As I get most of my cultural news from Carles, I just found out the other day that Activision is discontinuing Guitar Hero. This comes on the heels of Viacom’s announcing its intentions to sell off its Harmonix unit, which put out the Rock Band games. Part of what did these franchises in was rising licensing costs, which seems somewhat insane when you think about the promotional benefits of having your music in a game. But mainly it seems as though the market had become saturated, and consumers have moved on from the musician-simulation fad.
Does this make for a better world? I wonder whether this news sinks my “dangerous allure of dilettantism” thesis that I floated in January 2009—only two years ago these music games seemed to me emblematic of our culture’s war on difficulty and its eagerness to celebrate simulacra of skills as all that we ordinary people can and should aspire to. Leave the real practice to professionals; just pretend to learn how to do things and have fun! Basically, the thrill of mastering some activity and the ephemeral joys of consumption seem opposed, and obviously manufacturers have every incentive to persuade us to choose the latter. And we save precious consuming time by deriving a denatured kind of mastery through the acquisition of goods rather than earning demonstrable mastery through the arduous acquisition of skills.
In some ways the danger presented by dilettante games has been supplanted by the gamification trend, which turns mostly mundane tasks into competitive arenas in order to extract more labor out of what are usually volunteers. For example, gamification is at play when websites assign points for checking in with them (as with Foursquare’s juvenile mayubinatorial races) or simply meter how many times users do a certain task (as when Netflix tells you “You’ve rated 543 movies”). Whenever consumers are duped into trying to level up or earn a badge, gamification methods are being deployed.
Gamification is powerfully manipulative, tapping into the apparently insatiable human appetites for attention, self-monitoring, praise and hierarchy establishment. Video games are pretty close to engineered addiction; they are carefully designed to parcel out rewards in a manner that maintains optimal frustration. Ideally this addictive potential can be harnessed to positive ends. What was so confusing to me about Guitar Hero was that it didn’t trick you into practicing guitar (like a touch-typing game or language flash cards or something); it did the exact opposite. It gave you game mechanics that prompted you into developing more or less useless button-mashing prowess. Guitar Hero supplied the engineered feeling of mastery as a product, as something readily available and more or less guaranteed, whereas guitar practice is often humbling and gives you little sense of mastery for a long time, just calluses.
In this Kotaku article, “Video Games Keep Tricking Us Into Doing Things We Loathe,” Leigh Alexander suggests that “an addictive game is simply a set of activities that plays into the human brain’s reward center without offering the person anything.” The decentralized social-factory space of the Web has now adopted that logic to motivate a volunteer labor force, giving us game mechanics that get us to do stuff that is lucrative for other companies while supplying a fleeting public ego boost to us at best. Alexander warns of the possibility that “we’ve become so dependent on designed interaction, compulsion loops and receiving positive feedback for everything that we can’t just exist spontaneously, that we need to be ‘tricked’ into achieving.” That is, gamification may strip us of our natural ability to become motivated, of setting goals for ourselves, of being able to autonomously find meaning in what we work at. Gamification makes us all less dilettantes than crackheads.
Guitar Hero was symptomatic of that shift, with its assumption that we care more about the ersatz rewards than acquired skills. But novelty was its main allure, not its tie-in with music. People have tired of that motif and have moved on to other kinds of games that give the same thrill in a superficially different package. It seems apropos at this point to cite Dave, the guru in my favorite film, Psych-Out: “All the games have to go man because it’s all one big plastic hassle.”