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Has the "Gamification" of Reality Already Begun?

Game dynamics is the hot new Web business model, but is it more pervasive than we even realize?

Reality should be more like video games (i.e. fun), says Jane McGonigal’s newish book, Reality is Broken. (More here, from Clive Thompson.) It’s an appealing thesis, and if you aren’t convinced that people don’t secretly want a gold star for completing mundane tasks or being a good citizen, you haven’t heard about successful programs to reduce energy consumption via smiley faces. (Nor, perhaps, have you seen Volkswagen’s successful gamification of a bottle return bin.)

I only have one objection to the “gamification of everything,” and it’s not that it won’t work. It’s that it has already begun, and that its most successful practitioners don’t identify what they have created as games.

Exhibit A is social media. If the most basic requirement for good gameplay is frequent small rewards, Twitter and Facebook have them baked right in: in Facebook, there’s the ‘Like’ button, an affirmation that whatever genius you’ve just spewed is appreciated. Then there are comments, another form of validation. Twitter has its equivalents: follows, retweets, replies, etc.

As social games from the likes of Zynga and Blizzard have revealed, people like rewards even better if they come from a person versus a machine, and +1 to that if they represent approval and or the potential accumulation of some kind of social capital. We are social beings, programmed to help one another in the hope that we will some day be helped, and we’re acutely aware of the opinions of others.

I submit, therefore, that Twitter and Facebook are in fact the world’s most popular massive multiplayer role playing games. They don’t involve any gold or quests, but they do lead to creative enterprises and collaboration or at least the chatter without which the average World of Warcraft guild would soon collapse into a melee of treasure stealing and antisocial behavior.

What is the point of a game, after all, if not to hang out with your friends? Social media simply cut to the chase.

Which isn’t to say that games aren’t also a solitary activity. Take Groupon. By now it’s pretty well established that Groupon isn’t just a deal site, it’s a game. Players compete in a race against time to capture some prize. Foursquare is prima facie a game, of course, with the rank of Mayor going to whichever caffeine junky has been in a particular Starbucks more times than any other. And so on, realized in the thousand startup imitators of these two sites.

The only difference between the current fad for ludology – the study of games – and any other time in the history of the internet is that now that marketers and entrepreneurs know that humans have a weakness for game mechanics, and that we can be trained to do almost anything as long as it involves a reward, however ephemeral, they are actively pursuing gamification as the latest and most sophisticated strategy for selling us stuff and/or capturing our free time.

After all, since its inception, the Internet – message boards, blogs, YouTube, etc. – has always had at least one game mechanic inherent in its facility for connecting us: Fameballing. The accumulation of whuffie – the imaginary social capital invented by Cory Doctorow – used to require face to face interaction, but media, and especially the Internet, has exploded our power to be known, owed or indebted to others. All of which are the currency of interconnectedness.

If sociality is the ur-game and play its childhood antecedent, the Internet is the ultimate playground: all game designers can do is enhance its inherent appeal.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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