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reality is broken

participation and emotion

In today’s reading, McGonigal writes:

So if not money or prizes, then what will most likely emerge as the most powerful currency in the crowdsourcing economy? I believe that emotions will drive this new economy. Positive emotions are the ultimate reward for participation. And we are already hardwired to produce all the rewards we could ever want—through positive activity, positive achievements, and positive relationships. It’s an infinitely renewable source of incentive to participate in big crowd projects.

I am curious as to your thoughts on the ethics underlying this claim. First, there’s a little history that we want to acknowledge here about emotions and the economy. Certainly the advertising industry has made explicit links between emotions and consumerism for nearly a century (Madison Avenue emerged in the 1920s, though there were ads before then!). In classical Greek rhetoric, Aristotle identifies three forms of argument: logos, ethos, and pathos. Pathos is an appeal to emotion.

In my mind this is a curious ethical arrangement. I will buy a book or a movie ticket or sit through commercials as the price for being entertained. Similarly I will buy a video game. In laying down the dollars I have discharged my obligation. Here, however, McGonigal suggests making my pleasure directly productive. In my view this inherently shifts the equation. Take the Free Rice game as an example. The players aren’t really garnering rice for playing; they are garnering rice by seeing advertisements. How is that for a form of volunteerism? Would you watch 30 minutes of commercials in order to have a company donate $1 to the Red Cross? How about $5? $10? Maybe you’ve done some volunteering. I’ve volunteered as a soccer coach for my town and spent a couple hundred hours a year doing that. Was it fun? Overall I enjoyed the experience. Were there days that were less than fun? Was there paperwork and other hassles? Absolutely. It’s not something I would have done strictly for the pleasure of it. It’s work I chose to take on because it was beneficial to others.

My point is simply that once you add this element of doing social good, you change the emotional valence of an activity. I might like to go for a walk. It’s simple pleasure. Then I take a bag with me and pick up trash. A random act of kindness, performed at my discretion; this interferes with the pleasure of my walk but gives me some other enjoyment. Then I join a group that organizes to do trash clean up in my town. Now I am volunteering; maybe I enjoy it, but it isn’t the simple pleasure of a walk anymore. If I play some mobile game that tracks my walk and somehow measures the trash I gather (bear with me this is purely hypothetical) then I am neither exactly walking or volunteering. Instead I am supposed to derive my pleasure from the points I get in the game. To borrow a line from Mark Twain talk about a good walk spoiled.


About Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo


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