“I had never heard of the virtual pilgrimages of the Middle Ages,” says Adrian Hon, a game designer.
"But I saw that they were like the Fitbit bracelet," he adds.
Not everyone could make religious pilgrimages centuries ago.
Virtual tours were created for them inside convents or at home.
Thus they could show that they passed stages and obtained the precious indulgences, which were a prize of the royal pilgrimages to go to heaven.
"Now we think about those people who did things like that or paid for indulgences and we say how stupid they were," explains Hon, who is 40 years old and is English.
“But there was a reason, they believed in that religion and they thought it was important.
What will they think of us in 300 years?
Someone in the future will wonder what we were doing, why we wanted to have retweets and
on Twitter ”, she adds.
From indulgences to retweets there is a long and strange connection: the increasing gamification of our lives.
Hon, founder of a video game company and neuroscientist, has spent years thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of gamification, which is using video game ideas for a purpose other than entertainment.
He has now just published a book that summarizes his reflections, at the moment only published in English:
You've been played
[”You have been played”, in Spanish].
The subtitle of it is “How companies, governments and schools use games to control us all”.
The book does not currently have a planned Spanish translation.
You've Been Played is out TOMORROW in the UK!
If you're remotely interested in how gamification has become embedded in phones, schools, workplaces, governments, finance, and social media, this is for you.
Get it from your local bookstore or online!
— Adrian Hon (@adrianhon) September 14, 2022
Gamification has crept into jobs in warehouses like Amazon, in banks, in the same conspiracies, in creating addictive video games, in sports.
“They use things like points, medals, levels, or missions, and apply to something that isn't as fun, like working out or learning languages,” Hon says. Some uses make sense and can help entertain.
But it is easy to exceed those limits.
EL PAÍS has spoken by videoconference with Hon, who lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).
These are some of his main ideas.
1. Today everything is data
As with indulgences, there are people who tell Hon that this gamification thing has always happened.
There is a substantial difference that changes everything, says Hon: “Now we have much more data in real time.
It's very different when you can get a notification on your phone that says 'hey, you did this five seconds ago, now do something else' than it used to be in the past.”
In addition, of course, that there are more screens where you can play everything at all times.
2. Are the internet points on purpose?
Internet is a huge game.
All social networks and pages include or allow some type of classification: followers, likes, views, visits.
They are “internet points”.
“This has already changed our behavior,” says Hon. “These gamified systems on networks already change what we choose to publish.
I make a tweet myself and depending on how it goes I think about how to redo it.
I change the behavior based on the score I receive.
If I didn't have the punctuation, I couldn't adapt my attitude accordingly.
We've only had this for 15 or 20 years.
As it becomes more widespread, it will further change our behavior,” he adds.
But who devised these classifications did it on purpose?
One of the creators of the "like" button is dissatisfied with its result.
But it would have happened just the same.
“I don't think it was done on purpose,” Hon says. “Social media gamification is just people seeing what works.
People saw Foursquare become popular and they said, what's the difference?
We will do that,” he says.
Foursquare allowed you to classify the places you visited.
The visitors who went to a restaurant the most became “mayors” of that place.
In addition to the "honor", they could receive a gift from the premises.
“Games are fun and we love to do fun things,” Hon says, further explaining the early success of dots online.
“You must turn your service into something fun and gamification is one way.
I don't think there was deliberate intent.
It's a kind of capitalism, where people copy what works,” she adds.
3. Everything is classified
These scores affect how we behave in networks to get attention.
It may already be a problem.
But there is more.
Hon mentions a 1989 study that highlights the rise of perfectionism among young people.
Hon believes that it is a factor that fuels gamification.
The whole society is organized based on criteria of classification and achievements and thus perfectionism increases.
“It's also new that people care a lot about their fitness.
It's probably in the last 50 years where people think about weighing themselves every day, and then they start to get interested in the variability of their heartbeat.
The goal is to optimize yourself and worry if you are doing worse than others,” she explains.
That doesn't happen only at work or with the body.
Ranking extends to all stages of life: “If you haven't read as many good books or seen as many good movies, then you're going to go down the rankings and it's going to make things worse.
You want to have a girlfriend?
Will people like to talk to you?” she says.
The problem is that not everything is actually classifiable, because not everything can be reduced to a scale.
A good example is TripAdvisor or hotel ratings: 4.9 is better than 4.6, but are the criteria comparable?
“You can only gamify something at scale if you have structured data.
You have to reduce everything to a single dimension because it is easier to process and to understand, ”he says.
4. What do you want streaks for?
Streaks are an often absurd example of this classification: how many days in a row do you achieve a random number of success (steps, contributions, comments) that doesn't imply anything but gives a small spark of satisfaction?
The great success of Hon's company is
, an audio-based game to make you run a little faster.
Hon believes that the big trap of gamification is to use generic game tricks for any purpose and not adapt to every need.
One of those mediocre tricks are streaks, which the brains want to maintain at any cost.
An example is the steps of the Apple Watch or the exercise bracelets.
Hon cites in the book an example from GitHub, where programmers who cooperated or responded to something every day kept their streak intact.
It's counterproductive, says Hon: “Streaks are one of the most powerful, simple, and worst forms of gamification, because it's so rare that a streak is actually good.
Why is it good for someone to go and log in 100 days straight [on Github]?
We shouldn't even be looking at that metric.
Just like if someone runs 50 days in a row, it's probably bad.
We deliberately don't reward that because sometimes I run ten days straight, and I'm like, wow, I'm fine, but I feel really exhausted.
I don't get a medal from Apple saying: well done, you didn't run today.
It shouldn't matter,” she says.
5. Do we really know that they play with us?
Hon recently discovered a TikTok video of an Amazon employee in the US: "I don't want to leave my little pets right now," he said.
It was a game called Tamazilla to encourage employees to work faster by "taking care" of their virtual pets.
Does the employee know that they are playing with his will for nothing?
“Some people realize it right away, but it takes time to understand what's happening to them because it's strange and different and new,” Hon says. “In that TikTok video someone recorded this game where they collect virtual pets on Amazon.
There are comments that said that looks like a lot of fun and they wanted to work at Amazon packing boxes to play.
But someone else tells them: 'it's not as fun as you think.
You can't play with them.
It's just to make you work faster with no reward,'” Hon explains.
The Amazon employee himself has this double feeling, according to the video: “I feel bad for leaving my pets behind, but I also know that I am being manipulated,” says Hon. “I don't know how long it took this person to realize who manipulated him.
But what's interesting is that Amazon will say that they think people like these games because their surveys say so.
But it's because you give them no choice.
There's nothing else they can do in the workplace besides play."
Wouldn't that be better than working and being bored?
“If you put a rat in a cage and give it a goal, it's only going to do that.
You are not giving people options,” she says.
It is a mediocre solution to a problem of another level: “If the workers are not happy, they do not work hard and they seem miserable, they say to each other in the company, what to do?
Gamify the workplace and that will make them happier and work harder.
But that's not the only way you can change your job: you can change it for real, or you can pay them more money.
Owners look for this easy way to not change anything or even simply reduce salaries in exchange for saying that they activated gamification”, adds Hon.
6. Conspiracies are also a game
"I've done my own research" is a phrase that often prefaces a cheap conspiracy theory.
They have a trap.
Perhaps the best known case in the US is QAnon.
Q is an anonymous character from the Deep State who has spent years giving ambiguous clues about dark events that never happen.
But there is always some detail that needs to be reinterpreted.
This detective quest serves to maintain interest.
Hon was behind a game called
, which consisted of leaving clues on the internet and in real life.
The discovery of one of the last clues with a facial recognition tool was a recent feat, which even deserved an article in this newspaper.
“Q's messages are written as riddles or mysteries.
They could say, 'In the Moon Room the steps will turn red,' and that can mean anything,” he says.
But the gamification of conspiracies is not so much the puzzle, but "rather the way in which the entire community acts, which is people who are excited to do something different."
It is a feeling similar to searching for details that fit, even if they are only in someone's head.
“It's not a game, but you feel emotion, even more so if you talk to other people and they give you clues.
Social networks encourage their growth.
And the scientific method is not encouraging because instead it is slow and boring”, says Hon.
7. Marie Kondo and why we haven't seen anything yet
Hon uses the example of Marie Kondo in the book.
You watch her series but when you turn off the TV she doesn't chase you around the house to order.
It does not gamify your wardrobe, as is already the case with exercise, work or some conspiracies.
But that is likely to end soon.
With the augmented reality glasses, the Marie Kondo video game will now be able to gamify private spaces.
Hon uses the example of mopping the floor in the book.
Now it is not feasible to gamify it, but with augmented glasses it will be.
It is still positive because with the glasses we will see cockroaches to kill with the mop or dirty corners with digital dirt.
That will encourage scrubbing.
The Apple Watch, used well, can also encourage its users to move more and after a few weeks they may feel better.
The problem is how games are created.
They can help, but not always.
The same will happen with future glasses: “It would be great to make a game that encourages people to pick up trash in the neighborhood with glasses.
I just think there will be gamification of a lot of horrible things as well,” says Hon.
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