Value clarity 2.0
C. Thi Nguyen’s “value clarity” concept (advanced in 2020’s Games: Agency as Art) is a useful one, whose basic idea goes like this: Nguyen believes games “work” (compel us) largely by providing value clarity for their players—that is, game worlds are characterized by artificially narrow and unambiguous set of priorities and purposes over which the player can optimize. There is often a single axis of value, such as points or tokens, and each action the player might take is fungible, its value easily tabulated by deference to its impact on player score. By contrast, real life is a welter of conflicting, complex goals and values, where there is no single final “purpose,” rival philosophies assigning worth differently to the behaviors and outcomes they choose to elevate.
The benefit to value clarity is that it’s motivating—it feels good to know you’re objectively maxing out character stats, whereas “being a good person” is harder, murkier more subjective, characterized by questioning and doubt.
In ordinary life, we have to balance values. First, each of us must balance our own different and competing values, goals, and ends, which is already a difficult enough task. Then, even more torturously, we must balance our interests with the interests of others. But in games, we are permitted a brief respite from the pains of plurality. For a little while, we get to act as though only one thing matters—to lose ourselves in the pursuit of that things. Our values simplify. We need only chase our own goal, in all its simplicity and selfishness—and that goal is usually put in simple, clear, and utterly stark terms.
The cost of value clarity, at least when transferred to the outside world is, well, its impoverishment—it forgets or ignores things we demonstrably do care about (but don’t include in our simplified calculus). His examples include Amazon “gamifying” their warehouse workers—that is, managing and evaluating employees on the basis of a value-explicit point system—or Disney Resorts gamify their housekeeping force. In the process of value simplification, things like worker well-being, and other “holistic” values, go out the window. What these holistic values are, Nguyen doesn’t really specify or explicate regrettably. So, housekeepers (perhaps) lose their sense of dignity-in-labor, as they cease to take pride in work itself— with all the conflicting values that must be managed in performing such work—and start to care only about racking up points in the gamified environment. Warehouse workers become cut-throat competitive and, turned against one another, seek to gain diminishing marginal advantages with greater and greater self-sacrifices—creating a treadmill effect which all their colleagues must keep up with. The picture I’ve painted sounds slightly hysterical, and given the failure of so many “nudge” findings to replicate their purportedly oversized effects in behavioural sciences, I’m skeptical that the effect of a point-tracking system on employee behavior is so dramatic. But even if subtle, this trend toward impoverishment feels concerning.
My first carp with the concept, then, is ultimately a bit of skepticism for Nguyen’s idealizing or nostalgic portrait of human beings and the rich welter of values they pursue in the workplace. I’m not sure I believe—at the very least, Games fails to convince me—there was once a beautiful, rich, holistic set of values that housekeepers and warehouse workers used to carry through their workdays, which was suddenly destroyed because Disney Resorts assigned points to how many towels they washed. I do think that gamification formalizes certain values, and that this formalization—this surrogation—is necessarily lossy, resulting in the exclusion of values that the game designers either didn’t think of, didn’t care about, or couldn’t figure out how to quantitatively track.
Simultaneously, by instituting quantitative surrogates for many assessments that ought really to be qualitative, the employers themselves impoverish their evaluative capacity, dismissing holistically valuable employees whose quality may not “show up in the stats,” and retaining holistically detrimental employees who “stat-pad.” At the same time, this is already how incentive structures work pre-gamification. When we step into a new job, we step into an incentive structure that already cares about certain things and not others, that already tracks and rewards certain behaviors at the exclusion of others. When we step into a new job, we step into an incentive structure which already diverges from our own priorities and values—and not just that, which diverges from the employer’s priorities, because even though “being efficient” is a value any employer ostensibly prizes, “looking efficient” is the only thing the employer can monitor. That is, the situation is fundamentally opticratic.
So the first refactor of Nguyen’s value clarity concept which I want to advance is that gamification, value clarity, and “value capture”—the replacement of holistic values by value-clear ones—are part and parcel of how incentive structures work, and of our desire to quantify the qualitative, to bring it under greater control. In our identification of new managerial practices as “gamifying,” we risk cargocult—mistaking trivial, superficial features (such as whether we assign workers “points” or merely count the throughput of their conveyor belt, as dates at least to Ford’s factory lines) for important, structural differences.
The second refactor I want to advance is that value clarity is not unique as a draw to gaming—it is also a central appeal of fiction and storytelling, from novels to television. William Gass, in his preface to Gaddis’s Recognitions, writes:
Too often we bring to literature the bias for “realism” we were normally brought up with, and consequently we find a work like The Recognitions too fanciful, obscure, and riddling; but is reality always clear and unambiguous? Is reality simple and not complex? Does it unfold like the pages of a newspaper, or is the unfolding more like that of a road map—difficult to get spread out, difficult to read, difficult to redo? …Of course; the traditional realist’s well-scrubbed world where motives are known and actions are unambiguous, where you can believe what you are told and where the paths of good and evil are as clearly marked as highways, that world is as contrived as a can opener…
And in Simpolism’s “A Dialogue about Evangelion,” the interlocutor “I,” frustrated by the lack of determinacy and resolution in Neon Genesis Evangelion, bemoans:
I: If I were to own up to it, I’d call [my desire] “escapism.” I want the show to feel like a different world of its own, where things make sense. And I guess that’s because, to some extent, the rest of my life might not make sense.
A: What does it mean when you say that the rest of your life doesn’t make sense?
I: Oh, it’s just that, I deal with a lot of unexpected events at work, and the world seems like it’s in such a crazy place right now, with all sorts of political and cultural events happening every day. It feels like a relief to enter into a world where things do make sense, and I think that’s what I expect to receive from TV when I watch it.
And indeed, more broadly, I think we should see games and stories as far more similar than we typically do. The Greek concept of agon, root of protagonist and antagonist, and so central to their conception of theater, means conflict or competition. At the very center of drama is the coming-into-conflict of different players’ desires, who are gaming in pursuit of their goals. Those goals transform the world into a set of obstacles and affordances, in other words, the framework of goal pursuit pragmatically clarifies the world by arranging its constituencies on a single axis: help or harm.
This brings me to my final nitpick—that value clarity is less a question of gaming, and more a matter of framing. A framework, which emerges naturally in the pursuit of goals, but when institutionalized we call an ideology, “just is” the reduction of complexity into a tractable set of priorities. An ideology “just is” a hammer that looks out and only sees nails: ontologically, the world has been transformed by its single-minded purpose. The entire point is, and always has been simplification, because by simplifying priorities, we reduce constraints—rival considerations that make our problem more difficult to solve—and can instead happily max out the priorities included in the framework. In my response to Crispy’s “Stupid Leverage,” I write:
it’s usually a bad idea to spend 10x as capital, energy, or time to be .001% less exploitable. Which is what optimizing for a single trait demands. If I want to make my house retain heat better, in winter, I can pretty easily and cheaply add insulation to the walls and ceilings. I can pretty easily and cheaply seal up window cracks. This is the low-hanging fruit. Once it’s gone, I have to take more drastic, expensive, time-consuming measures. I will have to sacrifice enormously on fronts like aesthetics, comfort, and affordability. And I will face diminishing returns for all my effort, even as the price gets higher and higher.
Which is to say that I agree with Nguyen, that value clarity is both tempting and dangerous. In maxing out profit, or “efficiency,” we will see only minor returns coming at major cost. Where I differ from Nguyen is in perceiving value clarity and capture as more widespread phenomena (at least compared to his treatment in the relevant book chapter, a book whose topic, admittedly, is gaming; in other words he may agree with each point in this post, but not have wished to stray off-topic).
In Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity, Leonidas Donskis and Zygmunt Bauman reflect on relativism and ambiguity. “Happy are those epochs that had clear dramas, dreams, and doers of good or evil,” Donskis writes. And yet our lives are “permeated by ambivalence; there is no longer any unambiguous social situation, just as there are no more uncompromised actors on the stage of world history.” Bauman responds: “How safe and comfortable, cosy and friendly the world would feel if it were monsters and only monsters who perpetrated monstrous deeds.”
Amusing, that to Donskis and Bauman, we used to have value clarity, but now have a complex welter. Whereas to Nguyen, the threat is almost the opposite. Or rather, we’ve come back around and reinvented ideology via the incentive structure. Which is what ideology always was, to begin with. Certain behaviors are seen as advancing group interests, and certain behaviors are seen to set them back, and ideology guides you to choose the former, even though this is at best, a rough heuristic for what actually advances group interests. We surf uncertainty, making variably educated guesses, reading the signs and surrogates which surround us, with no assurance that they point toward truth.
We can also argue a kind of quantified value clarity underlies the appeal of money-oriented values systems: optimizing your life around accumulating money is a real thing people do. Ditto with symbolic capital and body-building:
[The stockbrokers’] money was my muscles. Both of us were stocking and hoarding our respective units of worth, and trumpeting ourselves for our skill in attaining it. We couldn’t live without the idea of a credit rating.
Sam Fussell, Muscle
Which is to illustrate that quantification and gamification aren’t fully necessary for value clarity—they help, because they create an objective, and thus legible and/or socially agreed-upon measurement. Social climbers may brood, like Gollum toward his ring, on their accumulated network—but they do not do it solely by tallying cards in their rolodex. The followers count of social media presents a single, synoptic view of our hoarded riches, which we can cathex upon; it may even exert a pull of its own, such that we lose sight of their “quality” of our followers in favor of pure quantity. But people give themselves over to obsession constantly—to art, to craft, to reputation—at the cost of family, happiness, and ethics. Single-mindedness is somewhat unusual, but selection effects guarantee that the single-minded dominate and outcompete, in their relevant domains, those who carry a “holistic” welter of priorities. Sam Fussell, son of Paul Fussell, reflects on his lifting days: “I became a bodybuilder as a means of becoming a caricature. The inflated cartoon I became relieved me from the responsibility of being human.”