If 🎮 the system, 🕳 loses effectiveness.


This is not a self-help blog about ‘cheat codes’ to reach life goals. This text is about gamers who game the game itself, no cheating involved. Rules, calculation and classification govern our virtual experience of the world. Likewise, the digital (video)game is very binary; true or false, right or wrong, win or lose. Barely any space for free interpretation in the system. Players are paid with coins, bells, credits, souls, Munny and virtual gold1 or rewarded with points, likes, or upvotes. Sometimes the end justifies the means. Gamified systems take elements from the video game environment. Although, gamification is more about engagement and motivation. Who does not want a new high score? Who shoots the most targets in a single run, has the shortest running time, walked most miles in a day, completed shield only, made the most sales, got first blood? It is the executives’ new approach to gain more revenue.  🤑💀

“The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business” argues Ian Bogost here

This text is not a plea against gamification either, although it could be read as such. We (a.o. self-quantifying-, young-, working- or scholarly people) find ourselves in a very competitive world. But what if we could bypass the competition or ‘change’ the game?


In their book about Metagaming, Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux write that rules are merely collective agreements. Our game mechanics are not up for discussion, and they are mandatory, non-adjustable and essential. We play within the limitations of automatic systems when we play a video gameBoluk and Lemieux write about metagaming. In its adjusted method of playing, the metagame assesses and questions how we carry out the game critically; the gameplay, its making and the winning conditions, among other questions beyond play and scoring, emerge. “After all,” Boluk and Lemieux state, “metagames are not just games about games.” There is a difference between the videogame as a commodity, videogames as an act to nudge individuals’ behaviour (employees, students or customers, for example) with gamified elements and the videogame as the principle for critical practice. When there are no rules, gamers cannot break them. However, mechanical systems are unchangeable. A gamer can use cheat codes2, add mods, manipulate memory and discover exploits, but this is not cheating and has more in common with basic hacking. Playing the game in this way is not about following its intentions. There are many ways to play, and each video game has a set (number of) pathway(s) to follow towards a goal.

🛡Shield only🛡

One example is the challenge run. Any challenge run is similarly to speedrunning, which Boluk and Lemieux describe as “a game within a videogame”. They argue that when a challenge run (community) adds rules to the metagame, it both changes the gameplay and “questions the very ontology of videogames”. For the category’ shield only run’ in the videogame Dark Souls the voluntary rule added is to attack by only using a shield. Gamers collaboratively research, discover and practise -playing the game repeatedly- new techniques for this game within the videogame. As they say: “nothing is out of bounds,” and the author’s or public’s aims are utterly optional in and of the metagame.

Screenshot of DARK SOULS™: Prepare To Die Edition discussion on Steam.

Furthermore, a video game, unlike offline gameplay, is not spontaneous. The videogame is, as game designer Jane McGonigal argues, more than free play. McGonigal investigates the psychology behind the gamers’ gameful mind’ from her position as a gamer. Videogames might not teach us to be playful, but they teach us to question their system. We cannot always change (or cheat) the mechanics, but we can game the game. We can challenge the environment of competition. Only then, if we game the system, the executive loses effectiveness.

1 Virtual money, in game exchange value. For example currency used: coins (in: Super Mario Bros.), bells (in: Animal Crossing), credits, souls (in: Dark Souls), munny (in: Kingdom Hearts) and virtual gold (in: World of Warcraft and RuneScape). Most of these virtual currencies are sold and purchased at online market for very real money. Some have substantial real world values.

2 Cheat codes play a very significant part in video game culture. (meme ‘You Cheated Not Only the Game, But Yourself’ screenshot from Part of a series on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.)

Big Other

We are at home, listening to fake news and watching propaganda while omnipresent government surveillance mechanisms monitor us. People are in constant denial, and the current situation is uncomfortable. In the premise of 1984, Big Brother is watching through the telescreen. If we misbehave, we are locked up. In the panoptic prison, the prisoner does not see the guard hidden in the central tower and behaves as if they are constantly under their gaze. The architecture is both a building and theory, envisioned (in the late eighteenth century) by Jeremy Bentham. The panoptic mechanism’s disciplinary power, the effect of self-interiorisation of the surveillant gaze, is not limited to the penal institution and can be implemented at educational, corporal and clinical institutions. Even consumerism (although initially missing from surveillance studies in Foucault’s Panopticism) thrives on surveillance. Both these metaphors, bluntly put, are insufficient to cover today’s surveillance mechanisms. 

The Tower of Power (2021), image by Swaeny Nina via Vimeo

Zuck is Watching

James M. Harding argues that (biblical) metaphors like ‘the all-seeing eye’ and Bentham’s panopticon obscure the basic fact that surveillance is a form of punishment. In agreement with this concept of punishment, Shoshana Zuboff’s current omnipresent observer, what she coined ‘Big Other’, is guarding every detail of our digital lives. Zuboff once made use of the panopticon’s metaphor but acknowledges that this is outdated.

“Even the panopticon of Bentham’s design [..] is prosaic compared to this new architecture [..]. In the 1980s it was an apt metaphor for the hierarchical spaces of the workplace.”

Zuboff claimed in 2015.

Computer mediation, tracking devices and cameras dismissed the panopticon. Software systems take the place of the guard. There is no stranger in the tower. Companies (a.o. Amazon, Alphabet Inc., Facebook, Alibaba) replaced the totalitarian Big Brother. The question haunting us today is, as foreseen by Zuboff, “Did George Orwell die in vain?”

Surveillance Capitalism

This no-longer stranger, the surveyor, is unfamiliar familiar to us. “Big Other’s knowledge is about us, but it is not used for us. Big Other knows everything about us, while we know almost nothing about it,” Zuboff clarifies in the TIME. We have entered a new era, she claims, the era of ‘surveillance capitalism’. Tech companies transformed the world and our logic of accumulation. The current political power is transferred by their ’coup from above,’ as Zuboff claims. Modern capitalism’s market and non-market products, like services and activities formerly produced with concealed forces, are now transparent and anticipatory; however, their mechanism is opaque. From Facebook’s Marketplace to sponsored posts on Facebook’s owned Instagram platform, instant messages, Facebook’s recent additional feature Video Room and Stay at Home stickers for Instagram stories a.o.; the tech company has many tricks under the pervasive cover of linking everything for everyone’s benefit. Photos posted, quiz answers submitted, views counted, location logged, the number of likes given; all data -extracted, calculated, analysed, clustered, combined and processed- produces a predictive mechanism for oversight. Zuboff claims that the Big Other controls us by not only predicting what we will post (feel and do), but the Big Other also “automate[s]” us to do these things. Facebook’s -or Big Other’s, sticking to Zuboff’s term- tower of power stretches beyond the panopticon, the workplace and settles in its ‘community,’ piercing within the architecture of ourselves. As Zuboff argues, “There is no place where the other is not. In this world of no escape [from the Big Other], the chilling effects of anticipatory conformity give way as the mental agency and self-possession of anticipation is gradually submerged into a new kind of automaticity.”

Conformity, as Zuboff states, works differently from Foucault’s notions of the self-internalisation of the surveillance gaze; it is “not as action but as result, not cause but effect.” For example, an already liked post will likely get more likes, a post a ‘friend’ commented on will likely speak to you too, critical comments from someone you follow will make it more likely to agree with them; fake news, dis-information performative activism, memes and advertisement… We submit to, willingly or are required to this anticipatory conformity. 

screenshot of Alibaba.com

Much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is controlled by Big Others, companies and totalitarian government systems (like the Social Credit System in China), including Alibaba, Amazon and Google. All their data transactions involve monitoring, rewarding and targeting -real!- people. Habitually or routinely, unknowingly, locally and globally, we are pushed in a new era of bigger, more intrusive surveillance expanding discursively. The Big Other is unavoidable present.

Digital incarnation

A digital avatar with four arms posing as a manifestation of Shiva crowned with a golden medical apparatus. A decorated vehicle drives by, and the avatar, without hair now, is making faces on the vehicle’s side- and front panels on the rhythm of funky music. This description is a scene from Delusional Mandala, a video artwork from the artist Lu Yang. The artwork, a reflection on creation, stimulation and delusions of religious icons, questions the artist’s (un)consciousness and brain functions. The work itself is a Delusional Mandala illustrating destruction as a head trip. As stated in the video’s caption, artist Lu Yang reflects on personal, religious, cultural, historical, and future creation. The avatar simulates Lu Yang’s identity. Yang’s idealized digital version of themself plays with Erving Goffman’s description of “the front stage” in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). The avatar is the artist, “but someone else at the same time,” as Ocula Magazine quotes Lu Yang. “That [sex-less] body,” referring to the avatar, “is the perfect body for me”, says Yang in an interview with ARTnews. Yang’s computer-generated body and their performance transcend absurdly from the binary world of the digital into a non-binary identity.

Delusional Mandala Video still (2015), image by Lu Yang via Vimeo


Lu Yang’s avatar communicates the author’s backstory, but it does not have a consciousness of its own. The backstage is more evident in Yang’s latest avatar (Doku), as is discussed with ARTnews. This “backstage”, as Goffman describes it, is an independent private practice behind the scenes required for any creation of ”a public persona”. The self exists within the (virtual) performance. Doku is Lu Yang. Lu Yang is Doku.

There is “no self beyond what is performed for the front stage, and there is no front stage without a back stage”, explain Jurgenson and Ray in The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper Publicity. Yang’s digital work, however, attempts to surpass a digital ‘dramaturgical’ framework of self-presentation as Jurgenson and Rey re-define Goffman’s theories to our computer-mediated age. The backstage is not the ‘real’ essence of the artist’s characters, but they cannot be cut loose from Yang’s organic self. According to Goffman’s framework theory, this persona, a.k.a. the ‘frontstage’, is not an inauthentic or incomplete of Yang either. However, like other digital avatars, Yang’s digital avatar is not limited by the principles of truth or validity. As a representation or ‘delusion’, the avatar reveals and hides the author while allowing them to control the given (mediated) situation.

Similarly, photos on social media selectively uncover oneself to the world. Eric Hughes’s Cypherpunk’s Manifesto defines privacy as the power to selectively reveal oneself. His notion of privacy is not the same as secrecy but is defined through publicity. It is the interplay of public and private that gives the performer/artist control over their performance. Despite the play with death and revival in Yang’s work, the avatar and the art itself do not change Yang’s identity. We could decode the Delusional Mandala as a misleading reincarnation. After all, avatar creation is “not [similar to] creating multiple identities in the psychological sense”, danah boyd explains in It’s Complicated, the social lives of networked teens. Avatars correlate to online platforms, various nicknames, forms of self-presentation and a wide range of interpretations. Because as an avatar, “by living on the Internet,” Yang states in an interview with The New York Times, “you can abandon your identity, nationality, gender, even your existence as a human being.”

Self-deceptive ritual

In Hindu mythology, the avatar incarnates in an earthly form instead of a computer-generated character, but who knows what we can incarnate to nowadays. Is the digital delusion, as with Yang’s Delusional Mandala, to surpass all frontstages and become a programmed new? If so, then the Mandala must be a meditative tool instead of a digital reincarnation, constantly circling back to the self as an identifiable centre point.