Question for PEW: Does Gamification Encourage Exploitation?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a survey collecting expert opinions on one a hot new(-ish) concept amongst the Silicon Valley digerati: gamification. The survey offers some interesting insights and features commentary from folks like danah boyd, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, and Amber Case; it also cites me a bit talking playbor (play + labor) and weisure (work + leisure).

The survey shows that tech commentators are split on whether gamification is destined to become an ubiquitous feature of the Web (53% agree, 42% disagree). The subtext of these sorts of conversations—given that tech commentators overwhelmingly have backgrounds in business—is: How can we use gamification to make a killing. We shouldn’t be to suprised about all the excitement from those invested in the tech industry. After all, gamification is all about getting people to view labor (i.e., the production if value) as play. And, if workers don’t view work as work, they may just do it for free.

One notable shortcoming in the Pew report is that it doesn’t ever make mention of exploitation. It has section on “manipulation” that cites, for example, danah boyd saying that gamification is

a modern-day form of manipulation. And like all cognitive manipulation, it can help people and it can hurt people. And we will see both.

Boyd’s ambivalence about manipulation is pretty interesting, since manipulation seems to be such an affront to our democratic values; but, then, if MySpace taught us anything, it’s that we don’t always know what’s best for us (and other people) when it comes to creating stuff and interacting on the Web.

Exploitation, however, cannot be reduced to manipulation. Sure, companies have a long history of manipulating us through advertising into buying things we don’t need through—and “advertgaming” (or whatever we might call games built to push products [e.g., the recent Perfect Strangers flash game phenomenon]) certainly takes manipulation of consumers to new levels—but exploitation is about more than manipulation. In fact, exploitation doesn’t even require manipulation. Marx saw it as a product of raw economic coercion: Work for unfair wages or starve!

Exploitation is about people creating values through their activity and someone else coming along and seizing that value without offering fair compensation. Exploitation is a form of theft. This theft is legal and justified by the logic of capitalism when one person or group own the means of production that others are using. So, a gamified platform like, say, Foursquare, exploits it’s users because it cashes in on the value of the data created using the app without returning that value to the users who produced that data. This process doesn’t require any manipulation or trickery, it’s just an accepted practice in capitalist societies.

By making work fun, companies may be tricking users, though users may also be fully aware of the companies’ motives: Knowing that Foursquare sells my data doesn’t necessarily make it less fun. The deeper critique is exploitation. I guess I’m not surprised that Pew—or, more precisely, the experts it polled—ignored this critique. A critique of the exploitation that gamification facilitates also implies a critique of capitalism itself. And, as we have seen with Chris Anderson’s unwillingness to release (read: censorship of) venture capitalist Nick Hanauer’s TED Talk on income inequality, Silicon Valley’s tech gurus are too busy cashing in on technology to be critical of it.

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