UPDATED 03:02 EST / MARCH 16 2015

Virtual friends and real rewards: Living with our avatars (Part 2)

rewardsThis is the second entry of a three-part series exploring heightened technological immersion in the near future. Part One: The Side Effects of Mind Control is here.

In 2010 Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, Distinguished Professor of Entertainment Technology, Carnegie Mellon and former Creative Director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio, gave what became a cause celebre speech, When Games Invade Real Life, at the D.I.C.E (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit. Throughout the talk Schell kept his audience captivated with an almost prophetic run-down of how reward systems worked into games, via omnipresent tracking software, will become standard in the coming years.

“As more people get hooked on these games [social network gaming], there will come a time when the external game reward system will permeate the real world. Whereas before, game makers were mainly concerned about creating some sort of a parallel universe where people can escape when real life proves too much for them, there is now a growing interest to merge fantasy and reality,” Schell told his audience.

Watched, measured and judged


Our lives will become our games, which, if we agree with the aforementioned (Part One) beliefs of  psychologist B.F Skinner, this could pave the way to enhanced social stability; we will want to do good because people will see how well we’ve done. And so we might not only collect physical rewards, but also receive kudos for our actions. Perpetual surveillance will persuade us to act in a better way as members of certain social groups, and perhaps it will also encourage us to treat our own bodies to more salubrious ends. In psychological terms, a kind of digitally driven socialization takes place within the game.

Skinner, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, believed that it was external forces like parenting, school and public relations (a theory created by Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, on the basis of herd mentality), that shaped our morality and helped us repress our sometimes destructive primal urges. These external forces have never before been a constant force in our lives, but that could change if our daily activities and decisions become the subject of a social online game.

We’ll be, “watched, measured and judged,” concluded Schell at the D.I.C.E Summit. He seemed excited about this prospect, despite the stark resonance of the three frightening verbs. If you run through the comments section below his TED Talk, you’ll find many people lamenting the decline of civilization as we know it, rather than celebrating our immersion with digital technology. Schell’s candid vision of round-the-clock tracking may have shattered some commenters’ notions of autonomy, but for him the pros outweigh the cons. Schell’s idea of immersion includes commercial aspects, but it is also one of meaningful, educative, life-affirming, experiences; experiences that might eventually become necessary, rather than oppressive.

Jesse Schell DICE 2013 (660x439)

                                                                                              Jesse Schell speaking at the D.I.C.E Summit 2013

Too much insight?


We might also be led on a consumeristic merry dance as we frenziedly go in search of rewards, or feel compelled to act in ways that are constrained by peer pressure, often sidelining the facets of intuition, spontaneity. If we do enter into this totally immersive pact with technology, will we someday pine for our lost privacy? Many critics seem to think we will, but in turn those naysayers have been criticised as being unnecessarily consumed with dread. Accusations have been made about the techno-doomsday scenario writers not fully understanding technology, while the technorati have been accused of not understanding humanity. Not surprisingly, the pro-tech/anti-tech schism has become more hostile during the last couple of years.

A more plugged-in future has been the focus of criticism by two U.S literary heavyweights, Dave Eggars with his Facebook/Google-esque dystopian satire, The Circle, and Jonathan Franzen, who has been a regular contributor to media on the topic of the dangers of consumer tech.

In an essay in the Guardian in 2013 called What’s Wrong with the Modern World Franzen wrote, “With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of ’empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

Both Eggars and Franzen, though more Franzen, were given a severe lambasting for their allegedly paranoid, pessimistic beliefs, mostly from tech writers, that was summed-up in a Forbes piece that measured the duo’s apparent pessimism against the ensuing dislike campaign, calling it ‘Heartbreaking Vitriol of Staggering Absurdity’. We might all be better, the writer alludes, taking the middle path.

The Optimist


The question of privacy and technological immersion is a serious one, and as we rush towards the future, we might do so guided by voices from both ends of the intellectual spectrum. Jesse Schell understands the gravity of perpetual surveillance, and is under no illusion that that advances in immersive tech will not come without a lot of exploitation. He also believes technological ingenuity will always fall into the arms of good sense, once it’s been prized from the breast of those that, “will try to manipulate us emotionally into giving up our privacy, and giving up our money,” said Schell.

Schell, who is currently working on virtual and augmented reality projects of his own, is not a pessimist. “Fears and optimism always go hand in hand when it comes to new technologies,” he said, “There are always scary aspects to almost every new technology – some new way for it to be misused, or to have unwelcome side effects. But in the long run we always seem to find a way to master these technologies to the benefit of humanity. So – in the long run, I am very optimistic – it’s that middle part where we are still misusing the new technologies that always makes me worry. ”

Many users on the other hand, he says, will gladly give out their private information or accept public tracking, as people already do, because they will simply want the rewards, physical, and psychological. But Schell also believes that people will soon tire of, and grow wise to exploitation. “Over time, people will demand experiences that are less hypocritical, and we’ll see some really meaningful experiences,” he says.

The plugged-in future, as Schell has discussed in multiple talks since 2010, will be shared with intelligent, emotional avatars. Virtual characters that are not only responsive, but might even become, “friends for life” – such as the female lover in the film Her. Although that’s an arguably dark depiction of an intimate relationship with an avatar, Schell has said that such technology could become, “companions for life, always there for you, changing with you, growing up with you, a meaningful, emotional crutch.”

Of the technology itself Schell says, “There is a long way to go in the creation of characters that can really think and speak. But we are making progress every day, and I think about 8-10 years from now, we’ll see some real breakthroughs in this regard.” He adds that it will start with things like Siri, which will see improvements over time, and “that will be worked into games in an emotional context, since game characters can be very emotional. Soon after that, though, the characters will come out of the games again, and we’ll have emotional characters in our cars, on our phones, in our AR systems, all over our everyday lives.”

Schell remains prevailingly optimistic when asked about how time out of the analogue world will affect our social bonds, our people skills. He contends that if we are communicating, that in itself is good. “Even writing in a private diary can make someone a better communicator. It may be that talking to virtual characters might serve as a bridge to better human to human communication.”

In Part Three we’ll talk to research scientist and author, Nick Yee, about human nature in the virtual world.

Photo credit: Clever Cupcakes

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