With his customary understatement, my Georgia Tech colleague Ian Bogost has famously pointed out that Gamification is Bullshit, or more precisely “marketing bullshit” whose purpose is “to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business.” I know what he means and I am also often skeptical of the more benevolent arguments for “gamification,” such Jane McGonigal’s heartfelt argument that games are the best way to ensure human survival in the next century. What McGonigal ignores is that human culture is already completely gamified – how else to explain the deep pleasure in synchronizing our behavior with one another, in finding symbolic meaning in arbitrary symbols like vocalized sound and scratches in stone? We are hard-wired to enjoy all the things that make up games and we have already used all of those pleasure-producing and obsession-engendering mechanics to shape everything from language to tax codes to traffic lights to war strategies. For good or bad, the world is already profoundly gamified — so we had better pay attention to the hands we have already been dealt.
But I am sympathetic to the excitement around digital games, because computation has indeed given us a new way to express our understanding of complex systems. We can make and share videogames just as we can make and share essays or films, as shared media object that allow us to externalize our understanding of something in human experience, as comedy, tragedy, satire, moral fable, heroic adventure, whimsical conundrum or however we want to express it. And sometimes it is clear that ONLY A GAME could fully express a particular interpretation of the world
For example, consider the case of Game Dev Tycoon which is available in a paid version, but which was also slyly released as a cracked bit torrent file in a version that the developers altered to simulate the effects of software pirating on the small entrepreneur. In other words, they gamified the experience of being ripped off so the people who played their game without paying for it would experience the same frustration they felt at not being able to support themselves by their work because people thought it should be free.
The officially-cracked version Game Dev Tycoon is a gamification of game piracy. It has some things in common with the more commercial and messianic versions of gamification: enticing the player with something fun that has an ulterior aim, blurring the boundaries between the real and the fictional (the cracked game is not really the fully playable version), and it is directed at both commercial gain and political enlightenment. But unlike most instances of gamification it does not distract players away from the task at hand (buying sugar water, saving kilowatts) with extrinsic rewards like trophies or leaderboards. Instead it takes an action that is usually done blindly and throws a spotlight on it, forcing players to experience their own behavior from the opposite point of view, and inviting them to zoom out and see the larger system in which their real world actions are implicated. I don’t know if the officially-cracked version will succeed in selling a lot of legal copies of Game Dev Tycoon or in changing people’s minds about downloading pirated games. But I am sure that it will endure as a useful design example of how to use game mechanics to satirically reframe the rule sets of our profoundly gamified social world.