Monday, October 1, 2012

Gamification and the plummet of society into a deep, dark chasm



Driving 101 to our office in Redwood Shores, it's hard to miss the giant billboard advertising Bunchball, the "leader in gamification."  Gamification is a buzzword you hear a lot in Silicon Valley these days.  Companies are using game thinking and gaming strategies to engage customers, motivate employees and build brands.  LiveOps, for example, uses badges and leader boards to encourage their virtual call agents to participate in eLearning.  Even Playboy is using gamification to attract a younger demographic.  Companies like Bunchball are making a business out of helping other companies gamify their websites and applications.
 
Venture capitalists and product designers alike are excited about making it all fun and games.  But it's not just the corporate world that is gaga for gamification.  Inevitably, it's flowing into education and other spheres that involve our children.  An increasing number of educators are espousing the benefits of gamification in the classroom.  Parents are turning to Zamzee to motivate their children to get off the couch.  A 2011 study points to the cognitive, emotional and social benefits of gaming.

Gamification sure has some rabid enthusiasts out there.  Gabe Zichermann is one of them.  During the TedxKids@Brussels event in 2011, he described himself to the audience as "in many ways... a parent's sort of dream of how somebody can turn a sedentary lifestyle playing video games into an actual career that pays real money."  He went on to make a case that video games increase fluid intelligence and even suggested that the Flynn effect - the fact that IQ has been rising year over year since the 1990s- is more than just coincidental with the proliferation of increasingly-complex video games.  

As for concerns that video games make our kids hyper or inattentive, Gabe puts this out there: "Is it that our children have ADD, or is our world just too freakin' slow for our children to appreciate?"  He flips to a slide showing an older gentleman in a chair.  "Sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to read a good book with a cup of tea... like, I just have to say, I don't think that today's kids are ever going to do that."

Sorry, Gabe, but you lost me at “Hello".  

I'm honestly trying to remain open-minded about all this.  I do think that game thinking is being applied in some innovative and promising ways.  But frankly, I'm turned off - and kind of scared.  Are we grooming a generation of impatient, reward-driven future adults?  They may be better multitaskers, maybe even multitaskers with higher IQs - but I'm not convinced that's what the world needs most right now.  Does IQ cure apathy, ennui, isolation and self-absorption-- or might it actually feed them?  And multitasking: isn't there a downside when nothing gets our full attention anymore - even our children? 

If kids are growing up in a world where gamification is so pervasive, where everything from their education to their in-vehicle driving experience is being formulated as a series of blinking, animated challenges, targets and trophies, I worry that their brains are  being wired to respond only when a certain kind of stimulus is presented.  Are we doing them a favor by making life imitate games?

Intelligence isn't much use if our kids grow up too impatient or distracted to apply it in more than 30-second bursts.  More to the point: it's not all about being smart.  How do video games do at developing empathy or initiative?  Will our kids have the patience to stick with a struggling business?  What teaches them that even when life isn’t fun, you don’t walk away from it?  How will this generation cope with chronically-ill family members, babies who keep you up crying all night?  What does gamification do to our sense of community, our interpersonal relationships, and our spirituality?  Can video games teach resolve, integrity, loyalty, tenacity – when there is no explicit reward at the end of the tunnel?  Will our kids be able to read how someone is feeling by looking at their eyes?  How do games teach us to cope with death?  

I can envision the defenses some would formulate to these questions.  But I think the answer is simple: they can't.  Games are definitely fun.  They definitely have their value as learning tools.  My kids really enjoy them.  But I limit them for a reason, and I worry about the pundits out there who wave away my concerns (and my passionate love of reading.)


The other night, before school was back in session, I was lying in bed with my older daughter. She was worrying about how hard it is for her to pay attention in class, and she wanted to do well in fifth grade.  She thought something was wrong with her. “I have to tell you a secret,” I whispered.  “Everybody has trouble paying attention in class.  It’s the human condition.”  ADD and ADHD are biochemical disorders.  But not everyone who struggles to pay attention has a biochemical disorder. 

The way I see it, there are are two ways to deal with our collective attention deficit.  One is to pare out the parts of life that are not exciting because they don’t offer instant gratification or stimulation.  We can gamify our life – through product marketing, employee motivation, and even education techniques that offer explicit challenges, points and rewards.  We can put our kids in front of the screen and let them play.  We can, as Gabe Zichermann has, take the stance that life is just too slow, and that technology has the power to change that. 

Or we can take the position that patience is (still) a virtue.  That grit and perseverance build leaders, and that the world needs thoughtful, committed leaders now more than ever.  That the brain is a muscle that can be conditioned to pay attention, given the right calisthenics.  That good things come to those who wait - and that while we need to tackle the world's problems with a sense of urgency, it's going to take time, diplomacy, creativity, and the willingness to try and try again, even when it is utterly unexciting to do so and there are no points involved.  That there is value in muscling through boredom, and that some of the most vital creativity comes when the mind is still.

I know which way I lean.