Gamification Is Not Mind Control

In an earlier post, I looked at the gamification of politics. This is the idea that politics (particularly in the US) is acquiring a “gamified structure” as our human sense-making impulses, overloaded by an “unending deluge of information” online, correlate all the content fed to us via social media compulsion loops (e.g. “likes” and their associated dopamine release) into conspiratorial meta-narratives, leading to growing political polarisation and radicalisation.

QAnon is held up as the purest example of this phenomenon, though some argue the trend has now spread across American politics more broadly.

Certainly, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist, has positively embraced the gamification of politics. In fact, he hopes our online “game” personas (i.e. the most radical, “mad as hell” personas adopted in comment sections and on social media) will eventually completely subsume our offline “real world” identities.

In other words, Bannon wants Dave from accounting to one day transcend his mundane, “cucked” existence and fully “red pill” into his online avatar: “Ajax”.

At that extreme point, as Dave / Ajax merge into one, any distinction between politics as “game” and politics as “reality” will be meaningless, and Ajax will be ready for the final boss fight.

It’s an interesting idea… but I’m not convinced. Politics has always possessed a gamified structure (with political parties as “teams” competing for “points”, i.e. votes). Furthermore, while political violence and conspiracy theories may be enjoying a resurgence in America today, these phenomena are not exactly new.

Still, the idea seems to have struck a chord. A new book by Adrian Hon, You’ve Been Played, expands the argument to include the gamification of all aspects of our lives, from work and education to our bodies, romantic relationships and even mental health.

Hon’s book has garnered thoughtful reviews in the BBC and the New York Times (though my favourite is from Scotland’s The Herald newspaper, which opens hard with: “Are you a meat robot?”).

Nevertheless, one big reason I’m sceptical is because the argument that “gamification” is driving political radicalisation downplays social drivers, such as growing inequality and precarity. Some of this is captured in Alexandria Symonds’ New York Times review:

“Ending the nefarious reign of workplace gamification, Hon writes, will require empowering workers via ‘some combination of exerting existing antitrust laws, increasing minimum wages, improving the social safety net, strengthening unions and introducing strict workplace regulation.’ (Oh, is that all?) It’s hard to feel there’s any way to win if the final boss to be defeated is capitalism itself.”

Put differently, if political polarisation and radicalisation are not ultimately caused by “gamification” but rather by the power dynamics inherent under capitalism… why not just ignore gamification as a surface symptom and instead focus on reforming those underlying power structures?

(Of course, this gets us back to the debate about technological determinism, social determinism, and “co-production” between technology and society, which was the topic of my first post.)

Anyway, the point about underlying social drivers is addressed more directly in a 2021 article in the LA Review of Books by Max Haiven, A. T. Kingsmith, and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, discussing the game-like elements of QAnon:

In a capitalist world that is almost completely shaped by the inhuman and banal power of money, the notion that real power is in the hands of a secret cabal of evil warlocks — and even better that one can join a secret resistance against them — is intoxicating. Trapped in a meaningless capitalist game the vast majority of us cannot hope to win, why not choose to play a different game? Why not apply all of the virtues of skepticism, reason, distrust of the powerful, and civic responsibility to this game?

However, perhaps the biggest reason I’m sceptical of the “gamification of politics” theory is that it takes such a fundamentally Skinnerian / behaviourist view of human nature. This is the point made in Tom Chatfield’s BBC review of Adrian Hon’s book:

“At root, then, gamification can be thought of as an apparatus of feedback loops intended to reinforce certain behaviours, and, by extension, as an expression of faith in behaviourist models of mind and body. If you’ve ever found yourself nudged towards just one more click on social media – or to hit a target of daily steps or virtual quests – you’ll have felt the force of these incentives. And you may well have been grateful for them.”

Behaviourism is the theory that patterns of behaviour are acquired by conditioning through interaction with the environment. In other words, our behaviour in any given situation is determined by our prior experience of repeated feedback from environmental stimuli in similar situations.

As Tom Chatfield explains, the problem with gamification is that it draws on behaviourist concepts, such as “operant conditioning”, often based on animal experiments that dramatically restricted the range of possible responses available to subjects:

“Behaviourism offers an excellent description of how animals constrained within certain systems will respond to certain incentives. As a long-term recipe for human thriving, however, it’s fatally undermined by its self-fulfilling over-simplifications: by the ways in which it suggests meaningful choices are bugs to be ironed out of suboptimal systems, rather than central aspects of freedom and dignity.”

Or, as Adrian Hon puts it:

“[T]he reason why a rat in a cage pushes a lever so much? It’s because it’s in a cage. It doesn’t have anything else to do.”

The debate around the gamification of politics sometimes reminds me of the Soviet Union’s “desperate efforts at mind control”. Soviet research into so-called “psychotronics” was pseudoscience, yet as much as $1 billion may have been spent by the USSR during the Cold War on trying to telepathically control the masses. Similarly, gamification is often talked about like a kind of Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing technique.

Gamification is not mind control. Nevertheless, social media certainly is addictive and manipulative, and technology interfaces with politics in ways that can transform both (“the medium is the message”).

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be: “Are we meat robots?” but rather: “Under what conditions are we most autonomous?”

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