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Paying Attention
Will Partin

We were quick to recognize, in the waning moments of the 2000s, that the logic of videogames was starting to creep out of the living room and into the rest of our lives. Ludic learning was enrolled in schools, gamification was headed to work, and social media platforms were implementing likes, badges, quests, achievements, and anything else to drive engagement. Never mind that those first two applications mostly shit the bed—for those of us to whom games matter, all news was good news. Even critics who saw through the deus ex machina schemes were willing to play nice with the Jane McGonigals or empathy simulators of the world who were rehabilitating games’ reputation. Sure, we knew full well that virtual reality was not going to “solve” any serious social problem, but a lot of critics (myself included) also figured that the positive press these applications generated might, indirectly, make a better environment for the kinds of writing about games we did want to do. Rising tides, and all ...

These days, the “empathy wars” are a distant memory and no one has to politely pretend that an $800 headset is going to make the world a more loving place. Gamification, too, has become a spoiled term, having received a significant and well-deserved beatdown in both popular and academic circles by anyone who bothered to look at what happens in practice. (See, respectively, Ian Bogost’s delicious “Gamification is Bullshit” and Christo Sims’ ethnography of how an expensive game-based school unraveled). The boosterism was bullshit then, sure, but in a world where Netflix’s CEO describes Fortnite and not HBO (let alone Blockbuster) as their main competitor, it also feels a lot safer to cry foul around games in 2019. Games don’t need a champion like McGonigal any longer—they stand perfectly well on their own.

Too well, maybe. One of the curious facts about games writing is that critics have always been much better at seeing how games were being taken up out in the world, rather than how that world was coming to roost in games. And the last decade has witnessed an extraordinary concentration of capital and influence in a small number of technology companies, all of whom use platforms—digital infrastructures that intermediate between users—to control and datify as much of human life as possible. This is the story of games, too, culminating in the much-ballyhooed genre of “games as service,” a genre premised on and directed towards data collection. Why was it so much easier to recognize that social media platforms were using gameful techniques than it was to see games were using the techniques of social media platforms?

One of the critics who really seemed to get what happened to games in the last decade is Brian Feldman, who, in what was otherwise a fairly straightforward piece on the rise of Fortnite for New York Magazine, tossed out this line:

" Fortnite is a candy-colored video game populated by friends and celebrities with quantified metrics for success, tucked into every corner, constantly updated, highly social, usable anywhere, dopamine-releasing, and extremely competitive. In other words, the way to think about Fortnite isn’t Halo, but Instagram. Not Call of Duty, but Snapchat. What’s the difference between racking up kills and racking up likes? "

There isn’t one, which is the point—they’re just two ways of negotiating status in a world fueled by attention and the exhaust we otherwise call data. Ten, fifteen years ago, few would have considered games and Hollywood competitors since they were ostensibly “different” industries; films competed with other films, and maybe television, not with videogames. When “attention” has become the common term, the currency that capital seeks to capture, the relation between all culture becomes competitive.

This is why the terms and metrics that matter for games as service—attention, engagement, retention, content production, shareability—are the same as the metrics that matter for social media platforms. You could therefore say that games became like social media, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s probably more accurate to say that they became like each other, driven by the underlying imperative to enclose, datify, and capitalize. And this, of course, is the great irony of an age when all of us, ostensibly, have access to the means of production, whether it’s YouTube or Unity. What that gave us, alas, was a surplus of commodities that can only be paid for with attention, a multitude of monocultures.


*Will Partin is a two legged featherless animal with broad nails and access to the internet. Find him on Twitter.