Skinner’s Gamification vs. CBT, etc.

A variety of folks have been reacting to Ian Bogost’s “Gamification is Bullshit” post today (with which, for the record, I largely concur.)

This is one of my favorite responses.

The whole essay is fantastic, but I want to take a second to point out something of an aside of Mr. Nelson’s:

“…perhaps we could also read from the large body of research in areas like cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes a lot of thinking on quite relevant questions, such as how to use extrinsic interventions in a way that guides a user towards intrinsic motivation, rather than making them dependent on Skinner-box-like motivational approaches”

I find this very relevant. In short form, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is open, versus the closed “Skinner box” system.

Skinner somewhat famously treated the brain and mind as a “black box,” claiming that we could not speculate about what goes on in there, merely measure inputs and outputs.  (Later, after he had a stroke, he regretted this line of thinking.) He almost single-handedly disrupted a productive era of psychology and ethology – as well as many associated fields, such as linguistics – and delayed quite a bit of research for, in some cases, decades.

It’s a very simple-minded approach to human behavior – that we are what we eat, so to speak – and nothing more.  Reward the desired behavior and that behavior shall be effectively encouraged until it is normalized.  To some extent we all operate like this – we do respond to rewards and punishments, certainly.  But mere rewards and punishments do not comprise either life or behavior.

CBT, on the other hand, is a goal-oriented therapy approach that helps a person understand their behavior and learn ways to change it. It’s much more nuanced and complex than Skinnerian behavioralism.

It also involves the person in the process.

Perhaps it is this that is the most critical factor.  “Gamification” is something done to one at this point.  Sure, one may participate (one must participate, to be certain), but it is wholly external.  You are not involved in the gamification of your universe.  People want you to do something, and so they dangle carrots in front of that thing.  Some of those carrots are more effective and better thought-out than others, sure, but it is nevertheless a fantastically simplistic version of the user.

It also seems founded on the basic assumption that the user must be tricked into participating in the desired activity.

Employing CBT approaches, however, makes the assumption that the user wants to participate in the activity.  Is this not reasonable?  Oughtn’t we bring the user/player/actual human being, ffs into the fold, and actively involve them in developing the systems that will drive them to fulfill their goals?  Goals that we theoretically share?

Gamification as it stands presently-defined treats people like children – and often worse: like rats who are effectively controlled via shocks and pellets.  It represents an attitude both sinister and egregious; that of superiority.  An attitude of control and further – a belief that that control is warranted and appropriate.

No wonder “gamification” is looked upon with such reproach, such cynicism.