Let me start with a story – in fact, two stories. In 1906, Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, a con man, was released from prison.
Reformed, he actually wanted to become a good citizen. But he quickly ran into a problem: To get an apartment, he needed todocument that he had a job. To get a job, he needed a work permit. But to get a work permit, he needed to document he had anapartment. And the Prussian bureaucrats wouldn‘t make an exception for him. They stuck to the rules – a bit like a computer, really. SoVoigt was caught in a loop.
So on October 16, 1906, Voigt puts on a Captain‘s uniform, grabs a group of soldiers from the street, marches over to the townhall ofKöpenick, and occupies it ...
… and in the course, has his work permit signed and stamped. This stunt immortalized Voigt in German folklore as the »Captain ofKöpenick«.
Fast forward to 2010. I was flying abroad form Germany, with a stopover at Schiphol airport. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/grrrl/115642628
For the first time, I tried out one of these new gimmicks – a mobile ticket. All went well, until I switched my phone back on inSchiphol ...
… and found that the QR code did not load – it was stored online. And because of the roaming charges, I wouldn‘t dare switch mit WIFIon.
So I walked over to these ticket machines to print a replacement ticket. But I got none. The ticket machine informed me that the ticketunder my number was already drawn. I was stuck in a loop: The system did not foresee that someone might draw a mobile ticket, butthen need a paper replacement as well.
Fortunately, I could walk over to these people, who printed out another ticket for me so I could board in time. But on the plane, Istarted to wonder: What if they had not behaved like they did, but more like a Prussian bureaucrat? Like a computer? What if they hadbeen replaced by a computer, like so many other service people on the airport? And it dawned on me that this question extended waybeyond the airport. Increasingly, we live in a world ruled by computers. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/erussell1984/2443450232
You experience this every time you are stuck in an unnerving phone tree ... http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/marklarson/426789635
… or your ATM does weird things. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/dirkstoop/152754356
You experience it every time you buy something online and get recommendations what to by (actually, every time you use any web site).
Every time you drive on a highway and come by these automated traffic control systems that measure traffic and change speed limitsaccordingly.
I am of course not the first person to observe this. Matt Webb of BERG calls this „The Robot Readable World“.
HOW ALGORITHMS SHAPE OUR WORLDIn his Lift talk last year, Kevin Slavin tracked „how algorithms shape our world“.
HOW ALGORITHMS SHAPE OUR WORLDThe architects Kitchin and Dodge call this new world „code/space“. And „The new aesthetic“ that James Bridle traces tomorrow isbasically the aesthetic expression of this code/space we live in today.
And then there‘s this thing here. »Gamification.«
»What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what‘s wrong with reality?« Jane McGonigal reality is broken (2011: 7)This idea that we can put a »game layer« – goals, rules, feedback systems – over reality to »fix it«: to make it more fun, enjoyable,engaging.
LifeOr life itself. If you think about it a bit, gamification is the logical next step of the code/space: It takes this world of ubiquitious sensorsand algorithms we already live in to actively steer and change people‘s behaviour.
Now I don‘t know about you, but to me, this sounds like one big 1950s Scifi »What if?« novel turned into a real-life experiment.
What if ... we let computers run our rule systems and put humans inside?What if … we let computers run our rule systems, and then put humans inside? That is the question I‘d like to answer today, or better:report some preliminary findings.
2 strange loops The messy art of handling exceptions
The first thing we find are exceptions. If you look at the Captain of Köpenick, or my mobile ticket: Both were exceptions; they were notforeseen in the rule system.
Exceptions are the ruleAnd if you ever wrote programs yourself, you know that exceptions are not exceptions: They are the rule.
The are the rule because the map is never the territory, and complexity can never be reduced: We can never foresee every edge case,and the more complex we make a model to include edge cases, the more interactions and complexities within our model we create, sothat the model itself starts to produce bugs, errors, exceptions.
This is something ecologists discovered when they tried to build ever-more complex models of ecosystems: At a certain point, makingthe model more complex and realistic decreased the power and quality of predictions it generated.
So what we always needed and always will need is a manual override: A human stepping in, making sense of the situation, and handlingthe exception. Which is what I did when I walked from the ticket machine to the service people.
Ever-more removedBut that‘s the thing: When we shift these systems into computers, the manual override becomes more and more removed from us. Youalready experience that every day when you interact with companies and end up in said phone trees. (Which is why there is a service like„Get Human“ to make the manual override accessible again.)
Ever-more black-boxedAnd increasingly, even manual override is inaccessible: I couldn‘t check or fix what business rule kept the ticket machine from givingme a replacement ticket. And even if I were a programmer and had source code access: The more complex and older these systemsbecome, the harder they become to fix or override. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/target_man_2000/5544736415/
Take Cobol: Cobol was the main mainframe language back in the days. According to one estimate, 90% of all global financialtransactions are still processed in Cobol. But all the programmers that ran these systems are retiring, and too few young people arelearning Cobol. So increasingly, our financial transactions are operated by computer programs we cannot fix or override because no-oneunderstands them anymore, and they are too »mission-critical« to stop, throw away and just start anew. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/target_man_2000/5544736415/
3 of letter & spirit (No rule is ever explicit)Not only will rule systems always have exceptions: Rules are also never explicit. Rules always have a meaning, an intention. And foreveryday life to work, we follow that intention – the spirit of the rule, not the letter.
In fact, this is essential for rule systems to work in real life. Take a phenomenon like »work to rule«: People strike by sticking to theletter of their work regulations – like Austrian postal workers who one weighed every single piece of mail to ensure that proper postagewas affixed, bringing the whole system to a screeching halt.
But if you put a rule system into a program, the program will follow it to the letter – it cannot bend or overstep it toward »the spirit«.Take foursquare, for example: The system only knows the hard rule of not checking in more often than so-and-so-many times per hour.
So what you get are these fine people at the Playful conference in London 2010, holding a public voting of London foursquare players todetermine which kind of foursquare checkins are in the spirit of the game: Checking in at home? Using auto-checkin? Checking in atbuses? http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/37996583811@N01/5020671427
4 intentions matter Or: Computer‘s can‘t give creditAnd not only do rules have intentions. To us as humans, it makes a huge difference whether something is done by a person withintention or not.
In a recent self-experiment for the magazine Popular Science, the journalist Matthew Shear tried to »gamify« all parts of his existencefor a week, including »becoming a better fiancé«, where he would gets points for washing dishes or taking the dog out. On the eveningof day five, when he and his girlfriend went to bed, he said: http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/beigeinside/50122570/
»You look especially lovely tonight.«To which she replied: http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/beigeinside/50122570/
»Now I feel »You look like you’re just doing especially lovely it for the tonight.«points.«We care whether people do something to follow a rule, or because they get an incentive for it, or because they genuinely mean it (likeapologizing, or paying a compliment). http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/beigeinside/50122570/
Computers, however, can‘t do things and mean them, and this does make a difference to us. This was recently demonstrated in a nicescientific study with school kids using Scratch. If you don‘t know it, Scratch is a gorgeous software that allows kids to program videogames with a very visual code editor, thus learning the principles of programming in the course.
A core part of Scratch is the online community that enables people to remix and improve the games of other designers.
To support that, there‘s an automated feature that shows if someone copied another person‘s project.
In addition, users established the practice of thanking the original creator in the project notes. And in interviews, it came out that thispersonal, intentional note was much more important and engaging than the automated one. Indeed, many users felt it was even undueplagiarism if you didn‘t explicitly state in the notes which project you copied – even if the automatic attribution did it.
5 campbell‘s law How Rules Beget GamersSo much for what happens when we let computers run our rule system. Now what happens when we put humans into these systems?The short answer: They become gamers. They game the system.
»The more a quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.« Donald T. Campbell assessing the impact of planned social change (1976)This is not a new observation. Already in the 1970s, the sociologist Donald T. Campbell stated his famous laws. What he was describingwere things like schools evaluated by how students performed on certain tests, where school directors would fudge the numbers: Theyasked low-performing students to drop out of school, or reclassified them as »disabled«, because then they wouldn‘t be counted in.
system intentionBut the observation is a general one: All social systems serve a purpose, an intention.
formal rules, quantified goals, something at stake system intentionAnd whenever you turn such a system into something game-like – with formal rules, quantified goals, and something at stake ...
formal rules, quantified goals, something at stake system intention… weird things start to happen with the relation of system and intention.
y pe T 1 # system intention »The Munchkin«The first thing that happens is something we often observe in regular games: For some people, the system becomes its own end.People pursue the stated goal of the game and become blind to everything outside that. Among gamers, we even have a word for suchpeople. We call them »Munchkins«.
the rule of irrelevanceNow to a certain extent, this focus is desired: We want people to want to win the game – otherwise it‘s no fun to play. Likewise, we wantpeople to focus on the game itself. This is what sociologist Erving Goffman called »the rule of irrelevance«.
Take strategy war games. Some of them, like Warhammer, are played on lush miniature landscapes with beautifully hand-paintedfigures costing hundreds of Euro. But to a certain extent, while you‘re playing, that price and that beauty are irrelevant.
For the purposes of the game, those figures and landscapes might as well be represented with some cardboard counters on a simplemap. The only thing that counts are the game-internal values of the units – how much damage do they do? How far away does one unitstand from another, and how does that affect my probability of scoring a hit? http://boardgamegeek.com/image/1209336/advanced-squad-leader?size=original
So in a certain sense, when you put humans into a game, they can become »rational actors« – strategic decision-makers myopicallyfocused on maximising their outcomes, the kind of strange creature that otherwise only lives in the Prisoner Dilemmas of mathematicgame theory and economics. The become like computers, really. http://www.rasmusen.org/x/images/pd.jpg
But in real games, every gamer knows there‘s a limit: If you go too far, you become a Munchkin. To quote from Wikipedia, »a munchkinseeks within the context of the game to amass the greatest power, score the most kills, and grab the most loot, no matter howdeleterious their actions are to the other players fun". In other words, the Munchkin forgets that the purpose of playing a game is tohave fun together. He forgets that he is not only a a rational actor, but also a social actor enmeshed in messy world where the beauty ofthe pieces and their worth and his friends and fair play and fun – where everything counts.
And Munchkindom is pervasive. BMW recently tested a location-based game prototype to motivate fuel-efficient driving. The gamechallenged you to beat the amount of fuel used by other drivers for the route you entered into the navigation system. The prototypeworked well – on average, test drivers used 0,4l/100km less fuel. In fact, the game was so motivating ...
So you also played EcoChallengeTM?… that in order to safe fuel, the test drivers engaged in not-so-safe driving practices, like dashing over a reddish light because stoppingand restarting would use more fuel. In the US, »hypermiling« is the newly-minted word for this new emergent consumer behaviour.Again generalising, once you add incentives or goals to anything, it can motivate all kinds of unintented behaviours. (Source)
After the recent financial crisis, many critics have traced its origins back to Munchkindom: The market had become self-referential. Inhis recent book „Fixing the Game“, Robert Martin observed that tying incentives to stakeholder value has turned CEOs into Munchkinsfocused solely on stock market price, destroying companies in the course, as they ignored that the stock market is a means to the endof funding sustainable growth of the company.
<Insert Dilbert cartoon here>Similarly, the management consultant observed James Rieley observed that in every large organisation, people start to focus on theinternal game of meeting their KPIs and targets and lose sight of whether these are helpful for the thriving of the organisation itself. In aword, they become office politics Munchkins. And I am sure you can think of many examples yourself.
»negative externalities«Economists have their own word for this: negative externalities. Bad things happening as a consequence of an economic exchange thatdon‘t effect the exchange because they are external: They are not counted in. Again, we can generalise this: Create a rule system andtargets, and everything not »counted in« tends to become an unaccounted negative externality.
In a certain sense, Brenda Brathwaite‘s board game Train is a reflection on how we as humans are prone to become Munchkins. On thesurface, Train is a transportation game with the goal to move as many people as quickly as possible from start to finish. So you have tomove fast and stack people efficiently. But when the first player‘s train reaches the destination, he has to draw a „Terminus“ card, whichreveals his destination. And on those cards, the player reads words like Auschwitz. Or Bergen-Belsen.
»Just following orders«He discovers that he has become an Adolf Eichmann, »just following orders«. That he never questioned the goal he was given, or theintention of the system he was operating in.
y pe T 2 # personal gain system intention »The Exploiter«The second type of gamer is someone who knows the intention of the system full well, but doesn‘t care. Instead, he maliciously usesthe rules for his own purposes.
Take this story from Australian Economist Joshua Grant who tried to raise his daughter with economic laws. She should be potty-trained, so good economist that he was, he introduced an incentive – Skittles – that she would get every time she went to the potty. Sowhat would our smart gaming daughter do?
She somehow managed to discipline herself so that she would go to the potty every twenty minutes – and eat herself sick with Skittles.And it gets even better.
When her little brother should be potty-trained, her father wanted to make it a social thing – so she would earn Skittles every time hewent to the potty. And what did the clever lady do? She added water to the equation – that is, to her little brother. Lots and lots of water.(Source)
Again, this behaviour is pervasive everywhere you have a rule system and something at stake. Think of filibustering in the US Senate,where Republican senators in 2010 stopped a law to disclose sponsors of political ads by using their right to speak as long as they wish,and their majority to stop the Democrats from voting a »cloture« to end it, until the Democrats gave in and abandoned the law.
Think of online media: Buying facebook or twitter followers, black-hat SEO, ... or this Kindle stand that got a whopping 310 five-starreviews out of a total 335 on Amazon. Some people got curious and found that the company selling them packed a little note to the firststands it sent out. The note asked people to write an Amazon review, if they liked the product. So far, so good. But there was also thislittle sentence:
»In return for writing thereview, we will refund yourorder, so you will havereceived the product for free.«
pe Ty 3 # system intention »The Player«The third kind of gaming the system happens when people are more interested in exploring the possibilities the rule system holds thanproducing a pragmatic effect. In a sense, they are the benign counterpart to the Munchkin – ignoring the original intention of thesystem, but not out of forgetfulness, but out of curiosity.
This leads to things like people using Amazon reviews to write poetry on products.
Or letting Furby and Siri talk with each other.
Or tracking the most deleted, rather than the most listened, tunes. In short, exploring what effects and experiences are possible within agiven system.
pe Ty 4 # system effect intention »The Hacker«The fourth kind of gaming the system happens when people find the system itself to be broken. When the system serves a certain endthat is not what the system originally was intended for – people will hack it.
Health care is a good example: It is heavily ruled and regulated to reduce costs. But for doctors, the point of health care is not costs,but healing patients. So when the system gets in the way of their patients, they game it: If a health insurance doesn‘t pay preventivescreening in an MRI, say, they diagnose a patient as »having a brain tumor« instead of »screening for possible tumor«, to make surepeople get the treatment that is best for them.
And when our captain here did not get his work permit – well, you know the story.
6 Plus ça change ... Whose rules? What game?I would like to end with a simple question: Who builds these rule systems? Whose intentions do they support? What kind of „fixingreality“ do they propose? The answer takes us back into the 1970s.
Technologies of powerBack then, the philosopher Michel Foucault coined a useful term: Technologies of power. What he meant were all the rules, procedures,machines, discourses that a society uses to control its individuals – to rule the world. And if we look at today‘s »code/spaces« andgamified applications, Id argue they fit that bill.
Stay in the game. Move on.They are designed by companies and governments to make you fit into the rules they devised: Fitter, happier, more productive – fortheir purposes.
… are technologies of the selfYou see, technologies of power can also be used as technologies of the self. Technologies with which we are ruled, but alsotechnologies we can use to rule ourselves, reflect on ourselves, transform ourselves – and in the course, lift ourselves out of the rules ofsociety.
»What I mean ... are those intentional andvoluntary actions by which men not onlyset themselves rules of conduct, but alsoseek to transform themselves, ... and tomake their life into an oeuvre«. Michel Foucault the use of pleasure (1985)
And if that sounds a bit abstract, here‘s an example. In 1971, Luke Rhineheart wrote this thinly veiled autobiographical novel about apsychoanalyst named Luke Rhineheart who is utterly bored with his life – stuck in a rut. So one day, he sets himself one rule: Everydecision he will make will be made by the throw of a die. He will write out six options and then let the die decide. As you would expectfrom a pulpy 1970s »cult classic«, the ensuing events are full of gratuitous sex (especially sex), violence, drugs, madness, and othersocial deviance. But I think the main point stands valid: We can use self-chosen rules to liberate, to grow, to empower yourself.
And if you prefer more recent examples, there‘s Fred Stutzman‘s »Freedom«, which allows you to rule yourself out of internetconnectivity.
Or Buster Benson‘s »Health Month«, which allows you to set yourself rules to transform yourself.
»How do you use technology to generate more of those serendipitous encounters?«Even foursquare, in its original intention, was all about this: To use data collected about you and your friends to push you out of yourrut into exploring your city, as co-founder Dennis Crowley explains.
»I realized that I‘m surrounded by opportunities in life that I‘m not aware of.«And apparently, even game designer Will Wright is after this in his most recent venture »HiveMind«: Using recommendation enginesto push us out of the trodden paths – and paradoxically into yet another comfort zone.
But I think that Crowley and Wright miss a central insight of »The Dice Man«: Self-transformation is not about fancy technology. The»Dice Man« used the oldest and simplest game technology available: A die; dice go back before recorded history. In the end, whatmakes a rule system a technology of the self – or a technology of power – is how we, as human beings, relate to it. Whether we activelydecide to make use of them.
Whether we make sense of the rules in the situation at hand, and handle the exceptions.
Whether we humans imbue them with meaning and intention. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/beigeinside/50122570/
Whether we live by their spirit, and not just their letter. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/37996583811@N01/5020671427
Whether we take the freedom to explore their possibilities.
Whether we question the intentions and effects of those rule systems, ...
… and when we find them faulty, do not become myopic munchkins or self-serving exploiters, but hackers who fix what‘s really broken.