The Value of Value Capture

Using Gamification to Address Addiction and Sequential Choice Problems


  • Michael Ridge University of Edinburgh



Gamification, roughly the use of game-like elements to motivate us to achieve practical ends “in the real world,” makes large promises. According to Jane McGonigal, gamification can save the world by channelling the amazing motivational power of gaming into pro-social causes ranging from alienation from our work to global resource scarcity and feeding the hungry (McGonigal 2011).  Even much more modest aims like improving personal fitness or promoting a more equitable division of household labour provide some license for optimism about the ability of gamification to improve our lives in more humble but still worthwhile ways.  On the other hand, Thi Nguyen has argued that there is a dark side to gamification: what he calls “value capture.”  Roughly, gamification works in large part because it offers a simplified value structure – this is an essential part of its appeal and motivational power.  However, especially in the context of gamification which exports these value schemes into our real-world lives, there is a risk that these overly simplistic models will displace our more rich, subtle values and that this will make our lives worse: this is value capture. The point is well-taken.  The way in which number of steps taken per day can, for an avid user of “FitBit,” displace more accurate measurements of how one’s activities contribute to one’s fitness is a compelling example.   If I become so obsessed with “getting my 10,000 steps” that I stop making time to go to the gym, jog or do my yoga/pilates then that is not a net gain.  However, there is an important range of cases that Nguyen’s discussion ignores but which provide an important exception to his critique:  value capture relative to behaviours that are addictive and destructive.  Here I have in mind things like alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling addiction.  With these kinds of activities, value capture can not only be good but essential to a person’s well-being because (and not in spite of) of its displacement of the person’s more rich, subtle values.  Interestingly, the point is not limited to cases of addictive behaviour, though they put the point in its most sharp relief.  Any situation in which making rational decisions one by one can leave one worse off than “blindly” following a policy which is itself rational to adopt also turns out to illustrate the point, thus further expanding the role for value capture as itself a force for good.  The more general point is that certain kinds of sequential choice problems carve out an important and theoretically interesting exception to Nguyen’s worries about value capture.  In these kinds of choice contexts, value capture not only does not make our lives go worse, it may be essential to making our lives go better.


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