Book Review: You’ve Been Played

I’m going to make a bold claim- You’ve Been Played, by Adrian Hon, is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in years. The last book I got this much value from was Thinking Fast and Slow, the seminal work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. I don’t make that comparison lightly.

You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All was written by Adrian Hon- most renowned for his development of a mobile fitness game called “Zombies, Run!” I stumbled upon the author and book through a different path- Hon was the lead designer for Perplex City, an ARG from the early 2000s in which players hunted for a $200,000 prize through a wide variety of clues including hundreds of puzzle/riddle cards sold in packs. The game is long gone, but I’ve picked up some of the cards from it recently.

Before I jump into my summary of the book, I need to preface with one more important detail- I’ve always been completely fascinated by gamification, including, and perhaps especially, the coercive use of games to drive players to potentially unreasonable actions. Gamification is the addition of game elements to an otherwise mundane task, designed to boost engagement in an unengaging activity.

I can spend all day in Las Vegas watching the various gimmicks slot machines have in place to keep the money flowing in. Any time I’ve been to Tokyo, I’ve been enthralled by the various tricks arcade games utilize to multiply their earnings. Nowadays, mobile app games seem to be at the forefront of this type of manipulation, resulting in players spending thousands on minor and frivolous things.

Hon’s views on gamification are surprisingly cynical for an accomplished game designer and mobile app developer. He focuses heavily on the negative implications of the advent of quantified self – that our ability to measure every aspect of our lives to an inordinate degree creates perverse incentives for gamification to be used to keep people miserable.

The examples are plentiful and fascinating. The book focuses a lot on describing how gamified experiences provide fruitless entertainment for warehouse workers, but it also zooms out to other activities that follow the same patterns but aren’t traditionally considered games, like how truck drivers track their road time. Any small selection of the content mentioned would be fascinating. Hon provides a remarkable variety of examples from varied industries and entities and discusses the implications of all of them.

Hon also covers other intriguing concepts like “charismatic technology” – the misguided evangelization of technology that creates more problems than it fixes. The primary story used to explain this concept is “One Laptop Per Child” – a naive charity program that assumed dumping crank-powered laptops onto villages without running water or electricity would create a worldwide army of tech geeks. The mechanisms by which the program failed are worthy of their own book (and there is one – called “The Charisma Machine”).

I also found the concept of “above the API” and “below the API” extremely interesting. The idea here is that workers are divided into two groups, with an increasingly small pool of above the API workers developing plans and requisitioning brute force labor from a replaceable dehumanized pool of workers they never meet. It’s a modern take on the long standing concerns with automation (see the 1960s Twilight Zone episode The Brain Machine at Whipple’s) which force us to ask ourselves if we’d rather be automated out of a job or enslaved in something mundane underneath a layer of gamification.

I can’t understate the thoroughness of the book in covering examples across industries. Every page comes with little nuggets worth their weight in gold. As just one example: in one popular teaching assistant app, elementary school teachers can give students merits/demerits that impact an overall point total. Playing the demerit sound effect causes all students to come to alert and behave, even if they weren’t the ones demerited, because all the students have a brief moment in which they’re checking if the demerit was for them. It’s devious and fascinating.

For the most part, I only have praise to say about the book. The only exception is with a few of the later chapters. The connection between augmented reality games and conspiracy theories is interesting and probably worth its own book. I like the idea of comparing systems of reward and feedback between these two areas, but these chapters jump to conclusions too early about the mechanisms linking the two. I’d like to see Hon write a follow up book specifically on this topic and bring in other examples of where online communities become armchair experts, like how everyone on the internet is suddenly an expert on the latest popular courtroom drama or Netflix true crime special.

I also felt some of the later assertions of the book were a bit weak, like the idea that indulgences or pilgrimages were early forms of gamification. If indulgences are a game, you can make the same assertion about literally any structured system or system of exchange, i.e. that bronze coins were an early form of points to accumulate. And it’s silly to me to think that cloistered nuns following prayer regimens or trying to simulate walking in Jesus’s steps were gamifying prayer any more than someone trying to eat three or more servings of vegetables a day or exercise once a day is gamifying health – just because something is quantified doesn’t necessarily make it a game.

That being said, my nitpicks are minor- ignore those chapters and you’ve got a book that lit my imagination more per page than the works of Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis. This is perhaps the first time ever I’m tempted to start rereading a book immediately after finishing it. I haven’t even mentioned the insights into the game design process and lessons on making an impactful and ethical game.

I took a lot away from this book. The concept of charismatic technology is something that I deal with on a daily basis. I also feel for those living “below the API” and want to do my part in ensuring dignity of work for those in all jobs. I’m a bit more optimistic about some of the business-driven gamification than Hon is mainly because quantified self, despite its shortcomings, is a great counter to bias in the workplace. It may be painful being rewarded with a small vending machine credit for being the most productive employee, but it’s still a great way to set oneself apart from the competition.

You’ve Been Played is a must-read for those both in game design and in leadership positions in large organizations, especially in technology. With how much the world has changed since the advent of cell phones, it’s a great reminder to look at all angles of the shiny new tools we have to work with and ensure we  don’t use all this technology to make ourselves miserable.

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