGonigal's book is that it attempts a distinct account of what a game actually is for the purposes of gamification -- an account grounded in psychology and a bit of armchair (/ beanbag) anthropology of gamers. (Sorry, Prisoner's Dilemma, I don't think you qualify. Your fiero sucks).

(14) The Blog Monetiser's Daughter (2013). Not a real book though.

(15) Roberto Benigni's 1997 film Life is Beautiful.

(16) Newb Maps of Hell (2014). Again, issue is this book doesn't exist. (UPDATE: OK, now it does, I made it).

(17) Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987), for Richard Macduff's all-singing, all-dancing spreadsheet software, capable of representing data as music.

(18) Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). Language-gamified philosophy.

(19) Neil Strauss's The Game (2007). Sexually predatory misogyny is often fairly game-like to start with; the Pick Up Artist phenomenon pushes it a little further.

(20) Joe Simpson's memoir about climbing down a gigantic mountain with a broken leg, Touching the Void (1988). Have a look at these excerpts.

(21) Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (1943). The Game is "a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property -- on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe."

(22) Yoon Ha Lee's "The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars" (2013). I think it's a pretty splendid adventure fable, with a jewelly-type pistol you could whip out in any bar in Beerlight and everything. It has a really weird ontology to do with a continuum of wars, the sum war of which is fought for the universe's laws, and a tower which leads underground to every possible game -- games have to be mined before they can be played. I can't spot gamification per se, but there are themes (that you also get in a lot of Banks) which get pretty close: themes of linked games, of moves which exist in multiple games at once, of games which are themselves pieces nested inside larger games, etc.

(23) Catherynne M. Valente's "The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch over the Bride of the World" (2013).

(24) Rose Biggin's "A Game Proposition" (2014) collected in Irregularity. I like the voice here, and the way it keeps slightly telling you off for slightly wrongly imagining things. And I'm a little nervous to ever read it again, in case the text is different. "Now then, you haven't understood Reader Response Theory at all, dear reader," I think it begins. There is a board game which serves as a kind of control panel, kind of like Wynne Jones / Pratchett q.v., and there is a rather beautiful inter-nesting of games, or of interpretations of what "the game" is, which results in losing one of them perhaps being a element of winning another of them. It also makes me think that more instruments of command and control probably should be explicitly ludic objects.

(25) If something influences a game, and the game becomes very popular, does the original thing become more game-like, more gameful? See Advanced Readings in D&D.

(26) I've just bought Press Start to Play (2015) ed. John Joseph Adams and Daniel H. Wilson, so perhaps I'll get to add a few more tales of gamification soon. Cory Doctorow's "Anda's Game" isn't about gamification in a strict sense (this isn't a very strict listicle!), but it is about gaming, gold-farming, and those circuits of reality that integrate in-game and IRL components. Also, it's a subtle response to -- an updating of, maybe? -- Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Ender, you may recall, thinks he's playing a game, but he's really a prodigal supergeneral conducting genocide on behalf of Mankind. It's a twist so obvious, you can't help but think Ender partly knows all along, but doesn't want to break the spell. In "Anda's Game," Anda and Lucy are even more actively complicit than Ender. They ignore the glaring signs that their in-game massacres have real-world consequences. (Eventually Anda wises up, and there's a kind of happy-ish ending. Kind of). The story made me wonder if you could apply game design principles (feedback loops etc.) to the analysis of ideology. Like a lot of Doctorow's near future stuff, it feels like science fiction, but sends you Googling to work out what, if anything, has actually been made up.

(27) Gamified tax return cartoon.

(28) Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror Episode "15 Million Merits."

(29) Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2011).

(30) "The Internet of Things Your Momma Never Told You" and "Marta and the Demons" by me. Cf. Jamie MacDonald's Movement in Stross's "Life's a Game" q.v. and Encarl's Smart Singularity from "The Internet of ..." in the same volume.

(31) The Uncanny Valley, a short film about VR addiction.

Hexwood (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), The Diamond Age (1995), Life is Beautiful (1997): is it just me, or does the mid-90s have a bumper crop of beautifully achieved, high-concept works about the endless possibilities of data visualisation, and about immersive fantasy which remains closely moored to an underlying reality, enabling acts whose significance unfolds in two realms simultaneously?

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