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Gamification nation

  • 03 November 2022
I’m on the Microsoft Bing web browser when I notice a little gold trophy in the top right corner of the screen. I click on it and it tells me I can earn points! For gift cards! And to donate to charities! Just for using Microsoft Bing! The number 200 is next to the trophy, which I assume is how many points I have. Amazing, I think. Something for nothing. Which is never true.

Gamification is defined by Oxford Languages as ‘the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service’. Think Fitbits, Flybuys, Twitter likes, Frequent Flyers, and Loyalty Cards.

The word emerged in the 2010s and Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding argue in their book The Gameful World that the social media check-in app Foursquare served as the blueprint. The authors outline gaming elements now omnipresent in just about every app: points, avatars, badges (ie. ‘gym rat’), leader boards, ‘mayorships’ and real-life rewards.

Stripping activities of their intrinsic value, virtually any online activity could be transformed into a challenge to win, from learning languages to online dating. Swipe, swipe, swipe, a never-ending parade of potential mates. Maybe one day you’ll win Forever Love!

Gaming philosopher C. Thi Nguyen talks about the gamification of social media: ‘Twitter scores our conversation. And it does so not in terms of our own particular and rich purposes for communication, but in terms of its own preloaded, painfully-thin metrics — likes, retweets, and follower counts. And if we take up Twitter’s invitation and internalize those evaluations, we’ll be thinning out and simplifying our own goals for communication.’ We tweet what we know will resound through our network, reverberating with feedback. Outrage spreads like wildfire across the Twitterverse so in order for a tweet to score highly on engagement metrics, there's a logic to broadcasting strong political opinions rather than a picture of the sandwich you had for lunch. 

Developer Adrian Hon developed the app Zombies, Run! in 2012. It’s like an audiobook meets an exercise app where you’re a character in a zombie apocalypse and need to run to escape, while your workout is tracked. It was globally successful, with over ten million downloads.

But like the out-of-control virtual zombie hoard he created, Hon is now concerned about how gamification is being