Week 9: Joel Arellano

Authentic Games

There is an important distinction between gaming and interactivity, and we must clearly define it before we can discuss either term as a means to re-engage audiences. Interactivity is simply bidirectional action and effect; gaming is more complex and subtle to define. Put simply, games are bounded, competitive activities willingly engaged in for the intrinsic entertainment they provide, such as sports and token games (where values and roles are abstractly represented and manipulated to achieve a desired outcome). Games are not work- though they may be productive and even played professionally, the virtue of games is that they entertain through a combination of strategy, competition, and chance. This is poignantly captured by the phrase ‘for the love of the game,’ which expresses the intrinsically rewarding nature of games and articulates the most virtuous purpose for playing them. If one plays for a lesser reason, such as self-interested gain, the entertainment value is lost and one encounters absurdity of the taking the arbitrary bounds of the game seriously, since games are, by their very contrivance, unserious; the enchantment of the game is shattered. Any purpose for playing other than to enjoy the pursuit of the game entails a rational approach, when the charm of games lies in players’ willfully submitting to irrational bounds. If you don’t follow the rules, games lose their charm and purpose, ceasing to be games properly so called- they become theater, an inauthentic performance, and we properly despise cheaters for their inauthenticity.

What is the lesson here for media strategists who would consider gaming as a means to engage audiences? That we can never make games of a purposive (rational) nature over and above the intrinsic value of their performance. In fact, it may even be misleading talk about games as a ‘means to’ [engage] anyone, since this transitive construction emphasizes an objective view of participants rather than their freedom to enter or not enter the game. Proposing to ‘gamify’ otherwise mundane activities is therefore an objectifying enterprise, since it aims to encourage actions that are not otherwise desirable. For example, consider a recent proposal to ‘gamifying’ chores, where participants compete to earn greater rewards. This cannot properly be considered a game, since there is no intrinsic meaning or value in the actions performed. Compelling unwanted action by a material reward is gaming aped, since it divests games of content and focuses only on outcomes. It is the rationalization of games, the exploitation of the game as form, and, taken to an extreme, it opens the door to addictive abuse (i.e., gambling). It is the objectification of participants, which is why such ‘games’ will ultimately be rejected by audiences rather than be promoted to the pantheon of true, ‘timeless’ games. True games never grow old, because their purpose is never exhausted.

This is not to say that an enterprising media strategist shouldn’t ‘gamify’ activities to achieve a commercial purpose; I only make the distinction between authentic and inauthentic games to preserve the integrity of the term.

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2 comments to Week 9: Joel Arellano

  • summerh@uoregon.edu

    Joel, have you seen the episode of Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia called “Charlie Rules the World” from the latest season? I think you would really enjoy it, if you like that show that is. While I agree with most everything you’ve said here, and your statement that proposing to ‘gamify’ otherwise mundane activities can seem shady, I don’t think that anyone is really fooled by such enterprises. I think the people who participate in such ‘games’ know that they are not really games. It simply makes doing the things you have to do anyways a little more enjoyable.

  • Joel

    You’re right, that was a mistake on my part- the word was too loaded and didn’t accurately express my intention. I’ve replaced it. Also, ‘Always Sunny’ is awesome!

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