The surprising ways governments and corporations control us

When it comes to the power of games, Adrian Hon, a video game designer, neuroscientist and author knows best. At Brain Bar 2023, he showed us all how institutions control lives with games - and here are the 3 most important messages from his talk. 

Zombies, Run! designer Adrian Hon on Brain Bar's stage
Zombies, Run! designer Adrian Hon on Brain Bar's stage

Gamification is not all sunshine and roses

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Being on a streak in your favourite language learning or exercise app sure feels like an achievement – collecting points and badges while completing tasks that need commitment sounds fun, right? However, gamification does have a dark side: Ever heard of the Tamazilla app? Well, Amazon workers sure have: It’s a platform where they raise virtual pets while working harder and harder and packing more and more boxes in the warehouses. And the retail giant is not the only one using the power of games to exploit employees: Uber also has quests that keep exhausted drivers going. 

Of course, for them to be able to use techniques known from video games, they have to watch us all day. More often than not, they make employees put on wearables that track their every move, location and performance – and worst of all, they disguise it all as some perk to keep workers satisfied and trained. 

Organisations get gamification completely wrong

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As much as companies say they do it all to make employees happy and help their personal development, it’s not hard to see that it’s actually to motivate them to work harder for them. Do constant rewards make stacking totally identical boxes interesting or challenging? Well, Adrian believes that thinking so indicates a quite one-dimensional view of human psychology. 

In the real world, we have a much richer idea of why people do things

 - says the game designer. Instead of tiny rewards for everything we do, our motivation might be as noble as helping others, simple self-determination, or just the fact something looks interesting for us to try. In order to make people truly driven, happier and more qualified, these factors should be taken into consideration when designing a challenge.

There are ways to do it right

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Adrian says the best games and gamified tools recognise that humans are complex creatures with more complex sets of needs than being awarded and jumping levels. There are companies and even states that know this and nudge people towards getting satisfaction from helping each other or reaching consensus on certain questions. His favourite example is vTaiwan, a consultation tool developed by the Taiwanese government to incentivise everyday citizens, experts and government to deliberate on national issues. On the platform, people get points for finding things to agree on in difficult questions instead of shouting at each other aggressively – something people might alternatively do on Facebook in other parts of the world. 

Does this mean using gamification to incentivise isn't necessarily all that evil? Well, watch Adrian Hon’s Brain Bar talk to decide for yourself - and of course, to hear his incredible thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of video games, and more scary and fantastic examples of gamification. 

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