Video game designer Adrian Hon: ‘Companies and governments use games to control us’ | Science & Tech

Video game designer Adrian Hon compares church indulgences from the Middle Ages to the gamification of today’s society. In fact, he claims there is a long and strange connection between indulgences in the Middle Ages and retweets. He found that not everyone could make religious pilgrimages centuries ago; virtual tours were created for these people so that they can still be rewarded with pleasures like real pilgrimages and go to heaven. That got 40-year-old Hon thinking.

“I got into indulgences because I heard someone talking about virtual pilgrimages. I thought I had never heard of it before. What was really interesting was that it was such a central part of society. And it wasn’t just people buying indulgences because that’s what everyone thinks,” he explains.

“I wanted to point out that everyone thinks that people in the past were just stupid, you know? I mean, people are watching [the past] always saying, ‘What are they doing? Why are they doing all this?” There was a reason, they did it because they had this religion and they thought it was wonderful. I can imagine someone in the future saying why people did this on Twitter? It’s like, well, I think it’s really important to go and send a few tweets,” he muses.

Hon, an English video game company founder who is also a neuroscientist, has spent years thinking about the pros and cons of gamification, the use of video game ideas for purposes other than entertainment. He has just published a book summarizing his thinking, You’ve Played It: How Companies, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All.

Gamification has crept into work at companies like Amazon, banks, conspiracies, as well as sports and the creation of addictive video games. “They use things like points, medals, levels or missions and apply them to something that is not as fun as exercise or language learning,” says Hon. Some of these uses make sense and serve as entertainment. But many times gamification goes beyond these purposes. EL PAÍS spoke via video conference with Hon, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He describes his views on the subject below.

1. Everything is data now

Some people tell Hon that there has always been gamification. But Hon disagrees that gamification has been constant over time. “The difference now is that we have a lot more data and that data is delivered in real time; it can also provide us with real-time feedback. So I think it’s obviously very different when you can get a notification on your phone…and say, hey, we just saw that you did this five seconds ago, and we’re going to tell you to do something else. This is different than gamification in the past.” Of course, we also have more screens to play with these days.

2. Is score keeping on the Internet intentional?

The Internet is a huge game. All social media and sites offer some kind of rating: followers, likes, views, visits – all earn users online “points”.

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“I think we can already see how. [keeping score online] it changes behaviour,” says the Hon. “Gamified social media systems are changing how and what people choose to post. It changes what I choose to post because I say, oh, “I have this tweet. I should use lower case because that’s better.” People like me tweet it more and you just start changing your behavior based on [feedback]… We’ve only had it for 15 or 20 years. As it expands and we get augmented reality and virtual reality, then it will change our behavior even more,” he adds.

But were these rating systems developed on purpose? After all, one of the creators of the “like” button is dissatisfied with its results. Hon believes that keeping score online was inevitable but not intentional: “I [don’t] I really think someone is doing this on purpose. Gamification in video games, on social media, it’s just people seeing what works. People saw Foursquare become popular and said, what was different before Foursquare? Gamification. Then we just do it,” he says. Foursquare, for example, allowed users to rank the places they visited. Those who went to a place the most often could become the “mayors” of the place. In addition to this “tribute”, they could receive a gift from this place.

“Games are fun and build on fun things,” adds Hon in his explanation of the initial success of online ratings. “I think it’s a kind of free market capitalism and people just copy each other. It’s good to make your service a game because people like it,” he notes.

3. Everything is rated

Such scores influence how we behave on social media to gain attention. That can be a problem in itself. However, keeping score creates additional problems. Hon cites a 1989 study that highlights the rise of perfectionism among young people, which he says promotes gamification. Society as a whole is organized around evaluation and success criteria, leading to increasing perfectionism. “It’s quite new that people care about fitness like this. It’s probably been the last 50 years that people have had an Apple Watch. People know what heart rate variability is. The goal is to try to optimize ourselves.”

The ratings extend beyond work and physical activity to all aspects of life: “If you just look unhealthy or haven’t read as many good books, you’ll fall down the rankings,” he explains.

The problem is that not everything can be ranked because not everything can be quantified. A good example is TripAdvisor ratings and hotel ratings: 4.9 is better than 4.6, but are the rating criteria comparable? “You can only do something gamified at scale if you have data and the data needs to be structured,” he says.

4. Why are stripes desirable?

Streaks are an example of this classification and often go to absurd extremes: how many days in a row can you string together a random number of unimportant achievements (steps, posts, comments)? Despite the fact that such achievements mean nothing, they give people a slight sense of satisfaction.

Hon’s company’s most successful game is Zombies, run!, a sound game that will make you run a little faster. Hon believes that the main pitfall of gamification is using generic game tricks for any purpose and not adapting them to specific needs.

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Stripes are one of those tricks; people’s minds push them to continue the streak at any cost. Take Apple Watch steps or Fitbits for example. In the book, Hon gives an example from GitHub where programmers who collaborated on or responded to something every day kept their streaks intact. But Hon says this approach is counterproductive: “I think streaks are really the most powerful, simplest and worst forms of gamification. I think it’s bad that they are actually seen as a good thing. For example, why is it good for someone to sign up [on GitHub]? We shouldn’t even be watching it.”

He continues, “I think when someone runs 50 days in a row, that’s probably a bad thing. But we [at Zombies, Run!] please don’t reward it. Sometimes I work 110 days straight and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m really good. “And I feel exhausted. But I don’t get a medal from Apple that says, ‘Good job, you didn’t come today.’ I don’t think it should matter.”

5. Do we really know they are playing with us?

Hon recently discovered a TikTok video posted by an Amazon employee in the United States. In the clip, the worker discussed a game called Tamazilla that encourages employees to work faster by “taking care” of their virtual pets. Do they know Amazon is messing with their minds?

“I think some people will realize it immediately, but I think it just takes a while for people to understand what’s happening to them because it’s so strange and different and new,” says Hon. “In a TikTok video, someone uploaded this game where they collect virtual pets on Amazon. Some of the comments were like, “Wow, that’s really fun.” Now I want to work at Amazon and pack boxes because I can play a game like this.” But there’s also a comment that says, “Hey guys, it’s not as fun as you think. You can’t clean them. It is just to make you work fast and without reward,” explains Hon.

Hon notes that “what’s really interesting about this whole interaction is that the person posting the videos is saying, ‘Hey, this is what I do when I work at Amazon, and I feel bad. I will have to leave my pets behind. I also know that I am being manipulated now.” I don’t know how long it took this person to realize that they were being manipulated. But I think it’s really interesting that Amazon probably went and said, “Oh, we think people like these games because we see people playing them a lot. And people say in surveys they like them’ and it’s like yes, but it’s because you don’t give them a choice.’

Isn’t that better than working and being bored? Hon says they have no choice in the matter. “They can do nothing but play games in the workplace. Additionally, Hon notes that it’s also a mediocre solution to another problem at work: “If you have a workplace where employees don’t work hard and always seem miserable, we should find a workplace that makes them happier. I will also work harder. I think managers and owners are looking for a really easy way to not change the job at all or even just cut people’s pay [and they turn to gamification]” adds Hon.

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6. Conspiracy theories are also a game

Conspiracy theories are often preceded by the phrase, “I did my own research.” But there is a catch. Perhaps the most famous case is QAnon in the United States. QAnon’s anonymous deep figure has been giving ambiguous clues about obscure events for years, but they never happened. Then there is always some detail that needs to be reinterpreted. This required viewing serves to keep people interested.

“I think when you read the reports from QAnon, whoever it is, you know they’re obviously invested in this kind of written evidence.” You know, they could do riddles or mysteries… But they’re really vague, partly because they don’t want to be disproven. They may say, ‘Oh, on the fourth of this month [will do such and such]. And that could mean anything, right? There is something like a game about it. But when I talk about gamification, it’s not so much news. It’s more the way it gets people really excited. And it’s a completely different kind of game than people are used to thinking about.”

QAnon messages give the feeling of solving a puzzle, finding details that fit, even if they only exist in one’s head. “It’s not a game, but it feels exciting, and it’s even more exciting when you get to talk [other] people and then they also give you clues. I think social media is fueling its growth. And I would say that the scientific method does not encourage people to take up the fight,” says Hon.

7. Marie Kondo and the next phase of gamification

In his book, Hon uses the example of Marie Kondo. You can watch her series, but when you turn off the TV, she’s not chasing you around the house to tidy up. Unlike what has already happened with exercise, work and some conspiracies, the show does not complicate clearing out your wardrobe. But that is likely to change soon. With augmented reality glasses, the Marie Kondo video game will be able to bring gamification to private spaces.

Hon gives the example of mopping the floor in his book. While it is currently not possible to gamify this work, it is possible with augmented reality glasses. Maybe it will be good: with glasses we will see cockroaches that can be killed with a mop, or dirty corners to get rid of digital dirt. This will promote wiping. When used correctly, the Apple Watch can also encourage its users to move more; after a few weeks they will hopefully feel better.

The problem is how the games are made. They can be helpful, but not always. The same will be true of augmented reality glasses of the future: “It would be great to create a game that encourages people to pick up trash in their neighborhood. [when using] glasses. I just think a lot of terrible things will also be gamified,” says Hon.

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