Questioning the ‘gamified’, ‘pop-up’ city

It seems to be de rigueur to offer ‘smart’, compelling projects or visions of a particular kind of participation in the fabric of the contemporary city through the buzz- concepts/ words of ‘gamification’ or ‘pop-up’. I just want to offer a quick observation of the political problems that might identified with these ideas.

First, gamification proposes that what are considered to be otherwise mundane tasks should be rendered entertaining by introducing the ‘mechanics’ of a game into their operation. This seems principally to be the use of simple, reproducible functions such as attributing ‘points’ for given actions and introducing competition by creating a leaderboard. This, perhaps, in part stems from the ease with which one can, using digital media – especially through apps on mobile phones,  reductively quantify a given action and then create a system for comparing those numbers. However, this is neither a meaningful representation of or intervention in those activities apparently being ‘gamified’.

At best ‘gamification’ is running a simplified (reductive) model of a system alongside given activities and pretending the two converge or at least are someway related or relevant. At worst it is the automisation of people in a servile relationship with a mechanism for data acquisition that has been integrated into a system or set of practices that they need or (used to) enjoy. For, more often than not, ‘gamification’ happens in order to facilitate the capture of information about a group of people using a system or service. In this way it can be argued that gamification is, following Ian Bogost, a form of deception. Indeed Bogost argues, following Harry Frankfurt, that if “bullshit is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce”, then “gamification is bullshit”. “Unlike liars, bullshitters have no use for the truth. All that matters to them is hiding their ignorance or bringing about their own benefit” (Bogost). Given this understanding of gamification, these ‘mechanics’ are not opening out participation but are rather attempting to subjugate people. The darker and more cynical end of that argument is that, in fact, gamification is a means by which you enrol people into a form of unpaid work as the producers of data desirable to the authors of the system, which is rather like what Maurizio Lazzarato has called ‘immaterial labour‘.

I am certainly not arguing against creating playful systems – I am all for systems that take play seriously, for example see Hello Lampost and other creative and playful interventions into urban experience. I delight in the unexpected and serendipitous and value things that may facilitate that, but reducing that to ‘flat pack’ suites of algorithms to be crowbarred into pre-existing systems is, for me, rather undesirable.

Second, the ‘pop-up‘ model of business is the short-term injection of a business in an otherwise unused or perhaps unusual space, for example: an empty shop or a tent on municipal green space. This is often couched as the use of otherwise ‘wasted’ spaces and perhaps an enabling of a fledgling or experimental business through low-cost accommodation. Or, as ‘Popup Britain’ has it, to: “offer a co-working, co-funded space for brands to experiment with physical retail, test the market and gain face-to-face customer feedback”. Now, shrugging off the marketing speak, these things may be true, but it seems common sense that when commercial occupancy rates climb again councils and landlords will be far less willing to provide such space, the experiments then end and the risky workers are ousted.

My main issue with this model is not the risk of post-austerity commercial revanchism (although that may well be a real risk) but the rehashing of precariousness as a good. The assumption appears to be that small or new business owners must wilfully make themselves precarious, or in the case of ‘cultural’ pop-ups that the staff should be happy to offer their services for a token cup of coffee etc., and remain precarious labour (which seems to have been the case in some of the pop-up things I’ve been in).

Now, there is a realpolitik to this – I understand that regardless of the precarity pop-ups still represent an opportunity for some artists and social enterprises that otherwise may not exist. Nevertheless, once the rents and occupancy return should these artists and social enterprises simply be expelled from the revived thoroughfares and forgotten?

So, it’s not the control and use of desirable-again spaces, that is merely symptomatic of the broader issue. ‘Pop-ups’ seem to me to be founded on the assumption that it is not only ok but desirable to create a whole class of precarious creative worker and that, rather than reward them, we should enforce that precariousness and package it as desirable.

To inject a smidgeon of theory, both ‘gamification’ and ‘pop-ups’ could be critically understood, at their worst, as strategies of ‘proletarianization‘ (following Bernard Stiegler) – a curtailment not only of skilled knowledge (savour faire), and the time to cultivate it, but also of the development of life skills (savour vivre) amongst the populace – creating unthinking consumers. A traditional Marxian critique would also possibly identify both ‘gamification’ and ‘pop-ups’ as the constitution of a form of ‘surplus labour‘ and maintaining a ‘reserve army of labour‘.  This is not the realisation of a grand evil plan by the big Other, ‘the bankers’ or ‘the bourgeoisie’, but rather a logic, which has developed with and through capitalism, that we have all internalised and recapitulated and in some way indentured ourselves with.

A couple of questions arise then: Surely gamification has a limited shelf-life before it becomes passé? How long will people subject themselves to quantification and competing against one another for less-than-meaningul ‘points’? Are pop-ups simply using precarious cultural labour as window dressing for vacant shops? Both of these questions point to a third: Who or what counts in these processes and how can they be taken seriously?

It is possible to imagine creative and interesting ways of living together but, I would argue, just because certain (short-term) strategies are popular it doesn’t necessarily mean we should all jump in.

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