leveling up

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.



  1. “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 makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking, of course, because people are essentially self-interested (and that’s not necessarily a BAD thing) of how I intend to apply this to my own burgeoning business, and how I like to use things that are going to support people I know or ideas I admire.

    I mean, it’s the idea of reciprocity, basically, correct? I will offer friends a free copy edit or writing for a brochure or webpage, and I get something to build my small portfolio, and perhaps a potential paying client or free marketing. A bank in my town offers twice yearly private-paper shredding that goes to a recycling bin to their customers. You get 10 cents off your black coffee at a local coffeeshop if you bring in your own clean travel mug.

    I think that with the recent DIY movement and eco-emphasis, people are thinking (well, more people, at least) about neighborly reciprocity that used to me a mainstay of human society.

    People have been caught up in the either/or dichotomy, especially in American society since the building of the industrial age, for too long. Either you’re a selfless hippie or you’re a money-grubbing go-getter.

    Selflessness and selfishness can co-exist; in fact, I think you’re saying — and I agree — that it’s healthiest for everyone when they do.

    • Hi Pharaby! Yes, part of what I’m talking about is absolutely reciprocity, and – from the examples you’re using – a kind of exchange for services based on immediate need (editing for web dev). I’m also looking at how, on a larger scale, those immediate needs get trumped by the perceived value of ‘rewards’ that we can use to stake a future claim on something – that aren’t pegged to a value system either based on immediate need or one based on a commonly understood currency. I think the exchanges we do close at hand, like your example, maintain a really great value, and also help bump up reputation (as you so accurately pointed out) – and gameification is at once trying to replicate this and also reward us for playing. What the reward is, in the long run, depends on how much we expect from the system, I think. Granted, this is just my opinion. I’m really glad folks are kicking in their own ideas.

  2. Yep, I’m not a gamer, so I have to apply analogies from my own obsessions! But I agree that we have a society that runs on immediate gratification and money-as-value ideas rather than long-term benefits and non-tangible returns, for the most part. But small changes snowball, and I think that people are starting to see that and put in into practice.

    I think a mutual friend of our, erika, said something about the arc of history balancing towards justice? Slow change can be frustrating, but it’s precisely conversations like this, and little practices that keep that arc slowing building.

  3. > the arc of history balancing towards justice

    I love that, still. And I am hopeful. But you got me in 1, Pharaby – why I’m posting again is to be able to have conversations like this one, without walls. Thank you for spotting it, and for putting feathers on it. /dickenson

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