Last weekend, my husband made the bold choice to let our young son play The Stanley Parable. I am not entirely sure the kid can articulate the subtext, but he’s definitely understanding bit by bit. For example, when he got to the infamous “baby game” – where the player is told to press a button to repeatedly stop a fire from consuming a cutout of a baby – he instinctively realized the futility, the trick of it, and opted out. He wasn’t fooled by gamification.
He definitely didn’t click the button for four hours. But some people do.
Granted, The Stanley Parable is a game designed to explore the meta of this problem. It’s working as intended, quite literally. You’re supposed to think about these things. That’s the whole point.
But other games? And online games? They don’t want you to think too hard. If you start thinking, you stop pushing. They just keep the buttons coming.
I started thinking more about gamification gone awry after MOP reader Sally tipped us off to an Aeon piece about how companies and governments gamify every bit of mundane work their low-level employees suffer through. They use electronic monitoring to track, for example, how many towels a worker has folded. And then they turn it into a “game” to try to make everyone work even harder.
“Every worker’s name was compared with the names of coworkers, each one colour-coded like traffic signals. If you were keeping up with the goals of management, your name was displayed in green. If you slowed down, your name was in yellow. If you were behind, your name was in red. Managers could see the monitors from their office, and change production targets from their computers. Each laundry machine would also monitor the rate of worker input, and flash red and yellow lights at the workers directly if they slowed down.”
That’s dystopian enough, but it’s worse: Apparently, even employees who detested being excessively monitored and encouraged to chase a leaderboard couldn’t ignore it. As one union organizer told the publication, laundry machines would “flash” at workers when work slowed, until employees “felt like they couldn’t stop.” In fact, the “electronic whip,” as workers called it, led to a higher rate of injuries and people skipping bathroom breaks as “the formerly collegial environment degenerated into a race” and folks “got upset when coworkers couldn’t keep up.”
The recovering hardcore MMO raiders in our audience are probably nodding to themselves right about now, thinking of all the garbage food they ate, the late nights, the tongue-lashings they got in voice chat from raid leaders, how many times they held their pee for one more crack at the last boss. The game, and their fellow players, manipulated them into that. And they didn’t even get paid for it.
Aeon’s focus is naturally the horrors of gamifying work. In MMOs, however, the problem is slightly different: We workified games, and now we’re regamifying that.
I don’t think I’m saying anything revolutionary here. MMO players have been using the words “grind” and “grindy” to describe gameplay at least all the way back to Ultima Online, and I presume long before that too. Early MMOs asked us to work, whether that work came as crafting or killing. They ask us to perform repetitive, often boring tasks: chop trees for logs, gather ore from that mine, deliver this letter, forge armor, cast 500 spells for .1 increase in skill – yes, even kill ten rats for experience so you can kill ten slightly stronger rats. The tit-for-tat of these tasks was overt: Do a thing and get a thing. And then those tasks, and task-measuring devices like levels, were artificially elongated to keep us subscribing.
It’s tempting to assume that the key difference between MMORPGs and RPGs back then was the online massively multiplayer element; it’s right there in the name, after all. But I think the more powerful difference was the fact that games like Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, and KOTOR wouldn’t have dared expect players to work. That was something MMOs did, following in the footsteps of the MUDs before them. MMOs weren’t about storylines; they were about living in a world. And you can’t have a truly living world, a life simulation, without work (we can barely conceive of a holodeck-life, we children of work-ethic culture). Work, more than time or money, became the proximate measure of your value in the simulation.
And for a lot of people, that was boring. We have enough real work without paying to work in a game, right? Consequently, when World of Warcraft arrived in 2004, it honed and then mainstreamed the gamification of MMO work by replacing obvious work tasks (like killing a thousand dragons to level up) with storylines and quests that more mirrored single-player RPGs than MMOs. The “grind” was still there, but it was hidden behind layers of flavor text that posed as content, or at least as more palatable chores. We moved from skills to levels: Instead of practicing a skill over and over, we simply completed our checklist of levelbanded honey-do tasks, over and over, and followed that up with our checklist of dungeons, hoping the skinner box would reward us with the shiny this time.
Certainly, there were MMO players who saw through that veneer even then, who preferred the “honest” work of, say, running digital factories in Star Wars Galaxies or EVE Online to running dungeons for RNG drops in World of Warcraft clones; that sandbox/themepark divide was there from the start. But the decline of the MMO market in the last half decade has brought the conflict to a head as game studios contend with recasting gamification to work with the new monetization and the scramble for headcount. They’re not content with gamifying the core loop of the game; now they’re gamifying everything.
Consider how MMO guilds have changed over the years. I’ve written at length about how MMO guilds have been gamified to absurdity and obsolescence; where once they were little more than chat channels, in some MMOs they became games of their own, with levels and perks and rewards and even special quests. Or consider login campaigns, like the sprawling multi-month Elder Scrolls Online affair, which transform participation into a complicated ordeal of hoop-jumping in exchange for a distant reward. Think about how even when sex and romance are added to MMOs and RPGs, they’re framed as minigames (Revival literally planned an orgasm minigame). Or how about the gamification of exploration? It’s not enough to simply create an explorable world; some MMOs turn even “going places” into a reward track.
And if you gamify things like this too hard – if you turn all motivation into extrinsic motivation – people won’t do anything without it, and pretty soon we have a whole crop of new gamers who go into virtual world MMOs and have no idea what to do, not because of “hand-holding” – I hate this term – but because they feel lost without the carrot and the stick.
Every achievement system in every game is basically an attempt at solving this (perceived) problem: When the game itself is not enough to keep you playing it – and paying for it – it introduces new layers, new tasks, new chores, new methods of “progression” along new tracks, new ways of measuring your, well, work, all while trying to hide its true nature.
And don’t even start me on the monetized gamification known as lockboxes.
At some point, a lot of players opt out. They don’t burn out; they just push back from their desks and say, thanks but nah. When you realize that every quest is another cardboard baby, another psychological trick, then you, like my son, stop pushing that button. And all the gamification in the world can’t fix that. Over-gamification got us here. It’s not the way back out.