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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Breaking the Habit RPG

For a long time now I've been fascinated by the way games suggest certain modes of play, modes of behavior, narratives, and, ultimately, ways of understanding the world. As games as a medium grow in cultural prominence, it's always worth taking a step back and analyzing just what games are teaching, not just from a lit crit kind of perspective often mobilized in these conversations but from a purely play-oriented perspective.

It's especially relevant in the case of a game like Habit RPG, which is explicitly built to help you reorder your existence. The game's premise is simple: it provides a framework whereby you can gamify your existence. You create a customized system of tasks to complete and rewards--in multiple forms--that you receive upon fulfilling them. The interface is simple, with three major task classes--repeated habit-formation classes that have simple plus/minus inputs, daily tasks that are checked off (with rewards for completing streaks of those tasks), and one-off to-do tasks that you simply add once and complete once.

The core of the game, however, is the interaction between these three task classes and an RPG-like system whereby you gain experience and level up for completing tasks, and lose health for failing to complete them. There are other bells and whistles--costume upgrades that can be bought, pets that are randomly dropped by defeated tasks--but that's the core gameplay. You complete tasks to level up. The reward system is hooked right into the same system that has been used by diverse entities such as skinnerboxy Facebook games or the maddeningly addictive click and wait games such as Candy Box, Cookieclicker, or A Dark Room: Humans seem to really like big numbers turning into bigger numbers.

The central logic behind the game is that a habit takes, according to the site at least, 21 days to build or break. Thus, built into the system are rewards for streaks of 21 days. Tasks change color as you complete (or don't complete) them, which allows particular interactions with certain abilities (i.e. spells that when clicking on a different colored task provide a different amount of XP). The game thus offers both instant and long-term rewards for adhering to the tasks you set for yourself, which of course contrasts to the often arbitrary, hard to discern, intangible rewards for good behavior in real life.

It's already been quite useful for me, ensuring, among other things, that I actually bother to eat three times every day, no matter how depressed or lethargic I feel. Oh, and I've got a perfect streak of waking up before ten every day, which is pretty remarkable. Even something as seemingly untamable as sleep habits can be rewired if you're provided with an external reward system. It's pretty great! It's even helping me slowly but surely get over my anxieties about actually replying promptly to people's messages.

All in all, it's a good game, and I see no reason to dig deeper into its workings. See you next week!

Yup just look at my cool pixel avatar and don't read further! Nothing to see here folks!
Ha ha PSYCH!

Here's the thing.

I don't want to demonize this game at all. After all, I'm still playing, and it is helping me in a number of ways.

But the habits this game forms are not only the surface habits we as players might be consciously aware of, and it's worth considering what other notions the game encourages in a multitude of subtle ways. From the personal to the political, gameplay has multiple, perhaps unintended, consequences, and I think it's reasonable to expose those and analyze whether or not they're benign or potentially dangerous.

The deepest habit that Habit RPG forms is not any habit you, as an individual player, create, for example. The game's makers are quite explicit about this:
"The problem with most productivity apps on the market is that they provide no incentive to continue using them. HabitRPG fixes this by making habit building fun! By rewarding you for your successes and damaging you for slip-ups, HabitRPG provides external motivation for completing your day-to-day activities."
So what is the deep habit that the game forms?

Well, clearly the habit is to keep playing Habit RPG. This need is hard-coded into the game, particularly in the form of the daily tasks, where the 21-day-streaks become centrally important. You must check the boxes each day or lose both that day's xp, and the streak you've built up. Oh, you can fix the streak counter if you simply missed checking the box, for sure. But you can't regain the xp and gold you lose. That stuff is lost forever.

So, the game strongly encourages you to play each day--maybe even multiple times throughout the day, just to make sure you're keeping up! This isn't a bad thing in a way, although you sure do feel bad when you realize at 12:01 that you've forgotten to check off your dailies. However, I think it's important to recognize the definite market-based impulse behind setting up the game this way, rather than using, say, a calendar system that you could update once a week. By strongly encouraging players to play repeatedly throughout the day, the makers of the game gain advertising revenue. You're not just benefiting yourself, you're benefiting them as well. This is, again, spelled out pretty clearly in the paragraph above--note how they describe this as part of a class of "productivity apps on the market."

There's a similar impetus behind the way the game encourages multiplayer interactions. Form a party of your friends and complete tasks together, the game urges, because working as a group will encourage accountability! Maybe so, although I personally haven't felt the need to have someone looking over my shoulder, and such a presence would actually make me deeply uncomfortable and suck the fun out of the game. I'm an introvert like that.

But it's clear that the designers benefit from multiplayer in that it's an easy way to both draw players in and keep them playing, resulting, once more, in greater ad revenue.

Maybe this is all so obvious that it's almost not worth stating, but sometimes stating the obvious is important. I think this is particularly true of a game making use of the same skinner box classical conditioning stuff as facebook games used and were, eventually, deeply maligned by the gaming community as a whole for turning to manipulative, unscrupulous ends. Is it the technology we don't like here? Well, the same tech is being used by Habit RPG. Is it the capitalism? Well, Habit RPG is just as market-driven. Regardless of the ends to which these tools are being put, they are largely the same tools, even including the actual slow recession of completable tasks in time.

And there's still the old pay-to-win system that comes with any game like this with built-in multiplayer. That's here too. It's nowhere near as prominent as in social media games, where you have to pay to not end up bored out of your skull due to 16 hour wait times, and nowhere near as destructive, but you still can, ultimately, pay to get the cool loot. This is why I find it a bit disingenuous when the creators claim, in the rollover text for the "buy gems with gold" feature which is tucked away in a far corner of the various menus, that the feature "eliminates the 'pay-to-win' problem by making everything achievable through hard work." Maybe. But there's a cap on that particular feature that doesn't exist for the actual conversion of real money into in-game gems, and the conversion is far slower than simply dropping some real-world cash for upgrades.

Even worse, that option is only available if you buy a month's subscription. So not only is there a cap that necessitates, potentially, the purchase of extra gems, it comes on top of an existing structure that also demands actual funds. This does not eliminate the pay to win problem, nor does it make everything available through hard work--unless you count hard work in the material world to earn wages, in which case the whole conversation becomes somewhat pointless, doesn't it? As I say, this is all rather disingenuous.

Disingenuousness on the part of game creators is a longstanding bugaboo of mine, I must confess, stemming from my longstanding involvement in the Magic: The Gathering fandom. It's hard not to get a bit disillusioned after years of hearing people at the company explain how absolutely every decision stems from improved gameplay, often quietly sweeping the economics of the issue under the rug. It's fascinating to me to watch them explain how the game needs terrible cards so that players can learn the difference between a good card and a bad card. In other words, we need those cards so we can learn how to identify those cards as cards we don't need. The fact that this tortured logic could be easily sidestepped by saying "we need people to keep buying random packs, and filling them with dross is a great way to get you chumps to do that" has not resulted in Wizards of the Coast updating their arguments.

Granted, there's lots and lots of fans who are eager to howl at any detractors, with frothy-mouthed rage, that Wizards has a god-given mandate to make as much money as possible, and if you don't like it you don't belong in the fandom!

My hatred of these neoliberal corporate cheerleaders aside though (I've got my eye on you chumps, and the die-hard fanatic armies of Hasbro and Disney, too--someday soon I'm gonna tell you what I really think of you) there's some validity to, at least, the idea that within capitalism creatives deserve to make money. God knows I'd rather the makers of Magic or Habit RPG make money than a bunch of suits on Wallstreet, and if I can't actually take the latter en masse to the guillotines, at least I can support the former as providing something of value to our culture.

But I think it's important to recognize that these are not innocent humanitarian organizations out solely to bring joy to people's lives. These are still ultimately market-driven games and the gameplay reflects that. I'm not demanding that we vilify Habit RPG, I just want the conversation to include an understanding of the capitalist intentions behind the game's creation.

(Gotta say though that I respect the makers of the click and wait games listed above for aggressively resisting the urge to include pay-to-win options in their games.)

There's a few other minor elements that might be worth sussing out--in particular, the fact that the game does encourage you to punish yourself for certain things might be worth considering from the perspective of a person with anxiety and self-esteem issues... it could be kind of a dangerous combo, I think--but I'll leave that to someone else to explore. I want, rather, to jump to a sort of broader picture concern: what this game might imply in broader political terms. I hadn't thought about this much until one of my cool Tumblr friends Allacharade reblogged an article by Oliver Emberton entitled Life is a Game. This is Your Strategy Guide, expressing deep dissatisfaction and discomfort with the article's ideology.

The basic premise of both the article and Habit RPG (and other such internet phenomena as Lifehacking) is that life is essentially a hackable, gamable system that can ultimately be beaten if we only think of it more aggressively in those terms. And that may be so in the sense that we can use gamification practically to train ourselves in certain behaviors and thought patterns.

However, I'm concerned that such an ideology when taken to broad extremes leads to a fundamental depoliticization of the personal, and a demobilization of individuals in a way very convenient to [deep breath] multinational patriarchal white supremacist capitalism [exhale].

That was pretty jargon-driven so let me attempt to translate. Basically, one of the absolute best things that can happen for the powerholders in our society (and the deeper systems that those powerholders take advantage of) is for individuals to view their lives and the lives of others as a natural result of individual action alone. This mentality erases systematic inequalities in society and makes political reform impossible. It is for this reason that the reactionaries in the West have adopted a dogma of personal responsibility to explain the successes and failures of individuals. This isolation of individuals from systems means that those systems can be made totally invisible although not, tragically, intangible. And, of course, it means that identity can be tied to a kind of personal fashioning dependent largely upon consumer culture--we buy to distinguish ourselves as individuals. Sort of like how all the more unique customization features on Habit RPG are pay-to-win features, no?

This erasure of systems leads to the major problems of Emberton's article. Notice, first of all, the illustrations: how many are male? How many are female? Of the women depicted, how many are depicted as a reward for the male figure to unlock? Do you see a single person there that isn't pure whitebread? Any indication that queer people exist? I mean, it's quite an achievment: the artist here has managed, with simple pixels, to create the most heteronormative, white, male set of illustrations I've seen in quite a while! You couldn't get much more hegemonic than that!

But I'm using these illustrations, fittingly, to illustrate the problems within the text itself. The freedoms portrayed here are freedoms available only to a small subset of privileged Westerners, and the nods made to other conditions are somewhere between horrifyingly naive and hysterically funny. Are you disadvanged, Emberton asks? Well move to someplace where you have more opportunities! Thanks, strategy guide for life. That sounds really viable in an age when the borders of nations are policed ever more aggressively, racial tensions in Europe and America are directed strongly against immigrants, and the job market globally continues to be kept advantageously (from the perspective of capital) dismal. Having trouble finding love? You're not working hard enough at being attractive and fit! Where does that leave people with mental and physical disabilities, or people who simply don't adhere to normative standards of beauty (let alone normative gender)? We just don't know!

But the most deeply troubling suggestion comes towards the end of the article, when Emberton blithely states, "At the start of the game, you had no control over who you were or your environment. By the end of the game that becomes true again. Your past decisions drastically shape where you end up, and if you’re happy, healthy, fulfilled – or not – in your final days there’s far less you can do about it."

There, in its purest form, is the neoliberal ethos. You may not start out in the best circumstances, but by the end of your life the place where you have ended up is your responsibility.

This is why I find Habit RPG troubling. It's not that it inherently disavows political action, I think... it's that it simply doesn't suggest it. It makes the personal... personal, reversing the longstanding belief among leftists that the personal is political. On its own, it's not particularly dangerous but in the context of a neoliberal ethos of personal responsibility such technologies are potentially vectors for these pernicious ideological diseases that justify the ongoing race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class wars (or more accurately one-sided brutal colonizations) boiling under the surface of the West.

You can, of course, ignore all of this and simply play the game, keeping it separate from your political actions. Or, you could blend the two in a perhaps perverse way. Create a "Crush Patriarchal White Supremacist Capitalism!" group. Give yourselves bonuses for each corporate head brought to justice, each anti-frakking ordinance passed, each pipeline blocked, each military action protested. Daily Task: 21 day strike-for-a-living-wage bonus! Put "dismantle the patriarchy" on hard and create your list of tasks...

There's something about that that I really like, I have to admit. It feels wrong, and y'all should know by now that what feels wrong often feels oh so right to me. It's assuredly a contemporary mode of resistance in keeping with schools of thought like cyberfeminism--nothing is innocent and unmarred, but we can use the tools of those in power to fight back.

But the first step is to interrogate the underlying ideology of these tools, and how exactly these tools can be and are used to oppress us.

Perhaps we can think of the world as a game. Alright. I'll take that metaphor.

But we need to think of it as a game where you cheat the system, a game where part of the game is discerning where the system has been designed to make you fail. We need to go off-script, off-map, and off-model.

And above all, I think it's important to remember that if life is a game, it's co-op.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go hit my "Write a StIT Post" daily task checkbox on Habit RPG.

I PAINTED ON THE WAAAAAAAAAAAALLS! 'CAUSE I'M THE ONE THAT FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLS! Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper. Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

4 comments:

  1. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    My response to most of this article was a lot of nodding and mental "I agree". It is a lie that the difference between celebrities, politicians and bankers that flit across our screens and the rest of us is that they "hacked" life and all that we have to do is repeat what they did and we will enjoy the same success. A few of them were black swans, lucky beneficiaries of whatever zeitgeist wave managed to find them and bear them to the island of fame and riches. All of the rest were related to someone or met someone already famous who gave them a huge leg up.

    That is the problem with the narrative of life being a game. In actual games, everybody is at level 1; even if their initial stats are different, they are more or less balanced to be appropriate for beginning players. In real life, some babies are born at epic level, and others are born with negative stats. The former might take some hits, maybe even go down levels, but almost all of them will stay powerful. The latter will work hard at leveling and might get up to a certain point, but only a tiny tiny percentage will ever roll the right number on the dice that lets them get the best treasure and actually get up to the level of the powerful.

    I'm basically rehashing what you already said and this D&D metaphor will break down if I belabor it too much so time to get to my point. I'm really interested in why people are willing to ignore how great these beginning differences are and how much a person's connections and the vagaries of chance play into their success; why instead they (me included) flock to these productivity apps and lifehacking websites in the belief that all they have to do is follow the same recipe or perform the same "cheats" and they too will be happy and successful.

    It's an obvious answer, but one that merits a deep look: fear. The same fear that has people flocking to religion or to self-help gurus. It's terrifying to admit that most of what impacts my life is not under my control. It is much more comforting to think that if I perform the same ritual or if I repeat the steps outlined in some book then things are sure to get better. It gives me hope. But it is a hope that keeps the powerful in power.

    Thus I think using words like ideology to examine the motivations of these app makers and life-hacking article writers is important.. It may be framed in terms that come from our modern technologically connected world but it's rooted in human psychology going back to the beginnings of civilization.

    Obviously I must now write an article comparing the idea that life is a game to the Enuma Elish. It's the same idea: conquering chaos with order. Taken to an extreme, it becomes a religion, and religions by their nature reinforce paradigms. Paradigms are always destructive to those who don't fit inside them.

    If we say that the successful don't necessarily deserve their success because they got lucky, that they don't work any harder than the ones who don't get rich and famous, then when we achieve something we have to admit that we got lucky and that maybe we didn't deserve it. That's scary. I feel myself getting defensive just writing it. But it's something that needs to be said over and over an over, until people stop worshiping at the altar of self-help.

    I'm with you on approaching life as a game that is rigged for me to fail unless I get lucky (which most of us won't get). I think the way to "beat" such games is to refuse to accept the goal they are telling me I should pursue. If I refuse to define success as fame and wealth, if I define it another way, then lifehacking has no power over me. I still have to prepare for the pain and the joys that life will randomly but inevitably throw at me, but they don't set me back because my ultimate goals are different. That's a different kind of hope that doesn't contribute to a narrative that elevates some and hurts others.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh I forgot to add a couple links I feel are related:

    http://ferretbrain.com/articles/article-990 About Monopoly, including what the game was originally intended to illustrate which touches on what you've discussed here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory I'm just starting to explore Taleb's work, so I can't say anything meaningful about it yet, but my beginning reading on the subject influences a lot of my thought about "treating life as a game" because what do a lot of games have?

    Of late I have been playing fewer games that rely on dice and more that rely on knowing and
    understanding the people you play with (Apples to Apples, Cards against Humanity, etc.) Some people find the randomness of certain games part of the challenge, but I just get frustrated.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've been going through various books and writings on finding out the things that you want to be doing with your life, and I've got to say that I can relate with them painting things in an unrealistic way, on how we could be who we want to be simply by just working harder. The 'luck factor' is not touched by many, yes

    Also I'm starting to notice most of those success story involve getting hitched or being rich somewhere in the line, as if these were the pinnacle of success. I've got to say though that most of those self-help books always tend to paint your... call of life as something easy, as if everything will fall in place once you decide what you want to do. Little do they note how it's not going to work for everyone, on account of everyone having different conditions and backgrounds.

    I certainly wouldn't have noticed the rather one-sided characterization on the article if you haven't pointed that out haha, though I suspect that has to do with the author having brought up in such environment that leads him to think such life hacking tips would work well with others...

    ReplyDelete
  4. I submit for your consideration this research on the significant power that how, specifically, a child is praised can have on their inner drive.

    I read much of this as asserting that one's methods are not value-neutral. I agree. But the same is true in the other direction, as well: your choice of values is not instrumentally neutral. The dominance of Western thought it owned far more to the simple fact that it worked than anything else. You can not simply return to other, defeated value systems, because the bar has been raised. Either appropriate the master's tools, or invent even better ones.

    ReplyDelete

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