The Gamification of Online Discourse about Religion

One doesn’t have to spend much time online, whether on a blog like this one o ever more so a site like Reddit, to experience what I am talking about.

There seem to be more people than ever before who treat their interactions with other people, things that might well have been conversations had this approach not been taken, as though they were interacting with enemies in a first-person shooter game, or monsters in a hack-and-slash role playing game.

It is as though the aim is to defeat a level 43 atheist or a Christian boss, as though doing so would somehow “win” the “game.” But whereas in most games, if a character disappears or leaves, it means you have won, when interacting with real people, it often means that they have become frustrated with your immaturity, inanity, dishonesty, incomprehension, or other aspects of your behavior towards them.

The fact that I had to qualify the type of role playing game earlier should clue the reader in that it isn’t necessarily the gamification per se that is the problem, so much as the kind of game. Maybe I should call it the problem of the Doomification of online discourse – with reference to that classic game mainly because the term “modernwarefare3ification” is unlikely to catch on.

Even before there were video games, or at least video games that were anything like the modern ones, those of us who played role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons knew that there were two approaches. Sometimes there were scenarios or settings in which one simply had to defeat monsters. But there were others where you had to talk to the characters and creatures you encountered, and without doing so, your quest could not be successful. And if we found ourselves with a “slash first, ask questions later” sort of player in a scenario of the latter sort, it was frustrating for everyone.

And so  perhaps what we need, in language appropriate to this era, is the pokemonification of online discourse. While the anonymity that most people maintain online is problematic and contributes to interactions being more hostile than they should be, if more people at least thought about their online presence in terms of Pokémon, then perhaps they might be more open to the possibility that the random people they encounter, even ones that seem unlikely, might not be opponents with whom they have to do battle, but people who have important information that then need to obtain, and from whom they have to figure out how to get it.

What do others think? Is “gamification” – or at least, gamification that emulates a particular sort of game – a part of the reason why so much online interaction is so disappointing and hostile? Would trying to promote the pokemonification of online interaction be a helpful antidote, or at least a relevant metaphor for the attempt to change the culture of online interaction in our day and age?

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  • spinkham

    I’m not sure that’s the most accurate lens to view the phenomenon through. I think it’s more to be attributed to the “identity protective cognition” and “terror management theory” type ideas.

    If the goal was just to dispassionately “win points”, we’d go about it much differently, and the bundle of ideas we’d defend wouldn’t be so insular. The goal seems to be to protect our identity directly and our meaning system indirectly.

    That’s why others are seen as “opponents with whom they have to do battle”. People by and large do not want to change their identity. To convince people that other groups “have important information that then need to obtain” is the whole problem, and I don’t think it can be done without an understanding of how biased we all are, and how wrong the enlightenment view of humans as dispassionate “homo economicus” is. We are deeply motivated to protect our identity from all comers, and even more so when we are afraid. Fear has become the American distinctive these past 10 years, and has been both driven by and capitilizaed on by expanded media choices. Now each group gets their own channel, website, etc that demonizes the other, and discourse has all but broken down.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read this series, but it does a better job explaining the way I see the world to Christians than I can. It’s pretty large at 30 parts long, but I’ve heard a number of people say it’s changed their life. For people who prefer audio, he did a 3 part interview on the Beyond the Box podcast on the topic.

    • spinkham

      I suppose I should propose another way forward than education on how biased we are (as that’s an idea that people feel is an attack on their identity and often reject outright 😉

      We need dreams. We need people to tell us there are things worth doing in the world, planets to explore, diseases to cure, and many ways to improve the world for all of us.

      We need people to appreciate just how much better things have gotten as a jumping off point to how much better they still can get.

      Without a real view of how much better things are and dreams of how much better they can get, we have a tendency to idolize the past and try to conserve what we think was our golden age.

      As one comedian put it: “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.” We need to remind people that progress has been made and can continue to be made, and then and only then are people in a state of mind of openness to learning about other people and ways of thinking and living.

    • I have followed the series, but have not read every post in equal detail. I think that what you say about the motivation for approaching interactions in this way, and my suggestion about the “culture” of online interactions and the impact of interacting with anonymous others in a manner one also interacts with others in interactive gaming environments, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

      • spinkham

        I’d agree that the demonization and/or dehumanization that mere virtual contact allows us to maintain is part of the problem.

        My wife is currently reading Man’s Search for Meaning and just yesterday was telling me about a particularly relevant part. Frankl was in Aushwitz and was being harassed by a guard. When the guard was confronted with information that painted Frankl as a good moral person the guard instantly flew into a fit of rage. He just could not face up to the fact that some of the people he was demonizing in order to dehumanize were in fact upstanding people, and anger is one of the most powerful ways to cover flaws in our constructed reality.

        Virtual environments, for all their benefits, certainly do provide a way to shield ourselves from the full humanity of “the other” if we so choose, and make it easier for us to protect the notion that the tribe we identify with is the one true tribe.

        What I think would be more interesting is a study of fields like science and philosophy, where divergent opinion is tolerated and often celebrated as the path of progress. I’d be willing to guess that in some ways it’s the “gamification” of those fields that leads to the civility. That is to say, established rules of interaction and ways of settling disputes tends to level the playing field so long as there *is* a shared playing field. Things only really go wrong in such fields when a group opts out of the rules and go and play their own game in isolation.

        Another thing that likely makes a good game is commonality of purpose. Philosophers and scientists tend to be motivated to find the truth in a particular field of endevour, which acts as a unifying force. At all times all sides must keep in mind that your critics are pursuing the same goal as you, and

        The difference in religion is that not all people are pursuing the same goals. Most people are defending what they see as the most tenable view that is closest to the one they started out with. In the US (as well as in many Islamic countries) we start out with such a high certainty view, it’s hard to move away from it, and much easier to keep on our own playing field rather than honestly and openly join in a search on the larger field. Evangelicals have absolutely mastered this in the last 100 years, but especially since the 80s. I’m somewhat horrified to see some claimed “freethinkers” settin up a similar situation in their own camp, but I’m well aware that it’s easier to change teams or jump to a new small field then embrace the uncertainty of the large field.

        So yes, I think the metaphor of games is a useful one, and worth exploring in terms of what makes a game that works(which unfortunately and problematically starts with “what do we mean by works”. 😉

        • Thanks for making so many great points about this topic!

          Pursuing the gaming metaphor further, and thinking about the fact that some forums have rules that ought to lead to more civil and constructive conversations, but do not always succeed in doing so, maybe we should talk about the place of hacks and cheats in the analogy. Playing by the rules is not the only way to beat a game.

          I sometimes wonder as an educator as well, whether there will be a generation of students, if there isn’t one already, which assumes that a “cheat” in education is just one non-standard way of beating the “game” rather than something unethical…

          • spinkham

            I’m not an educator, but my in-laws are. They have taught in the US and China, and at least in their school in China it’s already worse than that.

            Not only is cheating the norm among students, it’s the policy of colleges. Once accepted into a program, you are almost guaranteed to graduate from it, and it’s the schools job to make sure that you do. If you don’t pass a class, the teacher is expected to give you easier and easier tests until you do pass it.

            The stated reason is that education is so expensive, many rural communities pool their money to send one promising student to school in the hopes he will lift the community out of poverty, and as such failing a student is in a real way failing the community.

            The fact that they taught at an engineering school and that these graduates are now designing power plants and bridges is downright scary.

            If costs of college credentials continue to rise and college education remains a requirement for many fields, I would expect similar problems to arise here. When the incentives reach a certain point, cheating as norm is hard to avoid, and it will be a cultural test to see what happens to “honor codes” in most colleges. I’d expect high prestige institutions will maintain their standards, but what would happen at lower ranked schools is more uncertain. The value of their credential is somewhat relative to the quality of the graduate, so there are some compensating controls that should keep all but the worst degree mills actively pursuing cheaters in some manner, with high penalties for being caught. If those penalties lessen however, many students would be doing whatever they thought they could get away with today.

            On a note completely unrelated to cheating in high incentive games, anybody still following how the LIBOR scandal and the US voter suppression campaign are going? 😉

  • You are so right in this post, James. Whether intentionally or not, you’ve given me a good critical correction.

    I’m sorry that I’ve fallen into this game far too often.

  • Wut?

    What is the point of this?

    You want to make rules for how people communicate with each other online?

    People (most of them) realize that this is the real world. Their words and actions have consequences. The internet is anonymous, so yes, people do act differently than they would in person. That’s not such a bad thing though. You get to see their true colors.

    Seeing as God is real, “gamifying” religious discussions is a horrendous idea. God is not a game.

    • Wut,

      James is not suggesting new rules, just promoting a new way of thinking about online communication.

      While anonymity might lead some to show “true colors”, it also leads to irresponsibility and unnecessary meanness. Anonymity removes the normal consequences of words.

  • Mary

    Very thoughtful article. I just want to add that what I think adds to the meaness is that we are not always battling just the person we are disagreeing with. Instead we are fighting what that person represents to us. For instance, I see too many people using God as a sledgehammer against people they don’t like just because they think that the bible says it is ok. So maybe I overreact in the other direction.

  • I like your thinking. Have you heard of the Flynn Effect? It tries to explain the rise of IQ scores (still happening) that we’ve seen over the past century or so, presumably because of our immersion in modern media and technology.
    Your point seems related in that we’re changing our interaction based on what technology does to us. That’s not always a good thing.
    This is a little off topic, but I summarize an idea from The Atheist Experience about the similarity of Christianity to board games:

  • arcseconds

    I dunno, it seems to me that there’s always been vitriolic debates on the intertron, about religion and every other matter. There may well be more people than ever before doing this, but I imagine that’s largely got to do with :

    1) more people than ever before are on the internet
    2) more people than ever before are using interactive forumy things on the internet (Usenet’s been around forever, but most people don’t even seem to know of its existence: up until the last 5 years or so I think many people who were ‘on the internet’ had an email address and occasionally read a webpage or two).

    Speaking of every other matter given that people seem to be able to argue with excessive vitriol about, say, mac vs. PC, or Linux vs. the world, or Who vs. Trek, what’s different about vitrolic debates about religion?

  • I found myself compelled to leave a group on Facebook last week because of this kind of thinking. I had raised some issues with a particular method of biblical interpretation, and instead of responding to my queries I was frog-marched through a series of challenges designed to prove that the other person’s method of interpretation was the only one that could stand up to these tests. It was bizarre and frustrating, especially when they started placing constraints on my interpretation that were not a part of the bible texts we were looking at. It was very like being told, “If, and only if, you can pass this level then we will acknowledge the objections you’ve raised.”