I’m working on a few stories that have at their hearts different economic issues, and I’ve been thinking about motivation, payment, promotions, and value a lot.
When what my brain teases out of those topics gets meshed up with a twitter stream full of SXSW gamification exultation (a week ago now, but already old news) and another round of micropayment discussion on another channel, you should expect a rant.
And a disclaimer, of course.
I’m not an economist. I’m a writer. And sometimes a game-type person. I’m also a bit vested in other things that have to do with how people exchange what they value for items that other people value. Plus, I have a heap of rollover minutes on my cellphone, and once flew my family to New Zealand on airline miles (that’s a lot of miles. Check if you don’t believe me.).
So yeah, I’ve got next to nothing in cred on this topic, aside from a fairly spicy brain.
What does that all mean to you, and why should you keep reading? Because things like rollover minutes and airline miles and game gold and micropayments are all at issue when it comes to gaming the world.
‘Ok, wait,’ you say. ‘You need to lay off the caffeine. And what does “gaming the world” mean exactly?’
Folks like Jesse Schell, Jane McGonigal, and Seth Priebatsch and others want to make living your life a way to earn points, level up, and generally create numerous motivational structures that will help you do those things you do already in more rewarding ways that might at some point end up saving the world. Or, if not the world, then consumer culture. Or something in between. This is not a bad thing.
We’ve got very little to go on when we try to determine value for something right now. Things are always on “sale”. Grades and egos and resumes all get inflated. Clothing sizes rarely hew to a standard valuation anymore – even within the same store. So signifying that an action, achievement, or behavior is of value is one thing that games have done very well on a certain level for ages – and gamification advocates think that this can be expanded to fill the current void, while providing motivational rewards.
And the rewards, whether they’re points you can turn in for something, or some sort of community credential that bumps your standing, are what I’ve been thinking about (and no, I’m far from the only one). Already, points are being used to reward customer loyalty (airline miles) and to allow companies to make something you’ve already paid for (cellphone air time) into a bonus feature (rollover minutes). In games themselves, points in the form of game gold can be turned in for items, and they can also be purchased using real cash.
These points, rewards, and credits are often very small when converted to dollar amounts. They’re also usually complex numbers, like $1 = 447 blaxxnars, or $1 = .0035 miles (holidays excluded). And while you can buy into the system, in order to give yourself more points/miles/whatever, it’s difficult sometimes to cash out of the system, though some companies (American Express, I believe) are making efforts in that area.
However, in some versions of the gameified world (though notably not McGonigal’s), people are encouraged to do small bits of work in exchange for points. You might spend 1 minute uploading a photo of you wearing a certain pair of shoes for 10 points, for instance. Free advertising for the shoemaker, with zero additional overhead. You might spend extra time recycling for 50 citycredits. You could spend an hour answering questions on an experts app for community credit. Whatever it is, the game layer has your compensation. Instead of you getting paid for your work, you’ve gotten points. Which is fine, if your points maintain their value.
But what if they don’t?
It’s hard to tell, when game value replaces a commonly accepted value (like the almighty dollar… and before that the dollar replaced the gold standard… hmm maybe we’re onto something) the way points are layered over cash in some of the examples above, exactly what the value of a thing should be. There’s nothing hard and fast to peg that value. And when $1 = 447 blaxxnars, it’s hard to do the math fast enough to figure out just how many $s you’ve got anyway. What happens when game values start to fluctuate? The market can make values fluctuate, but so can companies who are looking to raise earnings.
Think about the last time your airline mileage requirements for an upgrade were re-set and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
The more difficult the numbers get, the harder it’s going to be to determine what the value of our values are, especially when they’re small. I’m actually very pro micropayments, and I’m also pro games, but I’m going to caution the super-excited among you that gamification doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be raining money for everyone.
It might be raining blaxxnars.