Ian Bogost has a post up discussing gamification in terms of operational closure or withdrawal (for more on operational closure cf. my posts here and here). Here’s a taste:

Gamification maximizes operational closure to insure that organizations’ external relations never become real relationships, never “tune” the incompatible worlds of company and customer in order to arrive at a recognition of their mutual incommensurability. Instead, exploitationware seeks to distract or manipulate people into doing whatever is best for organizations, while feigning the hard work of tuning the couplings between the two. It’s a confidence trick.

For those not familiar with the trend of “gamification”, cf. this wiki and a post I wrote on the concept a while back. So what’s going on here? There have been a number of questions as to just what Luhmann might mean when he claims that social systems are not composed of persons, humans, or individuals, but rather that humans belong to the environment of these hyperobjects. Isn’t it obvious that social systems are composed of humans?

Luhmann’s thesis is that social systems are composed not of humans– though clearly these social systems cannot exist without humans as a substratum –but rather of communications. Gamification provides a very nice– and harrowing –example of how this works. The person who participates in one of these games is not registered by the social system as a person but rather as an element that is only relevant in terms of a certain range of communicative events they are capable of producing within this system. Here the sociological distinction between persons and roles might help to gain some purchase on this point. Roles are never identical to persons. Rather, roles exist only for the social system in which they occur– there are no police officers outside of a social system that constitutes police officers –and these roles predelineate a set of possible functions, acts, and possible speech-acts (a judge is able to perform certain speech acts that a teacher is not).

This is what takes place in gamification. The person that participates in the gamification game shifts from being a person to a functional element that participates in the production and reproduction of the functions defined by the entity (usually a corporation or government institution). Thus, for example, the player becomes an element in the corporations advertising strategy, spreading that corporate name and agenda throughout the internet in the course of playing the game. Here we get a way of producing surplus-value or profit that doesn’t even pay the worker. For the worker the reward is the enjoyment or jouissance of game play. Yet often the players of these games do not even recognize or know that they’re a part of a corporate apparatus or money making venture. I suspect this is what Ian is getting at when he talks about the external relations beneath the game becoming veiled or invisible in gameplay. You might be working for McDonald’s without even realizing it.