The Gamification of Humanity

YOU’VE BEEN PLAYED: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, by Adrian Hon

When did daily life come to feel so much like a competition? In “You’ve Been Played,” Adrian Hon traces how and why gamification — the application of video-game principles like experience points, streaks, leader boards, badges and special challenges — has come to suffuse nearly every aspect of human existence in the digital era. Examples range from exercise (Nike, Strava), housework (Chore Wars) and brushing your teeth (Pokémon Smile), to — more disturbingly — going to school (ClassDojo) or work (Amazon warehouses’ PicksInSpace).

Hon slips easily between the perspectives of expert, enthusiast and critic. An education in neuroscience informs his explanation of the behaviorist underpinnings of gamification. And in his capacity leading the games company behind the popular running app Zombies, Run!, much of his working life is spent tussling with these issues. Some of the book’s most insightful moments come when Hon discusses how his team considers ethics and user experience when deciding how much to use gamification tricks in their own work.

Hon is also an unabashed fan of video games who admits to spending hundreds of hours compulsively playing titles that run the gamut of gamer respectability, from Civilization to Candy Crush. He clearly remains a believer in the promise of games and their principles, when used right, to delight people and even improve their lives.

The breadth of sources Hon marshals is evidence, too, of his grounding in the subject. Some are to be expected: books released by M.I.T. Press, work by well-known commentators like Neil Postman and Ian Bogost, news articles from mainstream and gaming publications, plus a handful of loftier references like Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish.” But throughout, the book also quotes liberally from ordinary users’ posts on social networks and internet forums. This firsthand testimony — an outsourced Amazon driver’s complaint that the company’s ranking-and-scoring app is inaccurate and disincentivizes safe driving, for instance — is often illuminating and persuasive.

That Hon is neither Luddite nor scold lends his criticisms of gamification bite and authority. “You’ve Been Played” is at its sharpest when Hon dresses down lazy or coercive gamification. He builds a case that the deliberate layering of generic points, leader boards, missions and the like atop any kind of human behavior is at best useless and at worst insidious.

Even more convincing, and fascinating, is his examination of how employers and schools use gamification strategies to justify and facilitate near-constant surveillance of workers and students, opening them up to punishment for deviations from perfect behavior even when the boss or teacher isn’t looking. Hon makes a strong and sophisticated argument that workplace gamification is in fact “doubly coercive,” since workers are less able to opt out of the experience that is pushing them into choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, potentially even dangerous ones like driving longer hours to achieve a “reward” from Uber.

Less cogent are digressions into some au courant topics for digital hand-wringing, like conspiracy theories and crowdsourcing criminal investigations, whose relevance here is less obvious. Hon draws out at length an analogy between QAnon and alternate reality games, both of which scratch adherents’ itch to fall down rabbit holes, uncover secrets and trace connections. But this is proof that our larger society reflects game mechanics, not necessarily that it’s being villainously driven by them. QAnon, infamously sprawling and atomized, lacks an individual malevolent actor or even central force to hold to account, so the comparison leaves the reader wanting.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

As autumn approaches, grab a warm beverage and take a pick from our latest roundup, which includes Simone de Beauvoir’s previously unpublished interwar novel, a historical critique of white feminism and a look at how the world’s constitutions came to be.

Here are six paperbacks we recommend this week →

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

INSEPARABLE, by Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Sandra Smith.

Originally written in 1954, this previously unpublished novel is based largely on the author’s relationship with a late childhood friend “through whose mirror she sought to loosen the silken chains binding them both to outdated ideals of femininity,” our reviewer, Leslie Camhi, wrote.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

A PLAY FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, by Jai Chakrabarti.

Inspired by a 1942 performance of a Tagore play in a Warsaw ghetto orphanage, this novel follows a Polish immigrant in 1972 New York who retrieves a friend’s ashes in India, where he is swept up in the production of a play he’d performed as a child.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

AGAINST WHITE FEMINISM: Notes on Disruption, by Rafia Zakaria.

Making a case for a global, intersectional approach to gender politics, Zakaria methodically dismantles Western feminism and its individualist and exclusionary roots by drawing on examples of discriminatory aid organizations, the writings of Audre Lorde and more.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

THE GUN, THE SHIP, AND THE PEN: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World, by Linda Colley.

An eminent British historian examines the forces that paved the way for the proliferation of constitutions across the West during the 18th century, from wars and revolutions to advancements in communication and globalization.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWS: Reports From a Haunted Present, by Dara Horn.

The 12 essays in this collection explore how Jewish tragedy is commemorated by the media, museums and literature in ways that are comforting distractions from “the very concrete, specific death of Jews,” as our reviewer, Yaniv Iczkovits, noted.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel SalazarReading in Brooklyn 📚

THE RECIPE FOR REVOLUTION, by Carolyn Chute.

Chute’s third novel to take place in the world of the Settlement, a farm cooperative in rural Maine that is home to the economically hopeless, retains a nontraditional plot where characters slowly emerge and recede while the author meditates on reality, humanity and capitalism.

Published on September 16.

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