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Gaming is about solving problems that don’t exist, and that’s a good thing

Pac-Man played on a historic Commodore 64 computer.
REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
40 years after Pac-Man, we still don’t understand what games are about.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Ian Bogost has a job that wouldn’t have existed a generation ago: He’s a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology focused on games, and founding partner of Persuasive Games, a design studio that makes games about social and political issues. Bogost is also the author of a dozen books about the gaming world, and is teaching many of the next crop of game designers. We picked his brain about myriad issues he’s facing in the trenches, including the future of gamification.

The conversation has been edited for length. 

Quartz: You have written that gamification is bullshit.” Explain what you mean. 

Bogost: Back when gamification was becoming a trend about a decade ago, the idea was that games have always been both appealing and terrifying to people. That’s because they have this power to get players to become enraptured with them and to spend enormous amounts of time and attention actively devoted to operating them. Which feels like the opposite of the problem we have in contemporary media or contemporary life, where we’re so distracted all the time—”Oh, I can’t even finish a book” or “I need to stay on task at school or at work.” That’s always been an appealing feature or draw of games, that there’s something magical and powerful about them.

But then on the downside, they’re extremely compelling. Why? For what purpose? They’re just delivering this sort of empty time. Or sometimes it’s violent, prurient content or sexualized or misogynistic imagery or what have you, so it’s dangerous that games would have this pull.

That diad, that almost dialectical relationship, between the enormous power and appeal of games and [the] danger associated with them, it’s always been something people have wanted to tame or channel. How can we take the good part of the power and leave behind the bad? This goes back decades and decades and decades. One of the worries was whether young people were being drawn into antisocial environments and becoming delinquents in video arcades in the early ’80s. And one of the worries in the coin-op days about games’ power was that they were partially enforcement systems akin to casino gambling, machines that people couldn’t make decisions about.

This activity of gamification was almost this Mary Poppins error. We’ll just spread some sweetener over the sour experience and hope you won’t notice, hope it’s enough to gag it down so you can get through the activity that we really want you to take part in.

So what changed? 

Professor Ian Bogost.

As the internet and the web and apps and smartphones and all of this coalesced in the aughts, there was renewed interest in the technology sector in going back and colonizing games and making games a legitimate form of business. This was right around the time that almost everything we do in our lives was being made an app or piece of software.

Everything was being turned into software, so the gamifiers came along and thought, “Well, maybe we can tame and abscond with some of this magic from games to rationalize and [normalize] business, school, and health activity into something fun and enjoyable that people would be drawn to or enjoy” rather than see it as something bureaucratic or as ticking boxes or following compliance procedures.

This was also the same time that fitness trackers started to appear. People started counting more and more of their lives. Today, it’s difficult to remember there was a time that we didn’t count everything. “Did I say something clever? Well you can just judge it based on how many hearts my tweet has.” Or, “This day was good because of how many Instagram likes I got.” All of those sorts of phenomena were coming around.

The thing about it that I found extremely cynical was the idea that this was somehow the center of what games really were. That what made them compelling was how they could provide numerical feedback like your score or what level you were on or that they might give you incentives to compete with other people.

To me, this was almost like the management consultants rediscovering or discovering games and realizing that there were certain principles that were not central to games at all, but which they could claim as central and easily and cynically apply across any sector or any activity as a sort of bottled magic. All that attention that kids were, or were perceived to be, dumping into it, we had sort of bottled it and you could shake it over your business or your school or your wellness management program, whatever it is you have a problem with, in order to make it more deeply compelling. Whereas in fact, those things were un-compelling at the start and that’s what the problem was. Or, they weren’t connected to outcomes that people were interested in or found in any way appealing.

So this activity of gamification was almost this Mary Poppins error. We’ll just spread some sweetener over the sour experience and hope you won’t notice, hope it’s enough to gag it down so you can get through the activity that we really want you to take part in.

Something I didn’t even think about at the time was how much data collection was involved in these processes. But that was also something that was ramping up back then.

You also coined the term “exploitationware” around the same time. What is that and why does it matter? 

This is way before we had this techlash thing that is going on where people realized that the activities they thought they were performing in secret or even just in earnest were being mined and resold to advertisers or data brokers. Now, we know all too well. So, the exploitationware idea was an attempt to rename or recast the gamification trend so it was a little more sinister and a little more descriptive of the processes that were actually taking place.

Those… represented compliance efforts, efforts to get employees or students or whomever it was to do things that [people] in control or power wanted them to do. One common use of gamification style and techniques that has actually persisted and been enormously successful is activity tracking, like fitness tracking. I have it on my watch right now and it’s tracking my steps or doing some sort of analysis of how I move, whatever it is to get me to supposedly be more healthful.

In the case of an employer who signs up with a program in which they may have optional but strongly encouraged or incentivized, sometimes even subsidized Apple Watch or FitBit-like devices… they want you to wear these gadgets so supposedly you can live a more active lifestyle. But what they really want to do is to reduce the financial burden to health care or underwriting mechanisms.

While these things haven’t fully come online in a dystopian way, we’re starting to see the signs that maybe even some insurers or underwriters are going to [be] requiring or encouraging these kinds of tracking devices….So it’s a combination of surveillance and control and compliance that are really at play in most of these software packages. And the recasting of that application of gamification is exploitation. It is my attempt to foreground the compliance-seeking or the end benefits that imposes these programs on their constituents rather than to make them pursue fun or make them more game-like, which is often the way they were sold.

For the “core” gamers, they revel in defending the boundaries of the territory that they perceive to be their own.

How do you see the game industry continuing to seep into these other, non-traditional worlds? 

It’s so interesting, I just got out of class on games and we were talking about legitimacy in games and what really makes a game. This question is at the heart of this material. There are a lot of people who play Farmville or Candy Crush [but because those games don’t appeal to] a category of core gamer… tens or hundreds of millions of people are cast aside and [those games] are not seen as ‘real’ games. And it’s those high-budget, console, narrative games that are much more central to the hobbyist or enthusiast experience of games.

It has been like this for so long. Every few years when I’m talking to the press or talking to someone who is out of the ordinary circle of games, there’s this idea that we’re on the cusp of mainstream success. People will cite sales numbers and say things like, “Aren’t games bigger than movies?” which is not the case, but it is if you look at a certain subset of the numbers. And there’s [the] idea that we’re still in the early days of this medium or something. There have been commercial video games for well over 50 years now so it’s a really inconsistent position, but it’s one that comes up every few years or so, again and again.

One of the things [about] this chasm between the enthusiast game players who see it as their identity or their hobby and the ordinary person who plays some games sometimes on their phone or on their computer or the Nintendo Switch or whatever they play at home, is that it maintains this myth of magic and power that is central to that sort of draw and revulsion that people have had about video games since their inception.

If they were to become truly mainstream in all of their varieties, the way comic books became mainstream in their adaptation to big-budget Hollywood tentpole movies, then that nervous relationship between games and the activity between the games themselves and almost illegitimate or incorrect activity that they represent—“Oh, I feel so much guilt, I’m wasting time and I should be doing something else instead, but it’s appealing to me to do that activity”—all of that sort of nervous energy is somehow central to the experience of games.

For the “core” gamers, they revel in defending the boundaries of the territory that they perceive to be their own, i.e. excluding certain titles that don’t meet whatever arbitrary requirements they have, or judging something on the basis of whether it matches some preconception of controls or behavior theme that only a very small percentage of the media-consuming population really cares about.

Then on the flip side, people who just touch the media in a casual way find it very important to distance themselves. “I don’t really play games, I’m not a gamer. Oh, but I play 10 hours of Candy Crush a week on my commute.” I think this a medium in which there’s almost a desire for it to be dirty or untouchable. It’s not unlike alcohol or casino gambling in that way, something that we’re deeply drawn to and love, but are also revolted by our love of it and the appeal and the control and power that it exerts over us. People came to feel that way about their smartphones and social media and it’s no accident that a lot of the incentive structures and reinforcement techniques are related to the design of gambling systems or the design of games.

How do you weigh the good with the bad with games? 

I think that games are the least of our worries.

If you want to be worried about privacy and addiction, forget about games. Over the past two years—it rolled out slowly—the World Health Organization first proposed, then established, a category of behavioral addiction for video games. It was a really interesting moment because when it comes to addiction, people view it that word very informally these days. Like anything that’s mildly compelling, people say, “Oh, I’m addicted to it.”

But in the clinical literature, addiction has always meant substance addiction, like alcohol or pharmaceuticals. With one exception, called behavioral addiction, which is the one that’s typically used for mental health conditions in North America. The only behavioral addiction that was ever recognized was gambling addiction. According to the psychologists, you couldn’t just be behaviorally addicted to something. Maybe there were other factors at work, like you’re depressed or have anxiety, so you turn to something as a result of that. But as far as recognized clinical things, there just haven’t been any.

But when WHO put this gaming thing on the books, it was remarkable to me because if anything, if you want to put anything in the books, why would you limit it to video games? Doesn’t it seem like games are some subset of electronic-device addiction: social media, Facebook, or just that compulsion of looking at your phone at every moment and you don’t even know why? The pull and draw of Instagram and Twitter is much more widespread and much more powerful than that of any of the video games that are getting published today. At the end of the day, at least those provide an earnest entertainment experience [rather] than existing as a business first or as data extraction tools.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all of these big technology companies are enormously wealthy and represent trillions of dollars of value. Those are far more concerning than any random video game that may be collecting a little bit of information. The privacy or data extraction or cybersecurity concerns, yeah, they somewhat overlap because they have your payment information, but it’s no comparison to what Facebook and Google know about us.

When you play a game you are taking on a problem that doesn’t exist and trying to solve it in order to feel what it’s like to solve this problem that doesn’t exist.

For those making the games, statistics show that in terms of the gender gap and racial diversity, the numbers are still pretty dismal. How does that change so that those making the games reflect the diversity of those playing them? 

It’s bad. It remains a huge problem.

The weird thing about the games industry is that it’s always been stuck or uncomfortably situated somewhere between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, metaphorically speaking. On the one hand, it’s an industry that wants to be a cultural industry and it wants to have an impact on ideas and people’s creative sensibilities. But on the other hand it’s [an] extremely libertarian sector, and it’s produced under many of the same conditions and same technological systems as Silicon Valley. It’s organized and structured much more like technology companies in that you don’t tend to have as many independent contractors or agents who are working on their own. So that sort of anxiety—are we a tech-sector business or an entertainment-sector business?—the games industry has sometimes picked up the worst habits of both of those sectors.

You’ve got all the representational calamities of the entertainment sector merged with the pipeline issues of the tech sector and you throw into that mix a history of really troubled, abusive internet behavior between players, developers, and the general public and you end up with a really unhealthy circumstance. At the same time, alternate voices have emerged, especially over the past 10 or 15 years as there become more and more channels to create and publish these sort of works, like on the App Store or Steam, or these other independent channels.

In terms of the games you’ve made, it seems like you’re really trying to harness gaming as a force for good. You’ve worked on games like “Sweaty Palms,” that helps the anxious simulate a first date, or “Honorarium” about the lecture circuit. So, to put on your optimist gamer hat for a minute, what’s the best-case scenario for how this pans out? 

It was 15 or 16 years ago that my studio made this game for the Howard Dean campaign and it was the first time that there had been an official game for a presidential candidate. Looking back at that time, twentyish years ago, when I first really started in earnest working on games for education, political speech, and applications in business and so on, it was a totally different era. We didn’t have social media, smartphones, YouTube. We completely reinvented the media ecosystem over the last 15 years.

So many of the aspirational promises people like me were making around that time or before then, it’s not so much that we were wrong about the promise or that it still couldn’t transpire, but rather the other kinds of media experiences we are competing with now are so powerful and so much more populated and adopted so it’s not just a matter of, “Can games become television?” Now, why wouldn’t you futz around on social media rather than spend your time on a game in the first place?

That said, my position on this used to be that there was something about games that was deeply, materially connected to fundamental big problems of the world. And the nature of that connection was [that] the biggest issues, the stuff that was hardest to wrap our heads around, the wicked problems, climate change, what have you, they are complex systems. They have lots of moving variables and parts and the minute that you touch one of them and you think you’ve solved some local issue, it turns out it created a cascading effect somewhere else you couldn’t see. Games, at their best, are like that. They’re deeply connected systems of machinery that are like clockwork. That similarity in form, between the way that big games work and the way big problems worked, suggested to me that there was a potential to use games to almost natively communicate how big systems work or how we could fix or remedy some of these issues that surround complex, systemic problems.

You don’t have to look around much to see how that worked out. We didn’t make discourse around complex systems deeper and more nuanced. Now we have even more soundbite-y or short-form ways of meme-ing into the latest moment without digging into its deeper reasons or causes.

Again, that’s the kind of thing that could still turn around, but the conditions today make it even harder for me to see how games accomplish that feat now versus 15 or 20 years ago.

One of the new observations I’ve been making and trying to assuage my own concerns about the world with: There’s something fundamentally arbitrary and bizarre and almost alienating about games. When you play a game you are taking on a problem that doesn’t exist and trying to solve it in order to feel what it’s like to solve this problem that doesn’t exist.

There’s this famous aphorism that “golf is a good walk spoiled” but it’s wrong. The whole reason golfers go out is so that they can spoil their walk, so that they can do this absurd thing with a physical environment that has been terraformed for the purpose of getting a ball in a hole many hundreds of yards away. The way I see games now is they help orient us to the beauty and the delight in those kinds of experiences everywhere. And they’re anywhere you turn. Everything you do has this strange depth of meaning and interaction if you only allow yourself to see it as a preposterous and arbitrary system that doesn’t exist to accomplish some goal and that you can’t really make sense of or rationalize.

Trying to get from work to home when traffic is bad; attempting to till and manage your garden as the winter remains much warmer than you expected it to be; fitting dishes from the whole family’s holiday dinner in the dishwasher. Daily experiences that we think of as meaningless, as the stuff you just want to get through so you can get on to the good stuff—[games can make you see that] those activities might actually be the good stuff. That if we spend all of our time overlooking them or trying to race through them, we miss out on this wealth of meaning and delight and joy that has been available to us the whole time. So that’s one of the lessons I’ve tried to draw out of game play and design in my more recent work.

Let’s talk about virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR). A few years ago, people were so excited about VR, and there has been some cool stuff, but a lot of hopes have fallen flat. Where do you see VR going? 

We’ve been promised the future of VR since the 1980s, if not earlier. And now that we have hardware that is light and relatively affordable, we can no longer rely on matters of cost and weight, all of the physical obstacles that existed before. The obstacles that remain now are fundamental to the experience of virtual reality.

It remains weird and uncomfortable to put on a goggle that blinds you to the material world and projects a different world into your field of vision. Something about that remains odd and uncomfortable. Not to mention that still people get motion sick; they’ve gotten a lot better but it’s been an issue. Interestingly—and there’s debate about this—women seem to be more susceptible to it than men. It may or may not be because men are largely designing these systems.

I think VR is doomed to be a useful but extremely niche technology and the place where it will be most useful at a widespread scale is more in industrial applications rather than consumer applications. For example, let’s say that you’re remodeling your house and you have hired an architect to redesign your kitchen and you wanted a sense of what it’s like to look around and walk around this new space before you spend tens of thousands of dollars renovating it—that’s a great reason to put on some VR goggles. Also, in the medical field and warehousing and other industries, there may be some more applications. The same is probably true with AR to some extent, though that may have greater consumer promise.

As an entertainment form, you still have, if you’re using the room scale of VR that it requires, you need to be able to walk around in a space and most people don’t have that space available. That’s been the problem with every apparatus that has required some architectural intervention to pull it off. The Nintendo Wii with motion controls, which everyone loved at first because you could bowl with your friends, quickly fell aside because if you didn’t have the room or space, you had to move the coffee table, so it was not compatible with how we lived, our domestic lives. There will be a set of people for whom VR is something they can support in that way but for the vast majority, it will still be that way.

It’s kind of like drones in that regard. Everyone said, “Wow, I got to get a drone! They’re so cool!” Then it was, “What do I need a drone for?” Real estate agents like them because they can take aerial photos of properties, but the average person doesn’t really need a drone.