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 game. Boluk 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.
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.
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.)