Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Technology, Gaming, and the Future By Overwatch404

Technology, Gaming, and the Future
By Overwatch404

   When I was growing up, games were a novelty, and there was a relatively small selection. Chess or Checkers? Trouble or Yahtzee? Rummy or Poker? Technology has changed this situation. Where before, the specialty board-game niche was confined to hidden shops and foreign countries, the web and international shipping has made an impossibly large library available. This development has been dwarfed though by the growth of digital gaming, starting with the infamous “Pong” and morphing into the explosion of Web gaming, with apps of all types on demand. But the games don’t even end there.
   Games are creeping into every facet of our lives. Fantasy sports are games built on games. Foursqaure isn’t simply a game, it’s a game built on your physical location. That games are changing how we spend some of our time (worker productivity drops due to fantasy football season is now regularly documented and deplored by the bean counters) is not questioned on a superficial level. But are they capable of actually changing every facet of our behavior? If so, is this a good or a bad thing?
   Some readers might object to the idea that games could change us so dynamically and dramatically, and possibly dismiss the question out of hand. But I challenge you to seriously think about this. For the adamant player of Foursquare, how does it change his or her travel patterns? Where they spend their time? Why would someone care that they spent more time at the bookstore or the mall than someone else? But this might seem harmless enough, and most players probably do not seriously alter their normal routine for this. But what if game were designed to alter our routines?
   People are generally accomplishment and recognition driven. Recognition and accomplishments can take many forms. For years, games have offered a variety of accomplishments to players for completing various tasks, bonus tasks, etc. Game consoles now often keep track not only of game specific accomplishments, but your combined totals. Shooter games track kills, deaths, accuracy, and a multitude of other stats that people use to rank themselves against each other. What if games began to be designed to turn things about our daily lives into accomplishment and recognition “carrot” approach to behavior alteration? Instead of merely liking Starbucks FaceBook page, every time you visited a Starbucks and posted about the visit on your Facebook page, you got a “Starbucks Point”. What if these points fed a rankings system that was posted publicly? What if leaders received rewards and other recognition? What if governments and businesses began to create and integrate similar games that covered every facet of life? Would you even realize your life was slowly being altered in the “chase for points” and the status and rewards that came along with “high scores”?
   Just as concerning as the potential life altering capabilities of games designed to do so, is the extreme level of tracking and filing that would be required to much such an all-encompassing and pervasive system to work well. After all, what’s the point of a game that can’t accurately reflect scoring? Privacy concerns are turned on their collective heads. Instead of fighting against intrusions, people might be demanding more thorough surveillance and tracking so that not a single point-worthy action, thought, or expression is missed. After all, they are trying to “win”!
   If you haven’t guess by now, I think that this possibility of the life alterations and surveillance required by and for such games is disturbing. Placing people into an invisible boxes and pulling their subconscious levers for desired outcomes is no different than the way mice are treated in research laboratories across the globe. An opposing view though is that this would be a softer way to guide society into behaving “better”, carrot versus the stick. My contention with this point is that “better” is quite subjective.  This view automatically assumes the superiority and benevolence of the game designers, an assumption which I cannot share.
   Obviously the other divergence, although not as wide, is privacy concerns. Many people, even the more technologically and socially receptive, claim to be concerned about privacy and information security. But how many of these make these claims while posting every tidbit of their day on social media outlets?  Devil’s advocates are quick to point out that if people volunteer their information, it’s not actually a violation of privacy. But when does the slippery slope take effect, where if the majority is openly volunteering everything, the minority that chooses not to is soon forced to “join society”? “Smart appliances” are already becoming more pervasive. I am not concerned about the possibility that my fridge, stove, and coffee maker may communicate and help me manage my food more effectively, or  that I might be able live more efficiently with constant feedback from the things around me. These are the obvious benefits, the “carrot”. But who can gain access to this information? How could it be used? Even with the most stringent guarantees of privacy controls and encryption, you are never truly safe from a “data invasion”. The skyrocketing rates of identity theft, credit card number theft, etc. should be proof enough of this. What about when thieves can’t just steal your social security number or credit card digits, but could actually steal the chronicles of your entire life? Will living outside of the “panopticon” become a new black market? Stolen minutes in surveillance free rooms, with the fear that policy enforcers could bust it up at any moment like a Prohibition era speak-easy?
   These questions concern me and I believe they should be of concern to everyone. An old adage is “do not look a gift horse in the mouth”, but the rapid advancement of technology past any possible ethical conversation about its use should be on the minds of everyone involved and affected. How do you want your future to look? Are you concerned about “Living in the Pupil of 1,000 Eyes” (Death – 1,000 Eyes), or will any of us even notice as we chase the carrots of points and digital status?
 Editor's note:  This editorial ties in well with Schell Games CEO and Creative Director Jesse Schell's lecture "Visions of the Gamepocalypse".  (View the full lecture here:  As a game producer, Mr. Schell of course sees a future in which the entirety of human life is tracked for the sake of gaming as a bright one.  However, I would assume that most of us would see this one as intrusive and creepy, to say the least. - J. Frederick

A good summary of Mr. Schell's thesis can be viewed in this much shorter YouTube clip:


  1. This man's presentation was exactly what inspired this article. Thank you for including a video.

  2. Not a problem. These "singularitarian" (a term coined by Ray Kurzweil) philosophers are a spooky group of folks.