Something creeped me out one recent week when two separate PR sources pitched me on new gamification approaches powered by Metaverse technologies. It probably did not help that I was still reeling from the frustration of a cheerful Ryanair clerk asking me if I wanted the opportunity to pay $90 to secure a seat on the flight I presumed was already paid for.
Apparently, I neglected to order the $20 option to secure the seat a week in advance and missed the free window that lasted only two hours in advance. The latter was only available via a computer connected to Wi-Fi, which is not an option at the Lisbon airport. My blood only continued to boil as I sat on the floor of the crowded airport after the flight was delayed, which I later learned was one of the lowest rated airports in the world.
These days gamification seems to be creeping into every aspect of our technology, fueled by likes, notifications, badges, streaks, levels, points, miles, and dark patterns. Business leaders are clamoring to gamify the work experience and retailers to make the shopping experience more fun – or at least more profitable.
As a culture, we have grown so accustomed to this creeping attentional pollution that even stalwarts of decency, like Tesco and Sainsbury's, have recently started asking for our membership cards to secure the special offers. (At least they still have the decency not to stock the candy by the till like American companies.) At some point, we may collectively decide that this new-fangled pollution falls into the same category as asbestos, carbon emissions, noise, and small particle emissions. But like global warming, that's likely to happen long after complacency in carbon emissions led to record heat waves around the globe.
Call to action? (Sort of)
Every few years, a new scandal comes along to suggest that perhaps, finally, we will collectively call for action. The 2017 60 minutes interview with former Google Engineer Tristan Harris called out the practice of brain hacking. I even tried turning my phone greyscale for a few weeks, which got boring after a while. Facebook was only too happy to repurpose the ensuing #TimeWellSpent meme to drive user engagement and gamification further. This innovative hack ensured the whole meme eventually faded into oblivion.
Innovative blockchain-powered play-to-earn business models even attracted a sizeable labor pool in the Philippines, happy to earn triple the minimum wage. Until the whole enterprise was compromised in one fell swoop by enterprising hackers who figured out how to win a $620 million jackpot from the whole sad affair. I suppose that's the real gamification of all this.
In 2019, the UK Consumer and Market Authority acted against travel agencies for promoting dark patterns. They formalized their stance in a 2021 white paper on how these algorithms can reduce competition and harm consumers. Then in 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen called for urgent regulation.
In 2021 Amazon even apologized to drivers for gamifying them into peeing into bottles to meet quotas. Drivers started discovering new hacks to this gamification, like staging phones near trees to secure the most lucrative routes. And most recently, US President Joe Biden announced success in efforts to scale back the gamification of the entertainment experience.
Games in and of themselves can be fun when the goals align with our interests or at least encourage us to interact with other humans with dignity and productively. Some scientific analysis suggests that organized sports can increase wellbeing above solitary exercise.
There is also some precedent in a friendlier approach to encouraging us to reach our personal goals – minus the dark patterns. As early as 1988, Marc Weiser and John Seeley Brown at Xerox Parc sketched out a framework for thinking about how ubiquitous computing or pervasive computing could either add value to our lives or wind us up in an endless circuit of distraction fueled by blinking lights and notifications.
In 1995 they suggested that Calm Technology could lay out a framework that allowed users to be more present with each other in the real world. They wrote:
As we learn to design calm technology, we will enrich not only our space of artefacts, but also our opportunities for being with other people. Thus may design of calm technology come to play a central role in a more humanly empowered twenty-first century.
Amber Case formalized these ideas in the 2015 book "Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design." She observed:
Though we might think of technology as cold and inhuman, it's important to remember that technology—for all its exotic idiosyncrasies—is fundamentally human. We designed it as an extension of ourselves. It is time that we smooth that relationship for the next generation.
The fundamental issue with gamification feels like a fear that competitors will steal profits or opportunities if we don't get in on the action. In the long run, I don't believe this is true. I sighed in relief when Norwegian Air filed for bankruptcy in 2020, imagining their efforts to gamify every aspect of the travel experience lay at the heart of their problems.
I don't believe it has to be that way. Take Google as a counterpoint. As invasive as their information-gathering policies may be, they actually make an effort to deliver real value from most of the information they collect. For example, they give me a summary of my walks every month without the pestering of badges and notifications embedded in most fitness apps.
Google also gives me the option of sharing my location information and photos with my wife, which is mostly appreciated, except when she realizes I have stopped at the local pub after returning from the grocery store. But at least they send me monthly alerts that she has full access to my location history and photo stream.
Why can't the grocery stores do that? Even something as simple as a monthly summary of my itemized purchases, or better yet, nutritional profiles of the food I bought, would be far more helpful than The Points of negligible value provided by most market chains. It feels like there is a subtle and pernicious evil underlying trend around tricking us into giving up our data and tweaking our spending patterns. Why not just give us something we want that could help us make more personally meaningful choices?
And I get that this is all like carbon emissions in 2000 before the temperature spikes, droughts and floods. At the same time, we can all start to ask better questions about how innovative new gamification strategies might practically align with consumer interests related to important questions around health, wealth, and wellbeing.
Mark my words – the killer app of generative AI will be gamification blockers modeled after today's ad blockers. Just like the adblockers of today, these new consumer innovations will mirror how services like uBlock Origin and Adblock automatically quench the persistent stream of ads woven into modern Internet services. And no, you are not a bad person for blocking these gamification models. Despite the protests of some sites, an ad blocker feels no less morally corrupt than applying sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer.
But it is not going to be an easy road to tread. I recently encouraged my US friend to try out DoNotPay. This innovative service automates the process of fighting parking tickets and navigating through the dark patterns of cable companies. Although it helped him initially, he fumed that he eventually had to call on his bank to cancel the automated payments that refused to be canceled by normal means.
That said, long term, I think anti-gamification tech will be the killer app for generative AI. Imagine scoring the same benefits as gamification masters, like The Points Guy, without suffering through all the details. Ultimately, the only companies that navigate this future storm will be those willing to find ways to provide lasting and meaningful value.