So I've been reading a lot. Specifically Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky and The Master Switch by Tim Wu. Both I believe exemplify the tension that is ever present in our communications media – the push and pull between our creative output and the exercise of power by centralized organizations who have a vested interest in controlling flows of information. I've been trying to keep these books in mind in reference to my last post on gamification and the growth of videogames whose success has been predicated on successfully leveraging creativity and aggregation.
It is important to note that overall I am not Shirky's biggest fan – and at times I know I don't share his optimism about the power of technology, but Cognitive Surplus has done a good job in shifting me more into his camp in terms of the possibilities of contemporary networked communications. Cognitive Surplus, for the uninitiated, makes the case that due to the advent of the Internet and the various technologies enabled on it, we have finally entered into the age of “post-Gutenberg” economics. This means that now due to barriers to creating information being so low, the implicit value we once placed on the act of creating mass-media has shown itself to be an accident of history, not universal truth. Once the means of production were in the hands of those who could afford them, and the creation of content was always in tension with economic realities of overproduction and underconsumption. As we know now, our society has had a hard time coming to terms with the now obvious conclusion that we no longer have a scarcity of voices, information and media.
Shirky then makes the case that with our surplus of leisure time (due to 20th century developments like the 40 hour work-week and other labour laws) as well the collapse of scarcity, space and time, the opportunities for networked collaboration are at levels never before achieved in history. Instead of dumping our spare time into consumption-based activities like watching movies and television, we actively create and interact with groups through the Internet on a regular basis. It's important to keep in mind that he doesn't say that we will use this for good or for ill, just that the possibility is out there. He provides a number of examples, including the massive growth of Wikipedia, the development of social platforms like YouTube and the collective collaboration of youths in South Korea protesting against the lowering of a trade barrier on beef imports. All of these share one thing: a group coming together and donating a certain amount of their time to a collective network of actors using methods that were not available until very recently – and while each individual addition is small, the collective whole is great.
If there is one example that comes to mind when I think about this trend in relation to videogames it is Minecraft the little-game-that-could, which took off in the latter half of 2010. Initially developed by the lone programmer Markus Persson in Sweden, the game quickly became a cult phenomenon due to its simple yet seeming infinitely scalable game design. All Minecraft really is is a block-based procedurally generated world (which means each world is unique, as it is created entirely through algorithms) – filled with nasty monsters and numerous materials to mine. Using these materials you then can build just about anything you wish, as long as it can be made out of 1 metre square blocks of material. The beauty of Minecraft is its unforgiving gameplay and the way it enables users to create just about anything they want inside of the world. Some of the best examples are the too-scale Starship Enterprise D, as well as a fully functioning 16-bit processor. While these projects can be attempted alone, often they become the products of mutual collaboration and effort in shared game servers. People put out calls for help on their projects, not because they ever hope to make money from them, but because they are a creative labour of love. To apply Shirky's reasoning here, people do this because Minecraft technologies do a good job of enabling this kind of collective generosity.
Ultimately I see that the creativity that digital games and spaces like Minecraft is emblematic of the larger societal lean towards active creation instead of passive consumption – not because we suddenly became more creative, but because the spaces in which we now can be creative are now cheap and easily accessible. This leads me back towards speaking about the problems of gamification. What I see in gamification is a drive towards centralized authority and the limitation of autonomy – hence why so many advertising agencies and marketers have found interest in the concept. It seems like to me that gamification, through its use of leaderboards and badges seeks to create skinner boxes that encourage behaviour that is monetizable to centralized organizations. Farmville, foursquare, the Huffington Post all encourage behaviour that is preplanned by the corporation –essentially a new kind of Taylorism and scientific management . Instead of organizing the work of the corporation this leans to a scientific management of consumers. By engineering our behaviour we become more predicable, and thus more easily incorporated into mass centralized entertainment models (think Top 40 radio, Cable, etc) of cultural production which defined 20th century mass communications.
So it's understandable that people are hedging their bets towards gamification – it serves to reinforce a ideological construction of the internet that is opposed to the more open, decentralized narrative that we have heard about for so long. Minecraft is a rough and tumble world of chaos that derives its value from the space of the game and the creativity of its users, while farmville is a space where you use your friends (and your financial capital) to maximize value for yourself. While I hate to construct a dichotomy, I believe that a loose one can be made for these two visions of the power of networked gaming publics. All of this needs to be framed in the overall narrative of telecommunications – namely Wu's assertion that the Internet could go the way of the telegraph, the telephone and television, and end up a highly controlled and closed infrastructure that is bent to the will of the state and private interest.
Videogames appear to me as an important part of this narrative: they are driving people just as much toward creative, decentralized publics, as towards narrow mass-broadcasting influenced models of consumption. Their role in how we conceive of communication in our networked world might be more important than many think.