A lot of bloggish buzz has surrounded Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 lecture and his commitment to external rewards ‘dystopia’ future, highlighted in the talk below.
Schell’s vision is pretty Utopian and stark. In the same way that video designers design algorithms to control how players ‘play’ a particular videogame, Schell is convinced that similar forms of external reward will play a part in helping us for the good, (i.e. he uses the example that if toothbrushes contained a sensor which ‘knew’ when we brushed our teeth twice a day, we would gain "200 points" which could be put towards dental insurance incentives). In other words, we can’t be trusted to live our lives properly, and instead we might as well submit to health and enviroment issues through the lure of an external reward.
Now before we get all Children of Men or Brazil, I’m convinced this won’t be the case, for a couple of reasons. The first is largely ideological, as brilliantly argued by Sirlin,
"I urge you to be vigilant against external rewards. Brush your teeth because it fights tooth decay, not because you get points for it. Read a book because it enriches your mind, not because your Kindle score goes up. Play a game because it’s intellectually stimulating or relaxing or challenging or social, not because of your Xbox Live Achievement score. Jesse Schell’s future is coming. How resistant are you to letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards?"
I don’t think Schell’s future is coming, I’m becoming more and more convinced that game companies, social networking sites, iphone apps, Facebook games and online indie flash games are implementing reward systems into their platform and game design, but this will become largely an issue in the games and entertainment industry not the wider social field as Schell anticipates.
Secondly, I’m pretty confident that sensory technologies will not become disposable in regular household items; its getting cheaper, but not as cheap as Schell believes, certainly not enough to start sticking sensory equipment in a box of Kelloggs, or an orange juice carton. Even if companies start trying to offer external reward incentives through smart mobile phones or cameras, how exactly would these points reward customers? Xbox 360 Achievements work because the platform was built as a social networking tool anyway, even if it was unexpected result for Microsoft. Toothbrushes and buses are not built in this way, and besides the incentives would have to match the startup costs.
A point which Schell ignores, (and even worse he blindingly accepts) is that we are "psychologically" going to fall for it, mostly from the financial evidence from Facebook games. Like I said, it may work for video-game domains, and maybe in the domains of visiting foursquare hotspots across New York, but I doubt it’ll work in the global way Schell adheres. To wield an added meta-competition element amongst videogames is understandable, as most videogames (multiplayer or otherwise) contain significant levels of algorithm/reward in their syntax. However thinking this syntax applies to eating cereal or walking to work, is slightly dubious.