Sara Levarato

Tell us more about this project, focusing on what is gamification and what are its effects on the self.

I know it’s a big topic, but what’s your take on the potential ban of TikTok in the USA, has it been discussed these days (mid-March 2024)?

Gamification is defined as the application of game design elements and game principles in non-game contexts in order to motivate and engage users by framing the situation as playful and fun. Almost every app is gamified in some degree, with attribution of points, levels and rewards. Among the most famous ones which come to my mind there are Duolingo and Headspace. When analyzing the characteristics of playing and comparing them with those of gamification, however, the opposite nature of the two activities becomes evident. Playing is in fact free, spontaneous, uncertain, unproductive, inherently social and regulated with shared and agreed upon rules among the participants; while gamification acts in the opposite way by being productive, certain (in commitment and repetition), individualistic and managed by algorithms. The gamified activity therefore becomes interconnected and part of the regulated life itself. The basis of its functioning exploits the willingness to self-improve by the subject through the modulation of these three components: quantified activity, time (repetition of action), and reward that releases dopamine and thus stimulates repetition. The engagement in these activities for a certain period of time produces different behavioral changes, a new routing which becomes a habit.

In my research and especially in my video “+1 Day Streak” I portrait the gamification mechanics as an aid to create and maintain a belief structure, a liturgy based on a self-imposed discipline devoted to self-realisation and productivity. The subject’s desires are not perceived as an internalisation of a neoliberalist logic which combines career ambition with the notion of self-optimization, but instead is given for granted that the citizens cultivate autonomously an inner spiritual dimension which is prone to efficiency and performance improvement. The ‘needs’ of the game breaks into the ‘real’ world of the user creating heterotopias where the boundaries between play and work vanish, generating an endless shift. This temporal and spatial invasion opens to a scenario of limitless improvement and productivity. It also creates a sense of responsibility towards the ‘game’ and an obligation to be constantly active in playing to keep progressing. Guilt, duty to sacrifice and dedication, are activated as an expression of faith in self-improvement. The final reward lies in achieving the best version of oneself, embarking on a race in which the finish line is gradually moved a little further, in a distant victory that in fact is never actually attainable. I think one can see a Christian morality in it, based on individual suffering, self-restraint, denial, and training.

Regarding the the potential ban of Tik Tok in the USA I must admit that I haven’t followed in depth the entire situation, so my opinion remains somewhat general. It appears to me that the primary concern raised, that TikTok might share user data with the Chinese government and influence U.S. public opinion, is not solely a TikTok issue but should be addressed as a broader concern. The kinds of data collected by TikTok are also gathered by other social media platforms and sold to private buyers and government agencies too. I believe that safeguarding user information in general should be prioritized, rather than singling out one platform. Also I read in several article the description “communist chinese malware” referred to the social media platform, which honestly seems more connected to the specific geopolitical relationship with China more than any real concern for the users data.

Have you read the e/acc manifesto by a16z? I’m curious to have your take on the debate between effective altruism and effective accelerationism.

I have skimmed through parts of the manifesto, and what really stood out to me is not so much the content (which I largely disagree with), but rather the way it is formulated. Within the text, there are passages like “we should be conquerors. We are the apex predator. Our birthright…” which, in my opinion, reflect a violent and essentialist approach to the subject matter. I’ll rewrite one of the problematic sentences here, which I believe encapsulates the ideology which I also investigated in my work about gamification: “Man was not meant to be farmed; man was meant to be useful, to be productive, to be proud”. Overall, I find it fascinating as it represents an extreme verbalization of a more mainstream Western narrative. Effective accelerationism, in my view, takes on the characteristics of a religious cult, advocating for blind faith in all technology and “progress” for the sake of humanity.

By my previous answers I image it’s easy to understand how I personally disagree with the notion of technology being inherently good or neutral, divorced from the socio-economic context in which it is created, produced, and used.

You work and do research on topics such as online profiling, gamification, privacy and video surveillance. Do you think all these phenomena will be dismantled in the future? By who, or what? And what will the internet look like once these phenomena will no longer exist?

This is a very intriguing question for which I am not able to provide a real answer. I must confess, I’ve never speculated about the future of these technologies, given their deep embedding within the broader socio-economic landscape. Considering a future without them or in which they undergo significant reconfiguration necessitates a comprehensive reevaluation of society as a whole. I am asking myself how a science fiction writer (or a speculative designer) might approach such a possibility…

Thinking about online profiling and general data privacy concerns, probably social movements advocating for digital rights, privacy, and ethical technology hold the potential to ask for greater transparency and accountability among both companies and governments. Also, governmental bodies may introduce legislation aimed at safeguarding user privacy, imposing restrictions on personal data collection and usage, and regulating surveillance practices.

I think a lot of users are still not aware about the implications or the economic system in which their data is produced and sold. And I think some of them who are actually aware of the mechanisms are okay with the I don’t have nothing to hideso they just see it as an exchange for digital services.

Anyway, even if this analysis could work for online profiling, applying a similar framework to gamification is very challenging. Gamification has become deeply ingrained in contemporary lifestyles, voluntarily embraced by individuals for their own benefit. This phenomenon appears deeply rooted in the concept of the hard working self-made man. Consequently, any shift away from this paradigm would necessitate a complete reimagining of how self-optimization and improvement is intended. I know this is a cheap answer, but I find myself thinking about the Fisher’s quote “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”



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