Capitalism, Consumption, and Un-Gamification: Passing Thoughts on Wealth Accumulation

Isaac Hollander McCreery, 11 July 2016

Gamification has recently joined the ranks of apps (1), and bacon (2) as a Good Idea to Apply Everywhere. It’s not yet clear if it will be as damaging as marketization, which has held GIAE status for my entire life thanks to Milton, but it certainly seems to be potent. Juno Hamari, Principal Researcher at the Game Research Lab, writes, says,

Gamification has been defined as a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioral outcomes.

Figure out what emotionally motivates people, and build dynamics into an experience to take advantage of those motivators. People are now trying to gamify almost everything. In a different paper, Hamari writes,

Gamification has already been applied in several areas, including the promotion of greener energy consumption (Nissan Leaf), building loyalty towards TV channels (GetGlue), taking care of one’s health (Fitocracy), and even for gamifying the tracking of one’s aspirations in life (Mindbloom).

For many years, well-designed games have glued people to their computers and home and cellphones on buses. At 26, I don’t recall a world before computer games. The latest Pokémon Go craze brings it to the next level, proving that powerful emotional rewards and game dynamics have not only the ability to keep us glued to our couches and screens, but also the ability to control where we go outside of our homes. Social media dynamics provide another familiar example: how great does it feel to get a like on your post or photo?

Neoclassical economists argue that people act rationally, and games would certainly be no different. Maximize utility; in this case, engineered emotional rewards. A striking similarity exists between the engineered game experiences we see more and more and the engineered food experiences we’ve seen for a long time: just walk into the next gas station store you see and have a look around.

Another important rationality, though, is wealth accumulation. It is simply a rational pursuit of survival, the neoclassical economist would argue; and, for the wealthy whose survival is more or less taken care of, it’s the pursuit of pleasure. In my experience, though, growing up in a wealthy neighborhood and then, after college, working in tech for a year, past a certain point, rational pursuit of maximization of survival or pleasure no longer really has hold. Yes, if you’re making $40,000 a year in Seattle, an extra $5,000 will go a ways in getting you more of the consumption we are all addicted to: coffee, concert tickets, whatever. But for the ultrarich whom Robert H. Frank writes about in Luxury Fever, wealth accumulation and its first cousin consumption don’t seem to look at all like survival or even pleasure. They look like a game.

The game dynamics at play here, namely competition (Frank goes into great detail) and quantification of success (dollars) and to a certain extent checkpoints (luxury consumption such as a 500-foot yacht, also discussed by Frank), are powerful. And as the wealth divide becomes more and more divided between the 1% and the 99%, with the flow and accumulation of capital increasingly controlled by the select few, ultrarich capitalists, economics starts looking (to me) less like a complex system or invisible hand and more like a game.

So with all of the research going into effective gamification, what I want to know is, how do we un-gamify an experience? How do we un-gamify the accumulation of wealth?

(1) Over the past few years, I’ve learned to all but turn off my ears after people learn that I know how to write code: “Oh, cool! So I have this great idea. It’s an app, see, and…”

(2) Bacon cheeseburgers are reasonable, I suppose; chocolate-covered bacon is questionable. Bacon Soda definitely seems to me like something we could live without.