Your thoughts and decisions, how you work, how your children learn, what you read, what you watch, how you invest your money, how you get fit and even how you have sex are all being manipulated by the same techniques which make computer games addictive. Games insider and neuroscientist Adrian Hon reveals all to our Writer at Large

ARE you a meat robot? Are you literally being played by your employer, government, and big business like a computer game character? Are you one of Pavlov’s dogs – unconsciously doing the bidding of the rich and powerful thanks to a sophisticated digital nudge here, and subtle cyber push there?

The horrible truth is: most of us are being played.

Our lives have been turned into games and we don’t even know it’s happening. Scottish neuroscientist Adrian Hon, who is now one of the world’s most influential games designers, lifts the lid on what is known as “gamification” in his new book You’ve Been Played, investigating how governments, big business, employers, and schools all use the digital techniques which make computer games addictive to control us.

As we’re all online, we are all easy to exploit. Gamification is simply “using ideas from game design for non-game purposes”, says Hon. So, just as computer games reward players with points or levelling up, corporations, governments and schools are using these Pavlovian tricks to “play” us. Remember: every time a bell rang, Pavlov’s dogs obeyed without command. And when humans interact with computers we produce data – and data makes money for business.

The game of work

HERE’S a quick example of “gamification” so you get it right away, even if you have never played a computer game – and you do need to “get it” as this affects everyone. Amazon, Uber, Dominos, T-Mobile, Microsoft, Barclays, Unilever “all use gamification on millions of workers”. So many firms are gamifying staff, it’s “easier to list” the companies not using these techniques, Hon says.

In Amazon warehouses, packing staff work in front of computer screens which turn their lives into a game. The on-screen games see workers represented by avatars – like dragons – which compete against other workers. Staff are encouraged by the game to complete “missions” – in other words, work harder – in return for rewards.

If they work faster, their dragon does better in the game. Taking shorter toilet breaks means points. Points can become small financial rewards – but don’t forget those financial rewards are just for working faster and longer, so benefits are negligible. If staff make 100 – picks hourly they may get a few “vendor dollars” for workplace vending machines.

Uber gamification sees drivers given “quests” – essentially working longer and harder. This translates, again, into small financial rewards. Once more, though, there’s little real gain as drivers, like Amazon packers, are simply being paid for doing more work.

Games everywhere

THE ClassDojo app operates in many schools – it uses reward and punishment systems to motivate pupils. It is owned by a private company, however. China has turned mass control into a giant game with citizens rewarded and deducted points on their “social credit score”, affecting what type of house they get, or the loans they are offered.

In return for your data, language apps, stock-trading apps, and health and fitness apps, all gamify you. The Fitbit on your wrist gamifies you. Take 10,000 steps and a little “well done” alert triggers a psychological response. Brain-training apps – much less effective than walking when it comes to mental wellbeing, Hon warns – gamify you. Crosswords or reading are much better for your mind.

Your HR department gamifies you. If you have received training for cybersecurity or workplace etiquette then you probably sat online courses and got threatening emails for failure to attend, or badges and awards on completion.

In journalism, all media websites have lists of top 10 stories. As all journalists want to be read, they monitor what does well online, sculpting reporting accordingly. The result: clickbait prospers, and difficult but important reporting declines.

Ever wonder why you read so much about Scottish independence on Scottish news websites? It is because that is what the public wants. Gamified reporters see that and serve it up.

What is social media but the biggest game in history, with everyone playing? Like computer games, Twitter rewards you for success with “likes”, retweets and followers. So, you keep playing … and playing and playing.

Programming humans

HON lives in Edinburgh but studied neuroscience at Oxford and Cambridge. He is now a renowned game designer. His game Zombies, Run! used gamification to get people active. Players run in the “real world” – fleeing zombies on screen – and complete challenges. The intention is: have fun while getting fit.

It has been downloaded more than 10 million times and became the highest-grossing game in the App Store.

But creating Zombies, Run! made Hon aware of just how full the world was with gamification techniques – and few were as benign or ethical as a zombie game encouraging you to run in the park. Gamification, he says, is turning us all into “meat robots” – easily programmed by governments and corporations.

The world of computer games has changed since Hon was a kid – a time when games were deemed bad for you. Now, with games everywhere, and the industry bigger than Hollywood, the feeling among corporations and governments is that “games can save the world”, Hon explains – and that is what caused us to take our eye off the ball when it comes to the risks of gamification.

“I just kept seeing more and more versions of gamification and they were worrying,” Hon says. Health and fitness apps are one thing, but when Amazon and Uber get in on the act “and gamification is used in the classroom, that’s a lot more concerning. People don’t realise how widespread it’s become”.

Insidious control

WHEN Amazon workers are turned into avatars in an online game, they are “obviously being tracked”. The point of the game? “To make you work faster,” says Hon. It makes control and coercion seem cosy – the games look like Pokemon, like something you would play on your phone. It’s the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove.

There have always been workplace incentives and bonuses, Hon says, but now these come through an impersonal computer. The human touch is being lost daily. Significantly “people respond positively” to gamification because “games are something we do for fun. It’s really clever but insidious”.

As a customer, you score drivers on Uber so they have got to “play the game” and please you. But drivers also receive “quests”, Hon says, “like doing 15 rides in a row”. With this kind of gamification comes the promise of more money. But with workplace gamification, as Hon explains: “If you get a bonus for coming back from the toilet faster, then fundamentally you’re just working more.”

Many UK schools use the education app ClassDojo. It uses online reward and punishment systems – with points deducted or added if pupils behave or misbehave. Hon discovered how some teachers use the reward-punishment system with sound effects – negative noises for bad behaviour, positive noise for good behaviour. It’s all very Pavlovian. “Teachers will say ‘it’s just like giving a dog a treat’,” Hon explains.

“Even if it works, and it’s unclear it does, is this how we want to motivate students? It’s a big hammer that treats everything like a nail.”

Concerns have been raised about data protection, and effects on children’s mental health due to the sense of constant competition. In addition, there are worries about normalising surveillance.

“And it’s owned by a private company,” Hon adds. “If we’re going to have something like this I’d much rather it be non-profit or run by government. It’s disturbing how it came about because it’s venture capital funded. The fact this is being done to kids means they will get used to this form of ‘motivation’.”

The China Crisis

CHINESE schools are already using AI and surveillance cameras to “score behaviours based on the perception of emotions”. In the West, instead of using AI, “we’re getting teachers to do it”. It’s in China, too, where we see what coercive damage gamification can really do to a society.

In order to control citizens, many Chinese cities created “social credit score” systems where individuals are punished and rewarded for good or bad behaviour. Run red lights or fail to return library books, your score goes down, and it’s more difficult to get a loan.

Volunteer or give blood and your score goes up, and you get a better home. With nearly everyone living online, citizens’ data can be constantly monitored as part of this system. “Governments with authoritarian tendencies want to control citizens. So what tools can they use? Why not gamification – they have all the data they need and security cameras everywhere,” Hon Says. “So make Big Brother … look like a game.”

Many Chinese cities experimenting with social credit scores have larger populations than Scotland. “It’s a massive number of people having their lives gamified.” If the Chinese government keeps on tweaking this system it will “become inescapable, if we know anything about technology”. In such a world there is no such thing as a second chance.

The nuts and bolts of life

IN democracies, there is gamification in credit scores. You get alerts saying your score dropped, so you modify your behaviour. It’s basically a ‘nudge technique’. If you have private health insurance, you get discounts and bonuses for staying healthy.

Supermarkets offer rewards and points for spending more. It’s all about making money and gathering valuable data. Hon fears that as “the state retreats” in the West, gamification will be increasingly used by corporations which step in for “housing, health, education and finance”.

Maybe you are currently being gamified by your energy provider. If you have a smart metre, telling you how much you’re spending and when, that’s “soft” gamification.

Conspiracy games

CONSPIRACY theories have morphed into games. Take QAnon: to a game designer and neuroscientist like Hon, it mimics the way some adventure games work, particularly more sophisticated games called ARGs – augmented reality games – which see designers creating fake online videos, social media posts, blogs, podcasts and web pages as part of detective, science fiction or horror stories.

A complex conspiracy theory like QAnon uses the same slow-burn technique as these games to reveal information. That truth hit Hon when he heard QAnon believers repeatedly saying ‘I’ve done my research’. “What you mean is you typed QAnon into Google,” he adds.

Then they “go down the rabbit hole” watching videos, joining forums, and listening to podcasts. “Following the links like a detective feels fun – you’re discovering something. It’s how we design ARGs.”

There has been speculation QAnon may actually be some bizarre psychological experiment – a type of warped scientific game to reveal just how gullible some humans can be.

Modern snake oil

AS a former neuroscientist and experimental psychologist, brain apps infuriate Hon. “They’ll say ‘if you use our app you’ll become smarter, stave off mental decline’. There’s multiple layers of bull***t there.”

Players become hooked on an app that does little for them when they could be keeping mentally healthy by “taking up drawing, doing a crossword, having a conversation”.

According to America’s Federal Trade Commission, Luminosity, the creators of a brain-training programme, agreed to settle FTC charges alleging “they deceived consumers with unfounded claims that … games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions”. There’s a lot of snake oil out there that’s being gamified simply to make it more sellable. Do language apps really work? Are stock-trading apps, with all their notifications, really what problem gamblers need? Should someone with health problems be pushing themselves to achieve special rewards on exercise apps?

Gamified sex life

WEIRDLY, games themselves have been gamified. It’s the ultimate blowback. Until not that long ago, games mostly involved sitting in front of screens shooting monsters, running and jumping, solving puzzles or building imaginary worlds. Then came games for “the average punter” – apps like Candy Crush or Farmville – where if you want to play the game to its highest specification you’ll probably have to keep forking out money for special add-ons, known as “in-game purchases”.

This “financialisation” is now happening in traditional computer games too so a shooting game might push extra downloadable content at players, for new weapons or missions. It’s all there to part fools with their money, using the addictive pull of gamification. The problem is, Hon notes, that if gamifying games brings in £1m it’s hard to say no to. So quality degrades. The games industry is notorious – like Hollywood with its superhero franchises – for repeatedly copying money-making ideas. So gamification spreads like a virus from games to even the most intimate parts of your life. There are now cybersex apps that gamify your love life.

Quite simply, Twitter is a “personality game”. Hon says: “I check my notifications maybe 50 times a day. I can’t not look at them.” The game being played on social media – through likes, retweets and follower counts – is “how influential and how liked you are, and people do treat it like a game”. Some social media users just post variations on the same theme over and over again as they know they’ll gain huge numbers of followers and feel like they’ve “won”.

It is unsurprising social media works like this given the – mostly male – creators grew up with gaming. “They can’t think of any other way of incentivising people.”

Machine stops

LIKEWISE, journalism is being gamified as media companies struggle to measure stories in a sophisticated manner. News website top 10s are “blunt and basic and just promote a very narrow form of journalism. People might not understand the impact of investigative journalism on the day it comes out, but six months later it joins to something else and blows something up”. Hon fears important but perhaps not widely read journalism will disappear in pursuit of clicks.

And the future? Well, just imagine merging gamification with virtual reality: a gamified metaverse. In America, Hon points out, young men are increasingly dropping out of the workplace and finding “status” in gaming. “We know where this is going, games are only getting better, technology is only getting better. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are spending billions on virtual reality.”

Might it be like some real-life version of EM Forster’s classic dystopian 1909 sci-fi short story The Machine Stops, where humans are completely enthral to computer intelligence? But Hon also sees parallels to times past in what is happening now. The all-pervasive medieval practice of indulgences – where clergy granted Christians time off purgatory in return for acts of devotion or money – is almost a precursor to gamification. It was a form of “keeping score” with God. “They were playing a game. It’s very similar to social credit scores,” he says. “There were even wearables like prayer beads.”

It was the printing press which helped spawn the Reformation and put an end to indulgences and the medieval gamification of life. In terms of what information is doing to humanity now, Hon thinks we are metaphorically back at the printing press stage.

“We’re going through the most enormous revolution in information technology since the printing press, and we know what happened when it appeared: a century of warfare that we’re still seeing the echoes of. What we’re going through is bigger. Our culture, politics and education haven’t been able to keep up and adapt, or take full advantage.”

If we’re waiting for a digital reformation to bring some order, there are some signs of the good that could come. Hon remains optimistic about experiments in places like Taiwan where gamified public information networks are used benignly to create consensus among voters rather than division. He hopes, like indulgences, the entire notion of gamification will just disappear as the world comes to see it for what it is: meaningless. For now, though, gamification is ubiquitous.

In fact, even Hon is currently being gamified. He’s got a Peloton in his house – the smart exercise bike that uses all the tricks of gamification to keep you cycling. He grimaces when it’s pointed out. “It’s research,” he says.

Or maybe proof of the inescapability of gamification in all our lives – even the experts come to warn us.