TOWER GROVE — It is virtually impossible to keep up with all the memes and themes in my little seamhead corner of the Internet, and so it was with some embarrassment that I plucked a copy of Wired off the rack yesterday and thumbed my way to a story on a fad I knew little about, Cow Clicker.
I had seen the cows around Facebook or scattered on other dot-com pastures. I had no idea what they were.
Jason Tanz’s article charts how Cow Clicker’s inventor, Ian Bogost, set out to parody online games like Farmville only to accidentally find success alongside the repetitive-clicking games he sought to mock. Cow Clicker is what it says it is. Simply, clicking cows. The more often you click your cow, the more rewards you earn. You can add friends to your pasture so that their clicks are now your clicks, and that, as the article points out, led to some unexpected strategy in this rudimentary game: Recruiting the best clickers to your online pasture became competitive. Early in the article, Bogost’s belief that video games can do more than invite clicks, they can indeed enact change is set forth: “He sees them as tools to educate and enlighten,” Tanz writes, “to ‘disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world.'”
Nestled far deeper into the article is where that belief leads.
It’s called “gamification” and we see it everywhere. What are frequent buyer programs but games for businesses to give the consumer a sense of accomplishment? In the article, it points out that Google News now has badges. I know that several of my friends collect badges on their iPhone for the beers they’ve had. (I can go right now to Untappd and see that someone I do not know is drinking a beer I do not recognize to earn a badge I’ve never heard of. Cheers!) On Klout, we are rewarded for regular visits as if following a link is some sort of achievement. This will be my 10th entry here at WordPress and when I press publish the little sidebar will give me a pat on the back for reaching another milestone. I plan to put this latest virtual merit badge on my virtual sash in hopes that someday I’ll virtually pass it on to my son as a virtual heirloom. On thousands of Facebook games, we’re given points for keeping up routines such as watering crops, plucking carrots, challenging friends to a soccer game, paying actual money, and … oh, wait, if you’ll excuse my 20 minutes is up and I really need that +5 training points on the new baseball game or my team is going to be too weak to play today.
Phew. Just made it.
Gamification makes sense. Gamification is a vehicle for loyalty and regular visits and, for say a newspaper’s web site, a certain number of eyes for advertisers to reach. Gamification is a logical model. Gamification is why I gave away copies of my book for readers who visited the Facebook page or the blog several times. Gamification is a draw. Gamification is real. There are conferences about it.
That’s where Tanz takes us through the rabbit hole to larger meaning of Cow Clicker:
Game theorist Jesse Schell took this idea to its Orwellian extreme in a presentation at yet another industry conference. He described a world in which a person’s every action—brushing their teeth, showing up to work on time, tattooing an advertisement for Pop-Tarts onto their forearm—earned points.
Real life as a Facebook game? I have in my mind this image of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Beach” tromping enthusiastically through the woods, fists pumping and chin up as he earns a “BONUS” for dodging a tiger only to run afoul and lose a life when he walks into a spider web. He snaps his fingers melodramatically, vanishes briefly as a new life is loaded, and then onward, tromping again.
Schell’s “Orwellian extreme” doesn’t seem too extreme to me. After all, what else are Marriott points, the favorite currency of the press box? The scene in “Into the Air” where the two travelers compare the colors of their frequent-business cards isn’t fiction. Status matters. Successfully making a reservation online is worth +1,000. Check-in successfully is worth another +500. Order room service? +2,500. Stay 80 nights in a single year? +10,000. Level up.
It’s quite easy to see how gamification could leak into a career like newspapering:
Make deadline +20
Files too long -10
Write blog +10
Interact with readers on Twitter +1 per reply
Break news in paper +500
Break news online +1,000
Break news on Twitter +100
Break MLB dress code rules -5
Take connection through O’Hare to save $500 +250
Win award +15
Run quotes for colleague +10
Pop a breath mint before interviewing player +5
All of those add up through the year to give you a nice tidy score to take into the annual evaluation. Perhaps, you’ll even score a new badge: “senior writer” or a new job.
The extreme of Schell’s example greeted me at the barber shop.
It was there that I picked up a copy of last week’s Riverfront Times, the saucy alternative weekly here in St. Louis. In the cover story, Kholood Eid asked a sampling of St. Louisans for their “New Year’s Revolution” — that one thing they would change in the city if they had the sudden unilateral power to do so. Former Cardinal outfielder Chris Duncan wished for a roof on Busch Stadium III to avoid the “swamp (heiny)” of July. Coyote G. Brynum, owner of the Sci-Fi Lounge wished, essentially, for universal gamification. His “revolution”:
“If I had the power, I would elect game designers and video game engineers to restore true democracy and reinvent our system of government with fair and ethical, common-sense rules. Their primary tasks would be to eliminate the corrupting influences campaign-finance and corporate lobbying have in politics (especially Congress) by creating an official MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) style voter/candidate forum. They’d also to design a simplified tax-code with an user-friendly interface that allows taxpayers to chose which programs their tax dollars support, and with the help of artists and city planners, to develop community revitalization projects for able-bodied citizens seeking unemployment benefits to participate.
The voter/candidate forum would allow each citizen to have one avatar that can participate in the online virtual world of politics. Discuss issues, track political news and protest without the pepper spray. Candidates would debate and challenge each other to a variety of games in a Player Vs. Player zone. The entire system would be policed by an independent fact checker, so anyone spouting misinformation would lose points and power-ups through their avatar, and be immediately corrected by a Gilbert Gottfried icon via pop-up bubble.
The community revitalization projects would blend elements of Habitat For Humanity and social-media games like Farmville. … Game designers have a way of developing rules that are fair and fun. … Social media is a powerful tool for rallying people and ideas, but it is not an end-all. We also need to make it easier for people to want to help one another.”
Helping one another? Why, Virtual Leo, that’s worth +1,250. Watch out for the birds.
All of this starts to make sense when you consider how much of our life now is spent monitoring social media, interacting with social media, being tracked by social media, and consuming social media. We check to see if our photos on Facebook gets “likes”. We look to see the traffic for our blog. We seek subscribers on YouTube. We await more followers on Twitter. We wonder what our Klout style means about us. (Klout believes I am “influential in Jupiter,” for example.)
Cow Clicker is the new economy.
We can measure ourselves by how many taps of the mouse we inspire.
There are riots organized by Twitter. There are causes powered by Facebook. Coyote can’t be too far off when he talks about politics jumping the rails of social media and landing in Congress. It may not be “World of Warcraft” goes to Washington, but it would give real-time interaction and real-time approval ratings that we really already see with the 24-hour cable news channels. What were all those polls before the Iowa Caucuses than cold-call “like” buttons for individual candidates?
The gamification of life is already out there. It always has been. We just have a cool name for it now.