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Gamification and Operational Closure


Ian Bogost has a post up discussing gamification in terms of

operational closure or withdrawal (for more on operational closure cf. my
posts here and here). Heres a taste:
Gamification maximizes operational closure to insure that
organizations external relations never become real relationships, never
tune the incompatible worlds of company and customer in order to arrive
at a recognition of their mutual incommensurability. Instead,
exploitationware seeks to distract or manipulate people into doing whatever
is best for organizations, while feigning the hard work of tuning the
couplings between the two. Its a confidence trick.

For those not familiar with the trend of gamification, cf. this wiki
and a post I wrote on the concept a while back. So whats going on here?
There have been a number of questions as to just what Luhmann might
mean when he claims that social systems are not composed of persons,
humans, or individuals, but rather that humans belong to the environment of
these hyperobjects. Isnt it obvious that social systems are composed of
Luhmanns thesis is that social systems are composed not of humans
though clearly these social systems cannot exist without humans as a
substratum but rather of communications. Gamification provides a very
nice and harrowing example of how this works. The person who
participates in one of these games is not registered by the social system as a
person but rather as an element that is only relevant in terms of a certain range
of communicative events they are capable of producing within this system.
Here the sociological distinction between persons and roles might help to
gain some purchase on this point. Roles are never identical to persons.
Rather, roles exist only for the social system in which they occur there are no
police officers outside of a social system that constitutes police officers and
these roles predelineate a set of possible functions, acts, and possible speech-
acts (a judge is able to perform certain speech acts that a teacher is not).
This is what takes place in gamification. The person that participates
in the gamification game shifts from being a person to a functional element
that participates in the production and reproduction of the functions
defined by the entity (usually a corporation or government institution).
Thus, for example, the player becomes an element in the corporations
advertising strategy, spreading that corporate name and agenda throughout
the internet in the course of playing the game. Here we get a way of
producing surplus-value or profit that doesnt even pay the worker. For the
worker the reward is the enjoyment or jouissance of game play. Yet often the
players of these games do not even recognize or know that theyre a part of a
corporate apparatus or money making venture. I suspect this is what Ian is
getting at when he talks about the external relations beneath the game
becoming veiled or invisible in gameplay. You might be working for
McDonalds without even realizing it.

Gamification as a New Diagram of Power?

The other day my friend Carl a very talented rhetorician drew my

attention to an article on NPR describing gamification as a new social
technology. As Gabe Zichermann, one of the pioneers of gamification
describes this social technology,
Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game
mechanics to engage users and solve problems

One of these techniques is currently being experimented with in

Sweden with respect to speeding. Using cameras to monitor drivers, this
technique places people who drive at or under the speed limit in a lottery. If
their name is chosen, they then win the money that drivers who speed have
had to pay into the system. Gamification thus strives to regulate human
behavior by turning it into a game. Rather than merely disciplining people or
regulating their behavior through the threat of negative sanctions, people are
here motivated to engage in certain sorts of behavior through the
transformation of this behavior into a type of competition.
Are we here witnessing the emergence of a new diagram of power in
Deleuze and Foucaults sense of the word? According to Foucault and
Deleuze we have, so far, had three diagrams of power: sovereign power,
disciplinary power, and control power. Sovereign power functions according
to the exercise of the power of a sovereign on the body of a subject. Foucault
depicts the functioning of this power gruesomely in the opening pages of
Discipline and Punish, where we witness a person being horribly tortured in
a variety of ways. Disciplinary power is a sort of training that strives to
produce subjects that have internalized power so that they come to regulate
themselves as their own jailers. The panopticon is the most famous example
of such power. We internalize the gaze of our jailer because we never know
whether or not anyone is in the guard tower, thereby regulating our own
activity. Disciplinary power is organized around the molding of bodies
through a variety of behavioral techniques.
Control power, according to Deleuze, is not so much about molding,
as it is about modulation. Here the aim is not for the agent to internalize
power. No, the agent, in a sense, remains completely free. Rather, to
understand control power we might imagine a square room with four doors.
These doors only open two at a time and only at particular times. The agent
is free to choose whatever door he might like to pass through, yet he choices
are still modulated by the flow of doors opening and closing.
If gamification marks the possible emergence of a new form of power,
then this is because action and movement is now modulated by agents
entering into competition with one another in games organized around
particular sorts of goals. While these games certainly have rules, power here
does not function through the force of the law and its possible sanctions, but
rather through people electing to become participants in the game. Carl, for
example, imagined a gamification of the classroom with respect to
attendance. In this game, rather than treating absence punitively by docking
the players grade, the number of classes missed by absent students would
then be added to the grade of those students that miss no class. Here class
attendance might be increased by involving students in a game.
Here we can imagine a form of society game society where 1)
there are no laws (rules of a game arent quite the same as laws), and where 2)
we have no unity among the members of society (because they are in
competition with one another), yet where, nonetheless, behavior is
thoroughly regulated by participation in the game. I cant quite put my
finger on it, but theres something about this model of power that I find
deeply horrifying.