It’s Evolution, Baby

Social mechanisms and how they're woven into games.

By: Patricia Hernandez

Filed Under: Editorial Life Psychological Social


In 1982, French artist Sophie Calle found an address book stranded on the streets of Paris.

What she did next many claimed crossed the line: she contacted everyone listed in the book and asked them to tell her about the owner; who he was, what he believed in, his habits, his idiosyncrasies, et cetera, as a means of creating a portrait of the proprietor. She collected all sorts of information on a person she did not know, arguably in the name of ‘art.’ These written accounts would appear a year later in the newspaper publication called Liberation over the course of a month.

The man, naturally, was outraged and would go on to threaten retaliation by attempting to publish nudes of Calle. This reaction, in conjunction with Calle’s insecurities and reservations – also explored in the work she created – were strong enough to lead Calle to refrain from republishing The Address Book outside of the original Liberation run until after the man’s death out of respect.

Later Calle would go on to say “I no longer ask myself what I’m doing, but I’m not obsessed with whether it really is art. For me, it’s a game; it’s the critics’ decision to call it art.”

Referring to her work, which often toyed with private and public boundaries, as a game hints to the playful nature, yes. But it is also reflective of a larger truth. The reason that her work provokes such strong reactions, the reason it makes us question what is okay when comes to the lives of other people, is because all our interactions and social relations have rules attached to them – mechanics, if you will. Rules which Calle broke.

The study of sociology is revelatory here. Maybe it seems too detached to look at our social interactions and our interpersonal relationships as mechanics – certainly I’d wager that we’d like to think of these aspects of our lives as sacred, special. Aspects that we shouldn’t try to game because doing so would be manipulative and therefore ‘wrong.’

I could tell you about social capital, and how that looks at the collective benefits that come from healthy cooperative relationships between individuals and groups. I could tell you about how sociologist Max Weber thought that the heart of sociology could be found in interaction, and that the ideas regarding social action assume that when other people are involved, we measure our actions depending on the context and their effects, ultimately modifying those actions along the way depending on the results.

I could tell you how that aligns with the ideas of rational choice theorists – who believe that we analyze and calculate our actions for personal gain. Or how Weber thought that Western society increasingly employed Zweckrational choices in social contexts – that is, that we are guided by the effort to be as efficient as possible, often looking at others as objects or resources that we can manipulate for our wishes. I could, I could.

But that all sounds awful, doesn’t it? The thing is, I don’t think I have to really dive into any of that (frankly depressing stuff) for you to see what I mean, because you’re probably innately well-versed with those concepts. We participate in them ever day even if we don’t pick up a controller, even if we may not actively think things like “Okay, I’m going out with friend A today because that would be of the most benefit to me” like we might when optimizing the time we have outside dungeon crawling in Persona. It’s easy to think that only things like games bring out this chilling aspect of our personalities – that we “game” things, that we milk them until they give us what we want because clever developers design game mechanics that force us to think in these ways.

After all, you can’t consult a FAQ when trying to figure out how to get what you want from a friend. You can’t give someone a gift and have it equal to exactly this much affection, more, you can’t enumerate how much your actions affect someone else like in a game that spews stats at you. You can’t just pick the romance option, highlighted for your convenience, to bed someone. And besides! If we could do all these things, we know we wouldn’t because we’re not actually like that, right? Stupid games and their conniving ways! Stop dehumanizing social interaction!

But we all play by “the rules,” we all follow these unspoken social contracts that dictate most of our everyday actions in an effort to, as mechanics allow, get a pleasant outcome – or at least a specific one. That behavior is not some weird thing that arises only while playing games, social interaction could be argued to already work like that and games merely seek to reflect it. We follow laws, we respect friends and families not because we’re forced to – there is always choice involved in what we do – but because it’s beneficial. Just like we act in certain ways in games to get the favor of an ally which can then grant us bonuses in battle, which is a common type of game mechanic. And while we may not all buy into impersonal modes of thinking when it comes to relationships in real life – like networking, which blatantly looks at other people as resources – there are always smaller concessions that we make without realizing it.

I’ll use myself as an example. I’m less likely to give time to a friend who I’ve judged to not value me enough: meaning, my being a constructive force for someone else is not enough to include them in my life. I have to get something out of it too, I have to feel that they help keep me happy and healthy to some degree. Actions are never wholly selfless if I gain fulfillment from what I do. I adjust how much time I spend with people accordingly, hell, I adjust how that interaction manifests itself depending on the relationship. I opt for more face to face time with those closest to me while relegating others to texting, tweeting and the like in the same way I might keep a certain cast of characters in my party because I like them more, or because they are more effective in battle. To be clear I don’t actively think like this when interacting with others, but I can recognize that this is essentially what I am doing afterward, when reflecting on it. It’s not that I’m a particularly horrible person or anything. We all do it.

The question is just how far we take it–we consider it taboo to take it as far as we do in games – and we are quick to cast stones to those we determine go too far. In particular we see these ideas manifest themselves to worrying degree when it comes to dating, as glossy magazine covers, with their hot, proven tips regularly remind us. I say worrying because we adopt routines and practices that are meant to optimize for the “prize” even in the most intimate of settings – so why wouldn’t we do it in more innocuous contexts?

Many of the sociologists who examine social interaction note that these modes of thinking are closely related to capitalism, where the obsession with efficient modes of production influenced even the ways we conduct ourselves in personal contexts. Naturally the efficient optimization of the self has a pricetag, as all things in capitalism do – this is one of the first observations I make while perusing pick up artist forums, which like to launch pop up ads enticing you to purchase the secret tricks to bed beautiful women.

In the dating world we astutely refer to the ability to land dates or get laid as having “game,” with rappers like Kendrick Lamar cautioning those with no game to not “approach her with that Atari.” The acknowledgment here is that pursuing romance involves complex navigation. There are expectations to meet, personal desires to fulfill and some of us are (supposedly) more proficient at this than others thanks to an understanding of how these interactions work. Some of us have game, some of us don’t.

Game can be improved. Pick up artists try to hone the skills necessary to attract and seduce women by constructing lifestyle choices and sets of practices that they are convinced are empirically and scientifically sound, in the same way hardcore Pokemon players look at the algorithms in Pokemon to figure out advantageous practices in play.

Books like The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists or the Kino system break some of PUA’s ideas down, but to give an overview: you must exhibit confidence and be willing to get more physically aggressive as you go on while pursuing women because they are passive but still attracted to the alpha males, your social skills can be honed by following approaches dictated by gurus and knowing how to work the situation depending on context, you must maintain a certain level of fitness and a fashion sense that is not only appropriate for who you are pursuing, but that also helps peacock you, amongst other things. It’s impossible to give a full, true overview when one considers that the practices and ideas change every year – or, as they would unsurprisingly say, the game “evolves.” The game must evolve, for that means there are more products and ideas to sell. Madden is not the only thing that comes in yearly installments.

Using whack concepts from psychology and misapplying evolutionary theory, pick up artists determine all sorts of tactics to approach women. Negging, for instance, is when you degrade a woman so that she becomes more vulnerable to your advances. If you listen to a pick up artist, it might be difficult to decipher what they’re saying – they use all sorts of jargon which makes it difficult to feel as if they’re talking about actual people, and not just an object attained after a win-state in a game. As I understand it, recently these terms have started to adopt ideas from the military, making pick up artistry particularly, if not unavoidably, misogynistic.

For example: you “sarge” women when you go out and actively pursue them, and if you plainly tell her your intentions with a “opener” then you are applying “direct game,” and she then might go on to give you an “IOI” (indicator of interest) which ultimately leads to a “closer” (giving you her number, kissing, having sex). Later you give your PUA friends a “field report.”

Many would say that pick up artists are misguided, and it’s amusing to read accounts where it’s clear that they don’t understand why their methods are creepy if not ineffective. But to me, pick up artists are the natural (but unfortunate) occurrence of a society that thinks like we do. They’re just rolling with what society has primed them to do, which is think of everything in terms of systems because that line of thinking allows you to get what you want. I’m not excusing them, merely recognizing that pick up artists weren’t born in a vacuum–we created them–and, going further, that we aren’t as innocent as we think when it comes to the relationships we pursue. We don’t have to follow the teachings of Neil Strauss like pick up artists do for that to be the case.

Games also mirror these modes of thinking when they present social interactions. Systems can be modeled, after all. Whether or not these systems can be quantified is a fair criticism–I don’t have the answer to that question. It’s beside the point: the point is that we are trained to think of things in this way, period. Thinking in this way allows us to be more productive and efficient (or hope that we can be), which is to say, that we want to become a good capitalist citizen that knows the value of optimization and efficiency in life.

Maybe that’s uncomfortable. When we criticize games like Persona or games like Dragon Age, which structure personal relationships into levels and sliders, delineating clear methods to gain benefits from these relationships, is it wholly because they reduce complex interactions into something too simplistic, or something inhumane? Let’s be real, I think many of us would have trouble abstaining from looking at the numbers if we could actually see them in real life judging by how important useless statistics like how many friends we have on Facebook are to us.

So this leads me to ask: is it actually that we have trouble admitting that we do, in fact, think in these ways (possibly like thinking in these ways!) and would rather not confront that, would rather keep relationships in this sacrosanct realm where these things cannot be defined and coded?

Filed Under: Editorial Life Psychological Social

About the Author:
Patricia Hernandez is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, a site devoted to writing critically about games, as well as a weekly contributor to Kotaku. She can be emailed at patricia (at) nightmaremode (dot) net.