The Gamification of the Literary Mindby Michael Harris | August 7, 2014
In the spring of 2015, Chris Columbus will deliver a film called Pixels, which is basically a bit of sci-fi goofery but which stumbles, too, upon a smart bit of brain science. Aliens have misinterpreted satellite feeds of vintage arcade games and, assuming we mean them harm, have retaliated in kind by launching their own eight-bit warrior versions of PacMan and Centipede. The movie stars Adam Sandler, which tells us something about how seriously we’re meant to take all this. Yet I believe Pixels speaks to a truth we ought to be wary of: the gamification of our minds produces a reductive vision of the larger universe, and a passive attitude toward the mysteries that surround us.
Psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggested in Seed magazine that the reason we haven’t heard from any aliens yet is that, at a certain point in every species’ evolution, they simply give up on the kinds of progress we tend to value (exploration, quantum physics, etc.) and devolve into apathetic puddle-versions of their former selves that are “played” by their virtual reality video games. His is a more cynical vision of what Silicon Valley evangelists call “the Singularity.” Our lives in the analog world — and all the mysteries of the physical universe — become pointless once compared to the pleasures offered by a Matrix-like system of digital shadows.
What does this have to do with our reality and our brains? A great deal. This past decade we’ve seen an enormous amount of new information about the mechanics and history of the reading brain: reading is a deeply unnatural act and requires the coopting (or “up-cycling”) of brain areas that evolved for entirely different purposes. If the literary culture we enjoy is not “natural” per se, that means it can disappear as easily as it arrived (we’ve only been a literate people for 6,000 years at most). All this was made popular by Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid and then again in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. But, of late, it’s become more poignant as we’ve swerved away from that aberration of deep reading, toward a new kind of literacy that seems to revert to the brain’s earlier, more passive, functions. Aspects of digital culture promote a pseudo-literacy that feels almost primal.
The San Francisco startup “Yo,” launched an app in April that now rakes in millions by simply allowing users to send a single word — “Yo” — to a select group of pre-programmed friends. This is social grooming at its most reductive. Content has fizzled away and mere notification remains. Would the primacy of notification over content signal a return to pre-literary attitudes?
We see that pseudo-literacy again in Facebook, which encourages users to “like” things but not to have more nuanced or less “clickable” responses. (Even a notice of somebody’s death often elicits a digital “thumbs up.”) We see this reduction again in initiatives like “Facelock,” recently announced by the University of York, which allows users to forget their passwords and simply tap on pictures of faces that they recognize in order to unlock programs. Facelock and its ilk cast literacy and memorization aside and replace them with a far simpler (and more passive) intellectual game.
The trend toward gamifaction (i.e. reductive usage) is necessary in the tidal wave of content we’ve visited upon our poor brains. We want access to that larger, glittering universe of content, but what if the only way to handle the cognitive load is to revert to pre-literary functionality? Can it really be a coincidence, after all, that in this maelstrom of digital distraction, game consoles have become the primary portal through which many of us access the Internet and television programs?
That Chris Columbus film, then, could be read as a warning (in addition to being a spree of corny graphics). The gamification of things once handled (more difficultly, more actively) by the literary mind may sweep back on us. Our “space invaders” return to destroy some part of us, here in the echo chamber we created for ourselves.
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