oct 23

Gaming The System

I wrote an essay -- "The Game of Life" -- for this month's Wired where I make a wacky assertion: gaming has become the prevailing narrative of our time.


The whole idea started by noticing how several of my daily interactions -- watching TV, reading RSS, dating -- have become very game-like. At first, I didn't know what to call these instances, but I eventually started using the term gaming moments. And then soon enough, a definition arose: "competitive interactions in daily life that involve play." Sometimes the interactions are social, sometimes they are you versus a computer algorithm. But once you've noticed them, they suddenly become ubiquitous.

"Gaming the system," it seems, has become standard operating procedure for everything from booking an airline ticket to battling your TiVo's automated recommendations.

In some ways, this is an admittedly trite argument. Whether you're watching The Wire or reading Shakespeare, you've heard that life is a game. (Nassim Taleb even coined a word for this: ludic fallacy, "the misuse of games to model real-life situations." His criticism is actually directed at a branch of mathematics and philosophy -- game theory -- but the point is still worth recognizing.) Nevertheless, let's look at the evidence: if you stop and look around, you'll find game scenarios everywhere. Like Poe's purloined letter, the notion of "gaming the system" has become so obvious and pervasive that it's almost invisible to us.

In the closing paragraphs of the essay, I hypothesize why so much of our society (particularly social interaction, online activity, and cultural products) seems like a game. My theory has to do with data. (This will sound familiar to anyone who read my earlier essay on predictions, where I suggest that data availability has led to a penchant for prediction applications.) Because we've opened more data (through search engines, APIs, open records, and so on), we've tweaked consciousness just a little bit: now when we encounter data-centric scenarios, we immediately think about how the information can be manipulated.

Anyway, read the essay for yourself. In comments here, I would like to explore other examples where you stopped and said, "this is a lot like a game." I provided several in the essay (reality tv, search engine optimizers, etc.), but some others that come to mind include traffic, dieting, speed dating, and improv classes.

Also, feel free to throw in some websites -- some examples: Farecast.com (where you "gamble" on the future of airline ticket prices), Reality All Starz (where you make challenges for yourself), and GetHuman.com (where you learn how to game automated voice systems).

So now, your turn.

(Also, thanks to Tom, Matt, Robin, Carrie, and Beth, who all helped shape ideas for this piece.)


On the simplistic side, I am confident that visible quantified data becomes a challenge to most humans. We see this all over the web (# of blog comments, # of entries, number of friends, number of followers, number of bones (dogster ;)) In fact, the minute we started showing Dogster members the exact number of bones their dog had, it drove people crazy to get more (previously we just indicated levels, not exact amounts.)

And I see what you mean IRL too, how many Lost episodes can you watch, how many emails can you delete, how many devices can you sync your calendar to? (Yikes, are these really IRL items ?)

What I don't know is why competitive behaviors kick in simply by seeing a number. It suddenly becomes the baseline you want to get above....

Looking forward to reading your article

posted by Ted Rheingold at 10:17 PM on October 22, 2007

congrats, good article.

posted by aue at 12:37 AM on October 23, 2007

I think a large part of the shifting mindset of even moderate gamers has to to do with current gen gaming and its exploration of more realistic environments to move in, as opposed to the pac-man, 8 bit world we used to associate gaming with.

When we exit these worlds we move around the real world and start to find amazing similarities to the gaming environment BUT we don't have the handy tools we had in the gaming world to manipulate the game world, hence... we are now creating tools to manipulate the real world that are in a sense creations from that gaming world. Its not that reality is a game, but that we are changing reality to BE like a game. Why? perhaps we want to be able to control our reality the way we can in a game.

Even playing realistic environment games for a short period I think will begin to have a huge long term effect on culture as we move forward and game environments become more and more advanced and realistic, it could genuinely present us with a crisis of reality and the shortcomings of 'life' that we just have to take for granted and accept.

posted by stevo at 8:03 AM on October 23, 2007

lessee: plato's cave -> gnostics et al -> ... (jung? tolkien??) -> huxley's doors -> baudrillard's simulacra ->
ebert's 'what is reality' genre (existenz, 13th floor, dark city, matrix) -> kids' cartoons now - http://www.commonsensemedia.org/tv-reviews/Chaotic.html - :P like getting a job is leveling up or whatever now...

cf. manovich -


"Grendel's salvation comes from the hero Beowulf. Grendel understands that much of human existence is artifice... heroes might be figments of imagination, but there are fewer things more powerful to human experience."

posted by kenny at 8:13 AM on October 23, 2007

The first thing that came to mind was scrobbling and last.fm . Numerous times, I've found myself both 'gaming' my profile - i.e. listening to more of the music I want to show up - and also feeling a sense of accomplishment as the numbers rack up.

This sense of accumulation could also connected to to you bringing up dating-as-gaming. I think that's a spot-on observation, especially if we think of those web accumulations (Facebook friends, scrobbled tracks etc.) as cultural capital. To wit, the more 'achievements' you have, the more marketable you are in the game of dating - and, you could argue, life. If gaming is on some level based on systems of exchange - this object is worth so many experience points or this object will give you health - then this all fits in terms of cultural/economic zeitgeist.

As usual though, I think I disagree about data being at the root of this. Not that I'm saying it isn't a factor - but I think the sort of Baudrillardian sense of reality as mediated through images probably plays a role too, as we become accustomed to the idea of building and manipulating our lives as sets of images rather than people, data or 'real ideas'.

Btw, this is pretty awesome stuff. Nice job dude.

posted by Nav at 10:08 AM on October 23, 2007

more re: 'reality as game' :P


and why not art & poetry (stunt/spectacle in the community of eyes) or play (cf. http://www.kottke.org/06/11/will-wrights-bibliography - 'sampled & remixed' and http://www.alamut.com/subj/artiface/games/infiniteGames.html - 'infinite games')


nevermind survival/security (leveling up maslow's pyramid -- http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20010501/wright_01.htm -- to [save the cheerleader] save the world?


"Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness... give me truth." http://imdb.com/title/tt0758758/quotes

posted by kenny at 10:20 AM on October 23, 2007

re: accumulation, money in a very real sense is a game of cultural accumulation - a way to 'keep score' as it were (however flawed)...

"The idea of money as a source of social memory was also crucial for John Locke who figures prominently in our story as the philosopher who inaugurated the modern age of democratic revolutions. Locke was obsessed with moneys role both in establishing a progressive social order and in subverting it as its criminal antithesis. Indeed he believed that money launched humanity from the state of nature onto the road to civil government. As long as mens possessions were limited to perishable products, the scope for property was restricted. Money, by offering a durable store of value convertible against all useful things, unleashed the potential for property accumulation and for the intergenerational transmission of inequality. For Locke then, money was indispensable to that development of cultural memory on which civilisation depends." http://www.thememorybank.co.uk/book/chapter-1/

cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whuffie - social currency - http://www.transaction.net/money/ - attention economy - http://www.alamut.com/subj/economics/attention/attent_economy.html - etc...

and if you're adventurous you can pick up the social(ist) calculation debate :P


btw, i should hasten to add anderson's _imagined communities_ to any debate on online/game worlds bleeding into our collective diegetic reality!

"on the Net, they are somebody" http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9711/msg00019.html

posted by kenny at 11:33 AM on October 23, 2007

excellent post.
one example that comes to mind, could be obvious: youtube. it's been argued that the sharing/embedding/forwarding mechanisms contribute to "flow-like" experiences, which is an interesting way to think about the play involved in more and more of our interactions and experiences.

posted by Dino at 5:10 PM on October 23, 2007

this topic has become really hot in the "virtual world" space where people really flip it on it's head. living real lives in gameworlds. Sulka Haro, the lead designer of Habbo Hotel has great interview detailed here re: gameless games

analyzed here - http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2007/10/habbo-hotel-as-.html

posted by glitch at 10:44 PM on October 23, 2007

it's like that moody blues song, man,
Red is grey and yellow white,
But we decide which is right.
And which is an illusion

posted by Sandman at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2007

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