The other day my friend Carl– a very talented rhetorician –drew my attention to an article on NPR describing “gamification” as a new social technology. As Gabe Zichermann, one of the pioneers of gamification describes this social technology,
Gamification “is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”
One of these techniques is currently being experimented with in Sweden with respect to speeding. Using cameras to monitor drivers, this technique places people who drive at or under the speed limit in a lottery. If their name is chosen, they then win the money that drivers who speed have had to pay into the system. Gamification thus strives to regulate human behavior by turning it into a game. Rather than merely disciplining people or regulating their behavior through the threat of negative sanctions, people are here motivated to engage in certain sorts of behavior through the transformation of this behavior into a type of competition.
Are we here witnessing the emergence of a new diagram of power in Deleuze and Foucault’s sense of the word? According to Foucault and Deleuze we have, so far, had three diagrams of power: sovereign power, disciplinary power, and control power. Sovereign power functions according to the exercise of the power of a sovereign on the body of a subject. Foucault depicts the functioning of this power gruesomely in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish, where we witness a person being horribly tortured in a variety of ways. Disciplinary power is a sort of training that strives to produce subjects that have internalized power so that they come to regulate themselves as their own jailers. The panopticon is the most famous example of such power. We internalize the gaze of our jailer because we never know whether or not anyone is in the guard tower, thereby regulating our own activity. Disciplinary power is organized around the molding of bodies through a variety of behavioral techniques.
Control power, according to Deleuze, is not so much about molding, as it is about modulation. Here the aim is not for the agent to internalize power. No, the agent, in a sense, remains completely free. Rather, to understand control power we might imagine a square room with four doors. These doors only open two at a time and only at particular times. The agent is free to choose whatever door he might like to pass through, yet he choices are still modulated by the flow of doors opening and closing.
If gamification marks the possible emergence of a new form of power, then this is because action and movement is now modulated by agents entering into competition with one another in games organized around particular sorts of goals. While these games certainly have rules, power here does not function through the force of the law and its possible sanctions, but rather through people electing to become participants in the game. Carl, for example, imagined a gamification of the classroom with respect to attendance. In this game, rather than treating absence punitively by docking the player’s grade, the number of classes missed by absent students would then be added to the grade of those students that miss no class. Here class attendance might be increased by involving students in a game.
Here we can imagine a form of society– “game society” –where 1) there are no laws (rules of a game aren’t quite the same as laws), and where 2) we have no unity among the members of society (because they are in competition with one another), yet where, nonetheless, behavior is thoroughly regulated by participation in the game. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about this model of power that I find deeply horrifying.