Monday, August 22, 2011

Gamification and Law - 4

If you had to boil down gamification to a single issue, one relevant to academics and marketers alike, it’s how far can you structure an organized system before it stops being play? When does the form finally break and become something else? Ian Bogost, channeling his inner-Lakoff, declares that the whole enterprise is bullshit. Christian McCrea comments that gamifcation just wants, “the glamour of play; the legitimacy of its culture." It stopped being about play the moment they changed the purpose of the system to selling stuff instead of producing play. Lian Amaris counters that even if there is less play than your average game, it hasn’t stopped being play.

This is the juncture at which legal theory has something to offer the debate because lawyers and judges have been fighting about a similar issue. Except we don’t deal with the play form, we deal with the forms of justice or morality and it’s on a much larger scale. To make better laws you have to get at the core of why people obey them in the first place. Do people do it because it’s what the herd does when authority, sometimes with force, tells them to act or do they obey the law because they personally believe the law is correct and good? For gamification, the issue is are they buying your product because of its intrinsic value or are they buying it because it levels up their stats? Because whether you’re marketing toothpaste to kids or organizing a reward program for recycling, you can’t fix it or improve it without understanding the underlying mechanisms at work. As Ronald Dworkin points out in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Law, the problem is not which answer is right but how do you tell the difference?

The best place to start answering that question is by pointing out that you’re going to be disappointed if you’re analyzing a closed-off play system. World of Warcraft’s appeal is diluted when it crosses into the real world because people behave differently around things they take seriously. What works in a pure play environment must be adapted for things like real money, products and marketing to be effective. You need to study systems that incorporate play alongside things people take seriously. Promises to the contrary are indeed, as Bogost points out, bullshit.

Johan Huizinga, whose book Homo Ludens does an excellent job of outlining the play form, identifies the Renaissance as an example of play co-existing with seriousness. He explains, “The spirit of the Renaissance was very far from being frivolous. The game of living in imitation of Antiquity was pursued in holy earnest. Devotion to the ideals of the past in the matter of plastic creation and intellectual discovery was of a violence, depth and purity surpassing anything we can imagine…and yet the whole mental attitude of the Renaissance was one of play.”

Which sounds nice but why don’t we give a literal example. Florence, Italy was able to produce a fantastic art scene because of its patron culture. A person who funded a grand public work of art gained popularity and fame in the city, which gave them political leverage which led to money, power, and all the stuff that comes with it. When Cosimo de ‘ Medici was looking for a way to get famous and gain political leverage, he noticed that the roof of the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was unfinished. He hired Filippo Brunelleschi to figure out a new method of creating roofs and had him complete it. Every day, every single Florentine looked up and saw that roof. And they got to see it fully finished because of Cosimo’s patronage. It’s not hard to understand why Cosimo was considered “king in all but name.”

The Renaissance was able to produce grand works of art through the creative force of play because the extreme seriousness of that time period gave room for play to form. Artists could be creative and produce something unique while still adhering to many fiscal and social limitations. Patrons, in turn, gained notoriety and influence because of the advertising. The term Renaissance itself was coined by someone the Medicis hired to describe the hundreds of works of art they created. This is not a new idea, a modern critique comes from an animator complaining about management and writers interfering with the play element with their own draconian measures. That example better shows a culture that does not allow play.

So, going back to Lian Amaris’s point about it doesn’t stop being play because of gamification, he is correct. Play is a kind of form, which is explained more in-depth here or here. It’s not a solid state or a specific list of characteristics but rather a series of relationships and conflicts that criss-cross into a basic, recognizable form when it occurs. Forms can vary in their restrictions and requirements. A law is a strict space in that certain fundamental things must be present. It’s usually written down and does its best to confine people within a single meaning. On the other hand a cultural standard is a much more amorphous and changing form. It’s rarely very clear when something violates a cultural standard, but one can tell when you are very far out of bounds. This idea is covered here.

So following the same format of my original depiction of the relationship between cultural standards and law, above is a representation of play, games, cultural standards and the legal form. Light blue blocks are game spaces, orange circle is what is acceptable within the play form, red is the culture standard, and the purple block is that society’s laws. Two things bear pointing out. First, the play sphere cannot exceed the culture sphere nor does it extend all way out to the border. The space between the two represents the necessary traits of seriousness that must exist. Second, games are not confined to the legal space. I owe this observation to Greg Lastowka and his exceptional book Virtual Justice for pointing this out to me.

Lastowka cites the example of Ray Chapman, who was accidentally killed when an inside fastball struck him on the head during a baseball game. If a person intentionally threw a rock at another person’s head and killed them, that would be a murder conviction. Baseball, however, has its own rules and operates in its own separate sphere of society. As a professional player, Ray Chapman knew there was some risk that an inside fastball might be pitched. The rules of baseball were never broken. As a society, we seem willing to allow arenas of sports and games to persist as a special social setting where separate rules apply. Similar scenarios apply to other major sports like football or hockey that present physical risk: United States law has deemed that the player consents to the risk of harm from another in those games.

Gamification, in terms of the above image, would represent a game that falls between the cultural standards of seriousness and play. It would probably have some grounding in laws (although it doesn’t have to), cross into the realm of play, and extend out into the serious space. This is what the culture of art patrons during the Renaissance would look like or Big Bear’s new business model at the end of the story. Please remember that the above image is just meant to depict the relationships between these forms, it’s not a literal depiction. I’m speaking in terms of visual space and location because it’s easier to understand rather than me blathering about a bunch of abstract ideas.

So the answer to the question of how do you tell the difference between someone buying your product because of their needs versus buying it because you installed gamification rewards is that you don’t. The ideal scenario, as with a legal system, is that you’ve got a little bit of column A and a little bit of Column B. A law is present to clearly define the goals and limits while everything is still within the cultural standards of that group. Gamification would be aiming for something similar by striking a balance between serious objectives and play.

Link to the Conclusion.

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