Soft Power through Gaming

No, not understanding soft power by gaming – but using gaming techniques to exert soft power…

Science Daily reports on some interesting research that has researchers using gaming techniques to “nudge” people to behave in ways the researchers desire. Is is outrageous to take that idea of “nudging” people for the benefit of science, to “nudging” them for the benefit of achieving policy ends? or say to improve our position in say, Afghanistan?

The idea of using gaming techniques for self-improvement is the subject website’s such as lifehacker and lifehack and are passionately espoused in Jane McGonigal’s book “Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world”. But these are suggestions for how we can “hack” ourselves for self-improvement. What are the implications of others “hacking” our behavior either in ways we that are not obvious or to purposes we are not privy to? Being of an increasingly libertarian bent of late, this notion sets alarm bells off in my inner Ron Paul 😉

First off, after reading MacGonigal’s book, I see a “there there” but think its a fair bit overblown. I think there is a personality type (not sure what it is, but its me when I’m in the mood, and definitely NOT me other times…) that this “gamification of life” works on – its not as universally applicable as McGonigal wants us to believe. A little of it goes a long way as well, even for those whose personality is drawn to “gamification” there are only so many “game threads” one can pursue at a time. I had a personal success story where I used “gamification” to get me from the couch to a 4 hour 40 min marathon finish in about 15 months. But once “the game was over” I put 30 pounds back on and didn’t do another distance race (a 10k) until nearly 3 years later (a couple weeks ago). I now look back and see that “over gaminfication” was probably responsible for the lack of staying power of my “Forrest Gump moment” (Run Vebber Run!)

Assuming that for some portion of the population, for limited periods of time, we are highly susceptible to “gamification” (something my intuition tells me is probably true) what are the implications of efforts such as this to manipulate people’s actions to a purpose? I thnk its relatively easy to justify things like skewing the location of virtual ghosts to be virtually busted for “the good of science”. But is it a slippery slope from there to other less altruistic forms of manipulation? Like someone manipulating groups of people to congregate where they are susceptible to forming a mob? SOme credit “social media operations” not far from those lines in stimulating some of the “Arab Spring” demonstrations. Perhaps not explicit “gamification” but employing social media “incentives” to get people to go where organizers wanted then to go.

‘Well they wanted to go anyway and that facilitated the ability of those that wanted to participate, being able to show their true numbers”. Perhaps, but again its a slippery slope from “good guys” getting people with “good intentions” an assist in “self-organizing”, and say, a secret police intrusion in such a scheme to lure rebel sympathizers into an ambush. Or other forms of “set up” where it can be made out that the group has more violent intentions then perhaps they do justifying a crack down.

Conspiracy theories aside, “gamification” appears to be a powerful technique to affect human behavior. Like anything, the good or evil is in its use, and that is often in the eye of the beholder. There are a great number of good things that “gamification” can accomplish – both overtly and covertly, but what sort of oversight should there be on its use, if any? What sort of “code of ethics” should practitioners of “gamification research” abide by, and what should be done if abuses are suspected or demonstrated?

I’m not sure yet if the recent uptick in the “profile” of gaming related research and advocacy is an anomaly or a signal of an impending “renaissance” in gaming. I of course would like to think the latter, but being a veteran of the mine countermeasures force in the Navy, I have seen the “cycle of irrelevance” run its course too many times to be optimistic 😮

In any case it makes for good blog fodder, and fun to think about the next generation of State Department “game corps” officers who will set up real and virtual games to promote foreign policy initiatives – and the elite ‘Gamma Force’ covert gaming operatives who will conduct social media operations to incite insurrection by insidious hacking of Farmville… 😉

Hmm, let me call John Grisham and see if Tom Clancy has taken that plot yet 😉

About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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1 Response to Soft Power through Gaming

  1. Pete Pellegrino says:

    A couple of thoughts – Remember when “jointness” became the funding buzzword, i.e. to get anything funded you had to stick a J in front of your acronym? While “game” isn’t quite there yet, things like gamification seem to hint that we’re headed for one of Paul’s cycles of irrelevance. At last summer’s Serious Play convention in Redmond, WA, a speaker cautioned against following the gamification siren song. Not every “bad” activity can be improved by making a game out of it. Some things just cannot be fixed by awarding points and badges.

    Can we encourage “better behavior” by making an activity more “fun?” Sure. Consider the ideas at We can get people to litter less, recycle more, drive slower, and take the stairs. Will the behavior persist after the novelty wears off? Are these the results of gamifying life? Are these even games?

    These may simply be examples of what happens when you shift your design focus. Rather than focusing on how the “player’s” activities can be modified as the good news part of the story, I would suggest that the benefit lies with the design side. If you’re a bridge engineer, you see one set of solutions to the problem of crossing a chasm. But if you’re a motorcycle daredevil, you see a very different set of solutions. By seeing a problem through a game lens, we may gain perspectives and possible solutions that may not have been considered using more traditional (whatever that means) approaches.

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