The Year Even Politics Became Cursed by Gamification and Foul Play

Mike Deri Smith explores how Foursquare badges, Farmville, and “For the Win” politics will lead to the end of the world.


This year the digital world became splattered with badges, mayorship, and coins. This year it became acceptable to compete with each other in everything from reading and socialization to keeping fit. Yes, we’ve always had videogames and we’ve always competed with each other about the size of the slab of meat that we dragged back to the cave, but never has the metaphorical penis been so easy to measure.

Farmville‘s enormous success is partly to blame. Developers now want to gamify everything on the web, and in life if possible. Combined with the death of good gamesmanship, the nuclear annihilation of the human race is actually kind of inevitable.

First, there’s gamification in which game mechanics such as reward-based motivators are strapped onto things that aren’t games to increase gratification and engagement. Didn’t they say that the worst slave masters were those who were nice to their slaves? Same with Farmville. One tech writer explains that “Gamification should tap emotions and deeper motivations.” But if the original thing doesn’t already produce those feelings, then making it a game won’t help.

I never signed up for Foursquare. I would either lose, look like a dick by sharing where I go, or I’d get way too excited about gaining intangible and utterly insane rewards. What Foursquare is to socializing, Health Month is to exercise. This is one example where game mechanics can encourage something we don’t like doing — it awards points and badges according to how much you adhere to self-set health-based goals. The creator explains that it’s “the game that helps you live healthy, not because you have to, but because it’s fun.” This strikes me as setting a precedent where we do something only for a reward or because it is made fun, not because it’s good.

Similarly, now we don’t need to read because we should or because we want to. Gourmet magazine’s new iPad app awards points for each article you read. It will probably encourage reading but it would make me want to speed through and unlock everything, going for the win rather than sticking to the content.

In most of these cases the game part takes prominence over the actual action. And the game part isn’t a game in the traditional sense because you don’t just play, you play to win things and seek a gratification that the thing itself can’t offer. It may help build good habits, but adding a competitive element seems counterproductive. This year, we were given the option to make everything a game and it made everything less fun.

Second, and worse than gamification, is the determination to win the game no matter the cost to the game’s integrity and function. First it happened to videogames, especially MMOPGs, where “grinding,” leveling up by repeating boring tasks in order to gain skills, is an important part of the game. In Farmville that’s the only reason the game exists. Farmville preys on our worst habits and compulsive behavior. Indie game developer Dan Lawrence also found that it “makes overt use of known psychological techniques to influence and control behavior and ties that directly into revenue generation.” Videogames are being broken by people who lack good gamesmanship. 

Good gamesmanship once stood for playing the game well and upholding the spirit of the game no matter if you lose. When politics similarly became solely For The Win, and just about embarrassing the other person no matter the cost to the game itself, the cost to civic life, we ran into a problem.

When the Republicans took the House in mid-terms, they announced YouCut, which allows people to vote each week on which issue they’d like to be put to a vote on the floor of the House. American Idol on The Hill! This is not e-democracy in action or empowering the people, this is about embarrassing the Democrats through votes on cutting the enforcement of healthcare reform and cutting subsidized unionization. Who cares about the cost to the institution or to bipartisanship?

Similarly, Democrats sought to embarrass any politicians this election who took a moral position on any issue, like Christine O’Donnell. They’re not exposing hypocrisy by delving into her past and finding that she had naked sleepovers with strangers in her past. They’re better served calling her out on not knowing basic aspects of the constitution, and lacking the knowledge to rule. Neither calling out O’Donnell nor building populist voting tools will support the unemployed, keep people from being evicted from their homes, or help us deal with two wars.

And then there’s the nukes.

We have with the potential to reduce stockpiles of nukes and start down a path to complete nuclear disarmament through the New START treaty with Russia. But as we end 2010, Republicans are blocking that too, with Democrats needing the votes of eight Senators to make it pass. This time the game that will suffer isn’t just politics, but the whole game of life. We are about to lose our best chance to make disarmament happen in many years. It would send a good signal to Iran, Pakistan, India, and both Koreas about committing to reductions. But no: Republicans seem to want to be bad losers, or poor winners — I can’t tell which.

The fact that North Korea’s bombing of a South Korean island immediately led to talk of nuclear weapons indicates that it’s simply too dangerous to not make every effort to get nukes out of the equation. Given this reaction, you can begin to understand why Iran wants nukes and why Israel wants nukes, and why every nation wants nuclear power, and why every single conceivable thing should be done to stop this dangerous game from gaining more players.

If there’s a single wish I had at the start of 2010, it would have been for peace and people not dying in such high numbers. Getting rid of nukes would be a good start. The last two votes on nuclear disarmament were won in the Senate, 93-6, and 95-0. What changed this year? I hope that this little game that the Republicans are playing is done before new senators take their seats and even more Republican votes are required to make the treaty pass.

Politics is much more than a game to be won. True too for improving your health, reading, and enjoying socialization. If we spent more time playing the game itself as well as we can, in good spirits, rather than keeping score, I think we’ll be happier. Gamification and the death of good gamesmanship is a sad trend that 2010 has left us. Let’s hope it passes before the ultimate nuclear annihilation and the final Game Over.