Playing Everything

“Loving [a thing] should make you a snob, not a cheerleader. And proper snobs are full of hate about what they love.”

-Eric Zimmerman



After this post, I’m going to start writing much shorter and more sporadic posts, I think. I’ll reduce the time from writing to posting so that I can talk about stuff I am actually currently doing. I am writing this on September 9th (I have my posts automatically scheduled), so I am entitling myself to a short vacation between now and publication of this post on the 19th. I’ll still have something for next Tuesday, anyway.

I’m glad I was able to push myself into getting so much text down. I wasn’t sure I was going to find the time and energy, but thanks to a little pushing by some of my “editors” and a little discipline I’ve been able to write consistently. It never really felt like a waste of time- writing is a great way to think through ideas (and obviously a good way to share them and get feedback, too).

This tenth post is a loose constellation of ideas on games, how I think about them, and how I got here.


Simon’s Ant

When you watch an ant follow a tortuous path across a beach, you might say, “How complicated!” Well, the ant is just trying to go home, and it’s got to climb over little sand dunes and around twigs. Its path is generally pointed toward its goal, and its maneuvers are simple, local responses to its environment. To simulate an ant, you don’t have to simulate that wiggly path, just the way it responds to obstacles.

Say you want to program a computer to simulate a person playing the piano. Sure, a Bach fugue or Mozart sonata is complicated. When people play them you see their fingers doing all these complicated things. But you can predict every motion if you know what the notes are. The complexity is in the notes. The fingers just do the few things that fingers can.

-Herbert Simon


Seeing Everything as a Game



Humans are neotenous.

As adults, we share many of the physical features of immature chimps. Our bone structures, including flat faces and small jaws, are similar to those of juvenile chimps, as is our patchy distribution of hair. A slower rate of development may even have shaped our vaunted intelligence, by stretching out the time when we are most receptive to new skills and knowledge. Somel’s research supports this idea by showing that since our evolutionary split from chimpanzees, the activation of some important brain genes has been delayed to the very start of adolescence. [source]


Furthermore, even aged humans often retain a plasticity of behavior that is typically found among animals only in the young. Human emphasis on learned, rather than inherited, behavior, has been widely accepted as a chief driver of this trend, requiring our minds to remain supple and receptive for ever-longer spans. [source]

Play is a useful childlike disposition. It’s a great trick. Play is an exploratory behavior that people can take towards uncertainty. To play something is to explore it. By contrast, to game something is to exploit it (eg. “Gaming the system“). You don’t have to have a deep understanding of a system to exploit it- you just need to find any lever that gets you something you want. Play is not the opposite of work and serious is not the opposite of game.


Gaming is structured, play is open. Both structured games and fictions are artifacts of play behavior- they are voluntary imaginings. Humans are natural pattern-seekers and storytellers.

 […] games are fundamentally systems of contriving contingency followed by acts of interpretation from which players derive pleasure. Whether we are playing checkers or completing a crossword puzzle, we abide by certain parameters so as to enjoy the triumphant feeling of successfully navigating rules to grasp the meaning in our actions. According to Bateman, this same formula – contriving contingency to derive interpretative pleasure – can be found in art. Thus games precede, encompass, and surpass what we traditionally think of as art. [source] [research paper (different source)]

The game community has long sought legitimacy by claiming itself as an artform. I think this is misguided, confused, and backwards.


Religion and Behavior Modification

I see religion as a Very Important Game. Its fictions are likely marks of identity, in the same way that “part of being a nation is getting your history wrong”. A tribe’s beliefs are not necessarily the most important part of their religion- some beliefs are clearly sculptors of behavior but others are clearly not. A strong religion must propagate itself and in some sense protect its adherents. Those who do not take their tribe’s mythology seriously may not be trusted to hold the tribe’s authority over their own personal autonomy- and that may be the purpose of the crazier, falsifiable beliefs in the first place (as a signal, a shibboleth [see the above link]). Many rituals are about real bodily experiences of various kinds: inductions into the tribe, tests of loyalty to the tribe, shared joy/sorrow/fear, shared awe, internalized rituals of personal awe. Religious places are places of practiced, focused behavioral modification.

On “behavior modification”: Tribes develop implicit norms of behavior. Institutions construct explicit rules meant to constrain behavior. Artifacts (“designed things”) often afford functions and systems often afford narratives as well, by analogical reasoning. All manner of technology can sculpt behavior in observable ways (this link is highly recommended).

Fun is something strange. I won’t bother defining it. It might be more than one thing. A fun thing is not boring, and it probably isn’t totally familiar. But randomness is not strictly fun, either. Interest attracts attention to uncertain contingencies with potential for order- this is why most people older than 12 are done with tic-tac-toe (it is solved).  Fun is maybe a variant of interest.

The holy grail of soft paternalism: To attract people’s attention and get them to voluntarily assent to beneficial tasks.


Seeing Everything as a Videogame

“Gamification” is the “use of game-design elements in non-game contexts”. “Serious Games” are “games used for a primary purpose other than entertainment.” The two ideas are ascendant, especially in enterprise. Playful Design is different than Gamification in the way that play is different from games. Motivational Design is a broader category than any of these.

Using game design principles in serious contexts makes sense in the abstract- games are voluntary, and highly-engaging. A “game with a purpose” [note: coined by Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn!], is a voluntary exercise that benefits some other cause, and is an obviously useful way to capture cognitive surplus to solve problems. Games are currently being used to fold proteins, train computers, raise money for causes, and perform simple micro-tasks. They could be used in health, business management, and a variety of other fields. They are starting to be taken seriously for training and education.

Being a game does not make a thing fun (as being food doesn’t make a thing tasty). Elements of a game are not where the “fun” comes from. Adding game elements to a non-game do not guarantee improved engagement. Adding badges do not necessarily make a process more worth doing.

Usually, “videogame” and “game” are used interchangeably. Jesse Schell, another professor at my college, is maybe most well-known for his dystopic vision where invasive videogames pervade every faucet of life.

Videogames may not be games in the strictest sense, though. Game rules are voluntary- you can cheat. Videogame rules are “physics” and say what the player can do, not what they should do. Computers are different than people. There are no fictions, there is no “spirit of the law“. There is only the law. Everything is reduced to numbers.


Sebastian Deterding once asked, “What if we let computers run our rule systems and put humans inside?”

The first obvious problem is the “work-to-rule” problem: Perfect rule following and an inability to handle exceptions.  “Work-to-rule” is something so obviously imperfect that it is sometimes used as a labor union tactic. Exception handling is messy, and increasing complication doesn’t necessarily give better results.

Exceptions are not exceptions, they are the rule. They are the rule because the map is never the territory, and complexity can never be reduced: We can never foresee every edge case, and the more complex we make a model to include edge cases, the more interactions and complexities within our model we create, so that the model itself starts to produce bugs, errors, exceptions.

-Sebastian Deterding

And as the world automates further, the “manual override” option has become increasingly distant to us. 


The second obvious problem- Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Games beget gamers. “Munchkins” are users who min-max for metrics without any regard for the intention of the system. There are people who will exploit the functions and forego the meaning.

Example: BMW’s eco-game (involving keeping the driver informed about his fuel efficiency) causing car crashes as the driver invests too much attention in gaming the eco-game system and not enough in the grand scheme of the activity (driving safely to your destination).

Example: Robert Martin’s book “Fixing the Game” about the market becoming self-referential and CEOs becoming Munchkins for stock market price without regard to sustainable company growth.


All of that being said, there is plenty of space for good motivational design, informed by game design principles. There is already a list of stock cases for the optimist. Hype around the idea is still going strong. I’m just not interested in the benefits because we are at a stage where the benefits are being sung too loudly. I expect an oncoming trough of disillusionment, which is an excellent opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff. I like playful design. I think it has a lot of potential. I think structured, “gameful” design also has a place, as do “training games” and a variety of other useful forms that will ultimately be decoupled from the current hodgepodge of ideas people have when they talk about games in serious contexts. I have difficulty imagining a best-possible technological future without ubiquitous computing, I have trouble seeing that same future where human capital isn’t more effectively employed, and I have trouble seeing a future where playful, motivational design isn’t matured and taken seriously.


Which reminds me- nothing I’ve written in this blog should be taken too seriously. I hate saying things like that- it’s like identifying a joke as a joke. In my writing, I am thinking out loud. My intention up to this point was to sketch out my weird personal trajectory that leads to my interest in playful design, and technologies that drive behaviors in general. I didn’t want to start with Nudge and the Internet of Things and Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal and other peoples’ successes and my own little projects because I feel like that’s sort of predictable and doesn’t actually say much about what’s in my head and what’s maybe different about the way I see things. I’m sure there are a thousand maps of the “gamification” territory out there already, and I probably couldn’t do better. Instead, I started by talking about culture and technology in general, how weird and smart and strange people (everywhere and at all times) can be (my first and second posts, about culture and technology). I also wrote about common patterns in social engineering (on High Modernism in my third post, Kludgeocracy in my fourth post, and the TIMN model in my sixth post). I also started pulling things I enjoyed from media studies (the simulation gap in my fifth post, numbers-as-rhetoric in my seventh post). Finally, in my eighth and ninth posts I wrote about abductive reasoning, borrowing liberally from the other topics I introduced.

I am already slightly sick of some of my earlier posts. I get that way about my own work pretty quickly, and I don’t think it was all written as concisely and elegantly as it could’ve been. But it’s mine. And I’ve immensely enjoyed writing and being read up until this point, so thanks.