Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Gamified Personal Finance

What is gamification? You could describe it as the extension of principles of game design, with or without the language of games themselves, into new territories. Gamification in this sense tries to transform tedious tasks into fun ones, or at least into less intimidating tasks.

Jane McGonigal, in her polemic Reality is Broken, outlines a kind of phenomenology of gameplay, complete with gameplay-specific emotions (Fiero, Epic Win, etc.). For McGonigal, gamification is about introducing these feelings into socially necessary or useful practices. And perhaps you could think of gamification as finding ways to introduce all kinds of positive feelings – not just those associated with gameplay – into socially necessary or useful practices. In this approach, gamification is about turning the means to an end into ends in and of themselves.

A slightly different way of understanding gamification, however, is simply as a specific set of conventions for communicating an incentive structure. The incentive structure may be backed up by storytelling and rhetoric, by quantifiable status within a community, by money or some other kind of claims on goods and services, or perhaps by nothing at all. The conventions – effectively an ensemble of data visualisation/conceptualisation techniques, such as a character class system, an array of interrelated stats, the chance to level up, the accumulation and completion of quests and side quests, bosses to defeat, achievements to unlock, and a leaderboard to scale – originate with computer games, but don’t have any necessary link with them.

Here’s an illustration of how gamification, understood in this second sense, might be used to create a new kind of current account product. Most banks are inherently unstable insofar as they loan long and borrow short. They face a maturity mismatch problem. Most deposits tend to be short term. Most loans tend to be long term – mortgages, for instance. The bank can’t turn up at somebody's house, type in its PIN, and withdraw the £100,000 equity it owns in that person's house.

Did you know you can now bank online?

In a gamified current account, a depositor would be asked on a regular basis to log in and set withdrawal requirements for the next time period. For the depositor, the aim of the game is to choose withdrawal requirements which are as low as possible, and then stick to them. There will be financial rewards for doing this successfully, and financial penalties for doing it poorly.

To take a very simple example, say a current account holder has $100 on deposit. The account holder decides that they will never require more than $40 net throughout the next quarter. They set the slider to $50 (giving themselves a $10 buffer) and click “commit.” So for the next three months, $50 is on loan to the bank at a very low rate of interest as a sight deposit – the account holder can withdraw it whenever they want – and the other $50 is a kind of short-term bond, earning a higher rate of interest. If the account holder withdraws more than $50 over the next quarter, they are effectively selling part of their bond before it reaches maturity – i.e. at a lower value.

When the account holder does not actively set the slider, the account eventually reverts to an ordinary current account, until whenever the account holder next chooses to play. There could be one or two other mechanisms: unlocking achievements to give the account holder one-off liquidity boosts, etc.

As a side note, there could even perhaps be a social / community aspect to this system. For instance, account holders could ratchet up a score when they transfer their excess liquidity to account holders who need it (who have underestimated their liquidity needs for the period). I am intrigued by the possibility that different ways of communicatively integrating a group of borrowers and lenders, and different ways of allowing them to visualise and conceptualise their individual and collective interests, might achieve different levels of robustness, and different levels of resistance to panic.

The current account, in other words, would be transformed into a flexible, intuitive portfolio of different kinds of debt, whose mechanisms would be mostly traceable to the bank’s need to make maturity matches.

Clearly there are a large number of issues – to do with game design, implementation, legal underpinnings, nudge economics, and wider social impact and ethics – and were such an idea to be developed by commercial retail bank I would treat it with outright terror. In principle, however, it seems like a promising way of mitigating the sharp maturity discrepancy at the heart of the fractional reserve banking system.

And as a final note, one possible area of application would be in the construction of an alternative community currency – both in terms of attracting users by the novelty of the system, and perhaps also in making a lower reserve ratio possible, allowing a relatively larger money supply to exist on the basis of a given injection of conventional currency.

Earlier: science fiction of gamification. See especially Tim Maughan’s entries on that list for a bit of perspective on shiny new ideas for gamification.

Elsewhere: SMBC on gamification.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

February: a few links

Self-publishing vs. (or, and) traditional publishing. Chuck Wendig plays indie publishing Bingo. Damien G. Walter asks if self-publishing is killing the mainstream and welcomes our new viral bookseller overlords. Charles Stross buys Baboon Fart Story. Ramez Naam says we're all on the same side. You know what traditional publishing seems to have that indie publishing doesn't have so much? Prizes. You know what we could do? Have a big prize thing where every entrant reads three randomly assigned books, to filter out a short list. You know what we need? A patron.

SFWA stupid petition snafu. Steven Brust on the petition. SL Huang's timeline of the 2013 SFWA controversies. Sarah Hoyt's perspective, with some animated GIFs. Black Gate on ew, and Mary Robinette Kowal responding. Juliet E. McKenna on why the SFWA shoutback matters. Challenge for 2014 is to see who can get even better writers than Harlan Ellison, Mike Resnick, Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, Barry N. Malzberg and (my old MindFlight buddy!) Amy Sterling Casil to sign something even dumber. I want stuff like "We, John Le Carré, Doris Lessing, and Salman Rushdie, are a total duoche LOL. PSP We will du the prise for indys thing you made up kx." Earlier: Mary Robinette Kowal requests the twelve weasels of the SFWA shut the fuck up.

& recently here at Aargh! né Lorraine:
Or even ... here's a screwy, moonstruck old thought! Could some of the established awards open up a new self-published category?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How do you like that apple?

Jan Pierewiet, Jan Pierewiet, Jan Pierewiet staan stil.
Jan Pierewiet, Jan Pierewiet, Jan Pierewiet staan stil.
Goeie môre, my vrou, hier's 'n soentjie vir jou.
Goeie môre, my man, daar is koffie in die kan. 
 — psychotic space mercenary

Elysium is a big science fiction blockbuster which tries to be as clear in its allegory as possible. In a smart review over at Tor.com, Tim Maughan talks about how Elysium allegorises "denial of universal healthcare, dystopian immigration policies [...] the ever-growing gap between the rich and poor," and, in particular, drone warfare. Elysium, of course, also sounds a lot like asylum.

Talking over the film recently with @HMittelmark and @PrinceJvstin, the point arose that, whatever you think about allegorising the real injustice we do have, and about allegorising the more just social order we could have (go for it, I say!), allegory has a really tough time knowing how to represent the transition between the two.

In Elysium that gap in the allegory, not surprisingly, doesn't remain empty. Instead it organises itself into theology.

Max Damon is Christ. Spoiler alert: at the end of the Gospels, Christ dies, so that everyone else can be saved.

What's really striking is how strongly the iconography of Elysium supports this.

A little before Max's final sacrifice, the camera even lingers on a ribbon of blood streaming from his hand.

Then there's Max's exoskeleton. It is hard not to read this as a powered, articulated version of the True Cross.

Unbelievably, Max even has a kind of nimbus or halo. It's slightly cropped in this pic.

If that glowing blue interface had been circular it would have made the association even stronger, although there are examples of square halos, usually denoting that the holy person is still alive. Christ himself often has a cross in his halo, and sometimes some words. Whether Christ's halo is touchscreen is unknown.

Of course, Max isn't the only one in an exoskeleton that sports such an interface -- although interestingly, Kruger's halo get plucked out during the War in Heaven, shortly before he gets cast down to his fiery doom.

"Will it hurt?" asks Max. The identification of the exoskeleton with the True Cross lends a particular reverence to the scene in which it is screwed into Max's body. I wonder if, given the large amount of theological reflection involving spiritual movement towards or away from Christ, and perhaps involving entrance into Christ; and given the devotional tradition of the Sacred Heart, which pinpoints Christ's divine love more precisely in His chest; and given the equally meticulous and controversial study of the physical arrangements of the Passion (e.g. Jehovah's witnesses interpreting the word stauros as "stake" rather than "cross,"), there is any theology uniting these topics? And if so, what would that theology make of Elysium's shift from the movement of the nails, perpendicular to Christ's heart, to the movement of the screws, both perpendicular and (in the turning of their helix threads) towards and away from His heart in many minuscule twisting trajectories?

Anyway, I suppose to a secular watcher, all this iconography produces a kind of back-and-forth tussle. Does the allegory about universal healthcare, drone warfare, and systemic and direct violence against refugees get captured by the theological allegory, and therefore turned into mystical hokum, into weak, wishful thinking? Or does the theological allegory get captured by the allegory about universal healthcare, drone warfare, and refugees -- drawing on a force which has shaped culture and ethics for centuries, and bringing it to bear on specific, unmistakable policy issues?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Little Graeb Men

SF seems fond of David Graeber. Hopefully it's because he's from the future.

Charles Stross's book Neptune's Brood, which I'm reading now, has an epigraph from Graeber's Debt: the first 5,000 Years, and some galactic expansionist riffing on that book. UPDATE: Charlie talks about the relationship between the two books.

Here's Jo Walton (the other Jo Walton) at Tor.com on Graeber, worldbuilding and the social imaginary.

And here's Cory Doctorow noting Jo Walton's article -- light of touch, but with discussion below. Also see Cory Doctorow on Stross's Neptune's Brood.

And a review of Neptune's Brood at Strange Horizons by Matt Hilliard.

And I mentioned Jo Walton's article in my list of economic speculative fiction.

Here's Kevin Murphy on David Graeber and 1960s schoolkids predicting the future.

Also see Graeber's response to a seminar event (including some academic trashtalk) about Debt. Though no sci-fi here folks. (Besides, I prefer the term scien fictio).

Although before there was Debt there was Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, one of two (maybe three, really) books which inspired Francis Crot (AKA me) in writing Hax, which is kind of almost disgusting enough utopian dystopian science fiction or something. A lot of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is about how anarchist societies stay anarchist, how their social institutions are oriented towards vigorously stamping out any inchoate first stirrings of a state. (Hardly anyone can read Hax. I think the trick is to read the prose bits first, and then just browse the visual bits. Hax trivia: in the Damn the Caesars version, it all starts with a gunshot. In the Punch Press version, with a protest).

See also an earlier post of mine, inspired by the economic anthropological activism of Brett Scott, which is part of an extended project to get my head around what money actually is, perhaps so I can destroy it. Notable mainly for its creation myth about "soldiers and farmers," which is as least as intuitive and elegant an explanation of the origins of money as the orthodox "barter and the double coincidence of wants problem" version, and may have the advantage of a grain of truth.

Note on not knowing what's up

You again.

I've been thinking a bit about how SF short stories, when they bunch up, often turn into novels. And how so many SF novels feel like sequences of linked short stories.

The SF fluidity between short form and long form is exemplified by the ubiquity of the fix-up. This sort of picaresque mode no doubt has a lot to do with the history of SF publishing, and the traditional career of the SF writer, working their way up through the short fiction to the novel, from the novel to undying glory and ecstasy. It probably also has to do with the voyages of the starships Enterprise.

But I wonder if it also has to do with the special kind of negative capability native to SF. That is, with the relative willingness of the SF reader to be "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (Keats). Does intertextuality sometimes piggyback on the greater allowances SF readers make for the unknown? Can a SF story stand alone more easily than a realist story, or a detective story perhaps, because when a reader sees a character hurrying off, acting all portentous and weird, making a bunch of baffling references, then doing something inexplicable, possibly fatal or whatever -- then that reader can extend to them the same affable tolerance they would to the yawning of a wormhole, or the yawing of a warp-drive? Are the souls of SF characters as much phlebotinum as they are ectoplasm? Are they, perhaps, not woven into the story, so much as built into the world?