For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Games: Agency As Art

by Thi Nguyen, C (2020)


"Games are a unique art form. The game designer doesn't just create a world; they create who you will be in that world. They tell you what abilities to use and what goals to take on. In other words, they specify a form of agency. Games work in the medium of agency. And to play them, we take on alternate agencies and submerge ourselves in them. What can we learn about our own rationality and agency, from thinking about games? We learn that we have a considerable degree of fluidity with our agency. First, we have the capacity for a peculiar sort of motivational inversion. For some of us, winning is not the point. We take on an interest in winning temporarily, so that we can play the game. Thus, we are capable of taking on temporary and disposable ends. We can submerge ourselves in alternate agencies, letting them dominate our consciousness, and then dropping them the moment the game is over. Games are, then, a way of recording forms of agency, of encoding them in artifacts. Our games are a library of agencies. And exploring that library can help us develop our own agency and autonomy. But this technology can also be used for art. Games can sculpt our practical activity, for the sake of the beauty of our own actions. Games are part of a crucial, but overlooked category of art - the process arts. These are the arts which evoke an activity, and then ask you to appreciate your own activity. And games are a special place where we can foster beautiful experiences of our own activity. Because our struggles, in games, can be designed to fit our capacities. Games can present a harmonious world, where our abilities fit the task, and where we pursue obvious goals and act under clear values. Games are a kind of existential balm against the difficult and exhausting value clarity of the world. But this presents a special danger. Games can be a fantasy of value clarity. And when that fantasy leaks out into the world, we can be tempted to oversimplify our enduring values. Then, the pleasures of games can seduce us away from our autonomy, and reduce our agency."--

Key Passage

Gamification, as most people use the term, is the intentional application of various elements of game design to nongame life in order to alter motivational states. A typical use of gamification is to increase motivation in productive behaviour. For example, fitness trackers like FitBit and Strava introduce quantification, game-like achievements, rewards, and competition to fitness routines. Such fitness trackers offer quantified reports on, say, the number of steps you took in a day, as well as leader boards, where your daily steps are compared against the steps of other people. The car-hire apps Lyft and Uber offer their drives badges and achievements for driving more miles. Disney famously gamified its hospitality workforce. Disney introduced real-time worker productivity tracking of their laundry staff, keeping track of how many comforters, sheets, and towels individual workers were washing and folding, and posting individual productivity statistics in public, on brightly lit scoreboards. Workers’ names were displayed in green, yellow, or red depending on whether they were ‘meeting’ productivity standards, “slipping” or “failing.” Color-coded signals also flashed at the workers, providing real-time feedback about where they stood in the productivity rankings. Once the system was in place, workers began to compete with each other. Productivity soared. At the same time, they begun to suffer more injuries at work. They also started skipping bathroom breaks. The workers said they had a hard time ignoring the motivational pull of the game-like elements. They found themselves deeply motivated by the gamelike goals, even as they actively resented being so motivated. They took to calling the system the “electronic whip.” Similar explicitly gamified systems have been incorporated in workplaces, such as Amazon’s, and into social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And, argues Vincent Gabrielle, such gamification represents malicious control mechanisms, imposed on us from the outside. It is a way for powerful institutions to force motivations into their workers, to the advantage of those institutions (p.200) ()


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Gamification of Work

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