Just watched the Gamification episode of Extra Credits.

One part shows a cartoon Earth menaced by a Cthulhu tentacle reaching out from a colossal void. The voiceover says “The world is facing a really weird crisis right now…” Hmm, the crisis of capitalism? The burgeoning environmental catastrophe? Peak oil? No! We face “…a crisis of engagement.”

Anyway…the thesis is that the problem with the world is that we’re too distracted by the spectacle to do anything, but games can hold our attention. If ordinary life is ‘gamified’ then we’ll all do good things and the world will be a better place. According to Extra Credits this idea “sounds like it could be the key to solving all of our problems with education, to making the workplace more exciting, to getting people to want to re-engage and become socially responsible.”

Extra Credits seems to think that the problem with hospitals and schools isn’t political or economic, isn’t that they’re run like businesses instead of public services; it’s that they aren’t enough like games! All you have to do is make this stuff fun and they’ll work perfectly!

So the solution to the problems of the world is motivational gaming. Brilliant. Because motivational speaking was so good, right? Extra Credits also suggests the amazing innovation of targets and quotas. If you call it “levelling up”, then it’s fun!

"The Giants of the Five Year Plan"

I’m guessing from reviews that this is the same thesis as Reality is Broken. My only contact with the book so far has been the depressing Chain World incident, but this ‘gamification’ stuff sounds like pure self-help nonsense. For years positive thinking has told people that anything bad that happens to them is their fault, that they just weren’t thinking properly, they didn’t have the right attitude. Don’t blame your boss if you get downsized. Don’t get angry – get happy and good things will come to you!

Positive thinking is pure pseudoscience that puts everything on the individual so no one will blame the structural problems in society. It looks like ‘gamification’ is stepping up to take the place of it. The twist now is that instead of thinking yourself better or motivating yourself better you will now game yourself better. Because that’s what doctors and teachers need, right? More work. Making management bureaucracy come in the form of Call of Duty is not going to stop it from being a total waste of time.

This sort of thing shows how truly limited individualism really is. No need for a critique of structural problems, no need for collective action to force a change to those structural problems. No, just change your own habits and that’s it. Buy the right coffee, think happy thoughts and play the magic games that fix society.

I know we’re talking about videogames here, but where are the adults?


In the gutter

It is very boring to explain a joke. Conceptual art often functions much like a joke or an advert; set up and punch line. Wit has been described as a joke that isn’t funny. Perhaps conceptual art could be described as a witless joke that isn’t funny.

So anyway, Cory Arcangel. Known for using videogames in his work, his latest piece is a group projection of bowling videogames called Various Self Playing Bowling Games. In a long dark corridor, games running on consoles from an Atari to an N64 are screened side by side and every player in every game shoots a gutter ball. Over and over.

Get it? No, of course not. There’s nothing to ‘get’ in the way you get a joke. But we can say the work is ‘about’ something, that it ‘deals with issues of’ something, it ‘negotiates’ whatever. Ennui, human extinction, everyday futility, artificial intelligence, virtual reality. It does do all this and these things are interesting of course, but Various Self Playing Bowling Games just sort of states them in that blank, Warhol way – which we’re also supposed to see as a wry comment on the whole thing – without any critical thinking or action.

It is truly art as depression.

But it’s not like I hate conceptual art by default or even Arcangel’s work itself. Many gamers have been irritated by Arcangel’s most famous work, Super Mario Clouds, and even though many of the complaints I have with Bowling Games could be levelled at that piece just as easily, I can’t bring myself to hate it. In fact I still really quite like it. Both works are blank and depressed, but Super Mario Clouds is so in a way that seems almost blissful.

But maybe the real reason I like the older work is that it is from 2002. In 2011 this sort of resigned ennui seems not only irrelevant, but outright reactionary.