Playing with Ourselves

Internet, I'm getting bored. This whole moment in the tech world is so flirtatious. We're just beginning to reach the point of mass adoption of incredibly powerful, pervasive computing, but there isn't much for people to do when they get there except play with themselves.

The un-word "gamification" is all the rage. This is how present-day Web thinkers figure we should engage people. With mobile devices, we've got all this extra computing time on our hands now. But, so far, all web companies can come up with to occupy that time for people are these insulting little games.

You don't just shop or see a movie or eat at a restaurant anymore; you check in, you get badges, points, monarchist titles. Presumably, someday, these things will translate into special offers or something, but, for now, they're worth about as much as Mario's coins or Sonic's golden rings.

Or, like the example in Jane McGonigal's seminal book on gamification, Reality is Broken, you don't just recuperate when you're sick or injured anymore. You play SuperBetter, you give your friends and family points for taking care of you, and everybody posts their achievements to Facebook.

Meebo has partnered with Cheetos to give you The Billion Minute Break, which is keeping track of all its participants' collective minutes of Internet procrastination, turning all of it into one giant time-wasting game.

I have to hand it to Cheetos for nailing gamification as a subtle, morally interesting marketing campaign. Cheetos have positioned themselves as the slacker, time-waster food of the 21st century, and, through this Meebo quest, they have gamified the process of wasting time itself.

I have no problem with the practice of wasting time playing games. On the contrary, what I object to is the condescending idea that life itself should be treated as a mere game. Why insist on this cheesy layer of extraneous reality? I mean, there's virtual, and then there's imaginary.

An imaginary computing layer creates a world in which we all stand in line at the movie theater, slouching in that side-slung posture, thumbing at glass, with white backlight coursing up our arms, avoiding talking to each other, while we hurry to get all our check-ins done before it's our turn to interact with the ticket person. Sound familiar?

But a virtual layer that truly adds to reality can become mundane. It won't distract us and scatter our attention span across a galaxy of made-up flatlands of two-dimensional game mechanics. When we need information, it will be there, and once we've got it, it can disappear again.

Someday soon, all these sexy, touchable devices will lose their novelty. The appeal of taking them out of our pockets just to play with them will diminish. Maybe that will force upon the web the innovation it needs to get past the gamification fad.

There's no problem with dedicating some time to use computers to escape, and I'm all in favor of pocket computers augmenting our reality with useful information. But here in the pimply adolescence of the mobile web, many of our most popular services only serve to distract us.