The Schema of Game Culture [Draft 1]
|March 25, 2011||Posted by Cayden under I Wrote This|
I’m going to spend a little time today being that guy who is like, “the philosophers were right! Oh my god!” I don’t know if I can solve any of the problems I’m going to lay out today but I think that understanding the difference between gamification and what we can call sportification is going to be an important step forward for folks trying to deal with the trend called gamification.
This January, there was actually a conference in San Francisco about gamification. Anybody interested in advertising these days has probably heard the gamification rallying cry: if we make it fun, customers will keep coming back. The idea is this: you build in game-like elements to an activity that people would be doing at your business or website, and use it to entice them to come back. Since videogames are a bigger industry at this point than Hollywood, the logic goes, obviously consumers are interested in playing. The gamification conference was basically a meeting of minds who are working at offering consumers leaderboards, achievements, and the promise of play.
Now, I think gamification is really interesting. Not because I’m interested in giving visitors to my website badges for commenting on my blog entries, but because of the bigger trend in popular culture this represents. It’s a trend that concerns not just gamification, but also the games industry. I’m interested in gamification because, with the rise of companies that are called things “Badgeville” (which sounds so banal it almost seems like a threat, to say nothing of its overt reference to Zynga‘s invasive Facebook games), I think we’re seeing the development of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the culture industry, in ways that those guys could never have envisioned.
I’d like to turn our attention to what I think is kind of the granddaddy of the gamification schemes, Foursquare. Does anybody play foursquare? For those who don’t play foursquare, the idea is basically that you go around in your daily life, with this app on your smartphone, and you “check in” when you arrive at a location. This could be like when I checked into spot coffee this morning for breakfast and a table away from my cats to work on putting these thoughts together, or dropping by a bar, or even checking in at work. Generally it’s understood that you have to do something at the location you check in – you can’t just tap away at your smartphone as you walk by. When I check into someplace, I get points, my network of friends finds out where I’m chilling, and I have the chance of becoming the “mayor.”
In the two months or so I’ve been playing foursquare on my new iPhone, I’ve become mayor of the collaborative art space Sugar City, my house, my partner’s house, the Graduate Student Employees Union office, and Cafe Taza on Elmwood and Allen. I’ve also earned, lost, earned again, and lost again, the mayorship of the Center for the Arts on North Campus. If you’re wondering, Dino, the editor-in-chief of Generation magazine is the player who keeps kicking me out of that spot.
In addition to earning points, which might move you up a leaderboard of your friends, and earning mayorships, which mean that you’ve checked in to a location more than any other foursquare user, businesses that have location markers on foursquare can offer specials using the service. Trattoria Aroma, for example, has this nice deal that unlocks a free beer on your fifth check in.
So in some ways, foursquare is not so different than, like, a paper punchcard that you might get punched for every coffee you buy. Loyalty programs that track your progress aren’t uncommon, nor are they new. The difference between those and foursquare is that this is supposed to be a “social” application. Foursquare never calls itself as a game, or a loyalty program – it brands itself as a “social network” that allows you to discover cool new places in your city and leave tips for your friends and other users. And it’s partly that lack of the word “game” that strikes me the most here. Foursquare is the granddaddy of the gamification movement – started in 2005 after CEO Dennis Crowley sold its predecessor to Google, and with an estimated 6.5 million players – but nowhere does it call itself a game.
I really don’t have the time and space here to get into what constitutes a game. But I discovered something in my research for a longer piece on what Adorno might think about the way we play now. In his essay “The Schema of Mass Culture,” which is intended to be an expansion on and detailed account of the culture industry begun in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno uses the term “sportification” to describe an effect of mass culture that he characterizes thus:
The more participation in mass culture exhausts itself as the informed access to cultural facts, the more the culture business comes to resemble contests, those aptitude tests which check suitability and performance, and finally sport. While the consumers are tirelessly encouraged to compete, whether by virtue of the way in which goods are offered to them or through the techniques of advertising, the products themselves right down to the details of technical procedure begin to exhibit sport-like characteristics. They require extreme accomplishments that can be exactly measured.1
Ah-ha! I said. Foursquare is not a game. It’s a sport. And, I’d like to suggest, Adorno is presaging foursquare in describing a participation that requires “informed access to cultural facts” by consumers who “are tirelessly encouraged to compete.” Foursquare is the logical outcome of the culture industry. We could say that foursquare is the schema of mass culture laid bare.
Let’s take a moment to break this down, though. Briefly, I think we can, after Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, call something a game that: has a ruleset that is separate from, but may be related to or reflect everyday life; is a voluntary activity undertaken by players; involves imagination, or flights of creativity; and has a clearly defined beginning and end, or at least boundaries of play. Certainly any one game can be much more than this, and games take many forms, but as a baseline from which to compare game and Adorno’s picture of sport, I think this will do.
Sport, he writes, “is not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection.”2 And Adorno could be writing about Foursquare here: “In so far as mass culture reflects the totality of life as a complete system of open or covert sportive competitive struggles, it enthrones sport as life itself and even eliminates the tension between sport on the Sunday day off and the wretchedness of the working week.”3 Unlike games, sport is not separated from everyday life. It is not voluntary, because under mass culture, sport becomes an assumed element of participation itself. In order to remain within the fold of the culture Adorno describes, we need “openly to parade [our] freedom, [our] courtesy, [our] sense of security, [and]…observe and propagate the established guidelines.”4 Failure to do so means living “beyond the pale.”5
When mass culture comes to resemble sport, inside knowledge, participation in the “popular,” and producing proof of your cultural “accomplishments” becomes key. In order to prove that you are, in fact, a connoisseur of popular culture, you need a way to measure and broadcast your expertise. In fact, it becomes essential that you can, and do, let other participants in mass culture know that you’re someone who knows and does.
Foursquare is like a dream tool for Adorno’s mass culture hooligan. Check out all these things you can learn about me from my foursquare profile that might make me someone trustworthy, fun, and interesting to know. I have “expertise,” as foursquare points out, in coffee shops, bars, airports, art galleries, and Vietnamese restaurants. So maybe we can make the conjecture that I’m a traveler, an intellectual, with sophisticated tastes and a love of the arts. Kinda makes me seem like someone to hang out with or take advice from, right?
Now look at this tip that I’ve left at Sugar City, the arts collaborative on Wadsworth. Not only do I check in at all these places that are supposed to define me as a foursquare user, consumer, and individual, but I know these interesting details. Zine library! Clearly I’ve spent some time here. My cultural knowledge is validated by my consistent place on leaderboards, my mayorship at places that are hip and suggest my involvement in popular causes. And now you know that. So does foursquare, the general public, and anybody foursquare might want to sell my “thought-leadership” to. I’m not a foursquare heavy hitter by any means, but I have a pretty mean batting average.
The incredible thing about foursquare is that it takes the sport-like character of participation in mass culture and actually monetizes that. Foursquare has collected this massive amount of data about consumption trends, consumer tastes, and the weekly ebb and flow of customers. I can’t imagine that that data is of direct and immediate use to foursquare – they don’t run any of the businesses that are listed on foursquare, except maybe foursquare headquarters. Foursquare is reportedly worth around $100 million, as of last summer. In addition to perfecting sportification, foursquare has also succeeded in putting a price tag on popular participation in the sport of mass culture.
Most gamification isn’t about games at all. It’s usually about what Adorno characterizes as sport. To some extent, I guess this is unsurprising. Gamification is not about “fun” or play, really. It’s about building customer loyalty and making the practice of consumption more attractive. It’s also, as I’ve suggested here, about allowing consumers to measure and broadcast their expertise in mass culture, whether that’s which bars they frequent or how much they participate on a popular website.
Generally speaking, the rise of the gaming pastime, with the attendant rise in meta-game systems that quantify our accomplishments in the games themselves as well as in everyday life, would not have surprised Adorno. Nor should it surprise us. These systems give us convenient ways to demonstrate our expertise in the finer points of mass culture to our peers and neighbors. They validate and encourage us to continue our participation in mass culture. The question now becomes, how do we respond?
1Adorno, T., ed. Bernstein. “The Schema of Mass Culture” in The Culture Industry. Routledge: New York, 1991. p.86
2Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” p. 90
3Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” p. 91
4Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” p. 91
5Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” p. 91