A few quick thoughts on gamifying religion

There’s still a lot I need to unpack from this article at Kotaku about gamifying religion. I wanted to get a few thoughts out about the base idea of creating a “morality hub”, a sort of user-driven voting scheme like Reddit where people can submit ideas about what morals should be followed and let the crowd vote up and down what should be prioritized. The corollary idea that the most popular morals become the most valuable (points-wise) morals to express is a bit disturbing.

First, there’s the ever-present fear of people gaming that sort of system, where on the internet, with anonymity, people give in to their baser ideals. Look at those places where giving offense is considered the highest virtue. The integrity of the voting system and the integrity of the submission system is quesitonable from the outset.

Second, there’s the very idea of competing with one another for the ability to do certain “moral” deeds. Must we elbow one another out of the way to tackle the little old lady looking to cross the street? And what of “grinding” certain low-level, easy to complete positive moral actions?

Third, is it really decent morality if you’re doing it for some (earthly or otherwise) reward? If you stop a mugging just because it’ll win you twenty points, is that a net good for society, or would people look for more altruistic reasons to stop that mugging before it’s considered moral?

Gamifying religion seems to suffer from every poor outcome and exploit that video game karma systems do. It might have some benefits in the real world, though. What do you folks think?

A few quick thoughts on gamifying religion

11 thoughts on “A few quick thoughts on gamifying religion

  1. 1

    Look at those places where giving offense is considered the highest virtue. The integrity of the voting system and the integrity of the submission system is quesitonable from the outset.

    At first glance, I’m thinking this would be the main problem. A ‘morality hub’ would definitely be interesting as far as ascertaining how various moral issues are prioritized across the population. But even without the confounding factor of some elevating ‘giving offense’, you still have a lot of people who, without a Constitution or holy book to keep them in check, will push for certain views that sensible people find immoral. If it was left to a vote, I’m pretty sure there are states where interracial marriage would be illegal and considered immoral today; not sure which founding father said it, but democracy can be just as tyrannical as any other government and I’m not sure how to get around that.

    I’ve played lots of computer games and realize that almost all have exploits, but not sure what specifically you are referring to with the exploits that are in every ‘video game karma system’, unless you are referring to something like the above. I haven’t played as many MMOs though, so maybe that’s what you are referring to.

  2. 2

    This strikes me as rather irrelevant. The moral elements of religion are being largely replaced by secular laws in a democracy, and culture at large already serves as a way to enforce the existing dogma. While I think it would be nice if our moral systems offered better short term carrots and not just the abundance of sticks, gamifying _religion_ seems like an odd diversion.

    Spartan: Generally speaking, I think tyranny or the majority is an important issue in democracy, but I think that the idea of core rights, such as in the US Constitution or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, does a lot to help mitigate that.

  3. 3

    Spartan: yeah, like I said, they’re quick thoughts; I hadn’t fleshed them out yet. One of the things I was thinking of for “grinding” was giving a homeless beggar a penny every day you walk by him, making a tiny but net positive contribution.

    Another thought I had was that people have a bias toward self-indulging when they think they deserve it — e.g. if they’re on a diet, and they eat nothing but carrots and celery for a week, they think one gigantic calorie splurge is made up for, even if the net result is that they’ve eaten more calories that week than on the pre-diet weeks. If you know what I’m saying.

    leftwingfox: yeah, I’m not big on the idea of using points and trophies and achievements as carrots for doing good, mostly because of the substitution in the general article of “religion” for “morality framework”. It’s not like once you get a million points you actually ascend to godhood.

  4. 4

    I’m uncomfortable with the idea of ‘gamifying’ fairly innocuous day-to-day chores. I didn’t read the whole article (not even most of it, to be perfectly honest), but I think the idea of ‘gamifying’ religion almost frightens me.

  5. 5

    Competition is a behavioral adaptation (cultural, biological, or both) to a specific set of environmental circumstances that no longer exist. We should not be encouraging competitive behaviors or attempting to exploit them (as with market capitalism, relative grading schemes in classes, etc.); we should be doing exactly the opposite, attempting to exorcise them through pro-social socialization. I find the entire concept of “gamification” to be disgusting, harmful, and exactly backwards. We should no more apply it to morality frameworks than anything else.

  6. 6

    Spartan: yeah, like I said, they’re quick thoughts; I hadn’t fleshed them out yet.

    Understood, and my apologies if you thought I was criticizing you or what you had written. Your point about ‘self-indulging because they deserve it’ is a good one, and to me ties in somewhat to your third point. It seems that if someone is motivated to stop a mugging, that is a net good for society period whether it’s because that person is moral or whether they ‘earn’ x number of points. Although there certainly does not appear to be any shortage of generally moral people who excuse their immoral actions to themselves at least by looking to all the moral things they have done, by reducing the metric to points there’s a potential disconnect that may increase these compensating immoral actions however; “I helped stop a mugging and stopped my neighbor’s house from being burgled, so it’s okay if I lose a few points by driving drunk this one time.”

    Proselytizing for this gamified ‘religion’ may run into many of the things I hate about religion if there is a separation in the minds of the followers between ‘why it is right to stop muggings’ (it’s the moral thing to do) and ‘why should I stop this mugging’ (to get points). Unless our evangelists assent to the former, trying to convince others why they should be moral may come down to the despised and empty, ‘because God/I said so and if you do so you’ll go to heaven/earn 100 points’.

  7. 7

    I must admit that as I was first reading the article, I found myself thinking of ways to game the system she was suggesting and there were a lot of ways that lept out at me. Really want to kill this annoying idiot? Well there’s bound to be more light side options down the road so a few dark side ones now won’t affect the final score (yes I’ve been playing a lot of star wars the old republic lately).

    The only thing I can think to counter that is by making the reward proportional to the cost. You’re a millionaire and you give a beggar a dollar then you get sod all reward since you have another 999,999 dollars but if you’re running late for something inportant and stop to help an old lady across the street (presumably when she wants to go rather than just randomly scooping up pensioners & depositing them on the opposite side of the road) then you get a far larger reward because the action costs you more. Its the only way I can think of to stop karma-grinding without the system ceasing to reward you when you’ve done the action enough time (sorry homeless guy, I’d feed you but I’ve already fed my 10 homeless) or making it level dependant (sorry homeless guy, I’d feed you but frankly you’re beneath me at this stage)

  8. 8

    “I really can’t see a game that is about trying to systematically introduce/modify morality being any better”

    Have you ever played the Ultima games? They managed (from Ultima IV onward) to do a good job of having an interesting virtue system, even if by the end the point was to become the avatar who embodies them all anyway.

    “It’s not tyranny of the majority, it’s tyranny of the self-appointed moral caste.”

    And we’ve already GOT that

  9. 9

    The integrity of the voting system and the integrity of the submission system is quesitonable from the outset.





    I am not yet decided if this speaks in favor or against the idea.

    More seriously, I think games already have a profound effect on morality. Any art form is capable of this- we respond to powerful stories and ideas by growing and modifying our understanding of the world. Certainly there are vast swaths of my morality that have been colored by my experiences as a gamer. However, even given (what I consider to be) the overwhelmingly positive influence that games have had on my ethical development, I definitely don’t think something like this is a good idea.

    Strip away all the potential abuses, and it still sounds like an awful idea to me. Even take away the big, scary ‘R’ word and it still seems bad.

    I think the reason I feel this way may be that almost all of the moral lessons I take from gaming were not intentional. The game designers had no real desire to modify or manipulate my behavior outside of the game. Attempts to introduce morality into games in a systematic or codified way have almost always felt ham-handed and annoying. I really can’t see a game that is about trying to systematically introduce/modify morality being any better. The more on-purpose it is, the more manipulative it seems.

    And that’s before we talk about likely outcomes. Last I checked, I think the numbers for wiki came down to something like 70% of the edits by the top couple percents of the editors. I think it’s reasonable to expect something like this. It’s not tyranny of the majority, it’s tyranny of the self-appointed moral caste.

  10. 10

    There’s a worse outcome for your second issue, the idea of potentially competing to help elderly ladies across the street — that of dragging these same women across streets they had no intention of crossing. Make no mistake, if helping little old ladies across streets came to be considered invariably good and people were serious about it, this would happen a lot. Even without “gamifying”, my blind boyfriend has found himself “helped” from an intersection corner across the street he wasn’t waiting to cross. The low-level tasks that one might do to level-grind (like helping little old ladies or blind people across streets) aren’t always actually helpful. Heck, neither is opening doors for people in wheelchairs. Aside from the fact that many people in wheelchairs like to do things for themselves, if the person is already in the process of opening it, you can actually hurt them.

    Envision this: You’re out alone in a manual wheelchair and face a clear door that says “Push” and has a handle at about the height of your shoulder. You know from experience that the best way for you to open this door includes you grasping and pushing the handle. Suddenly, the door is flung wide by a “helper” that came up from behind you, saying, “Let me get that for you!” as you gasp in pain. This “help” was taking something you held in front of you in your hand at shoulder-height and violently jerking it away. Understandably, this hurts your shoulder and, being that you’re in a manual wheelchair, further impairs your mobility. Now you don’t need to go in the door anymore; no shopping for you today. Ow.

    I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me. Enough that I try to make sure no one is right around me before I open such a door. The pain can be amazing and the people are miffed if you don’t thank them afterward. I find the very idea of people being encouraged to do “good” things as opening doors for people in wheelchairs to be very disturbing. Shudder-worthy, even. “Helpers” can be a literal pain.

    But this brings up another issue, one that ought to be (but obviously isn’t) obvious to everyone: morality isn’t that simple. The little concrete actions that are generally good are sometimes harmful. I can think of some concrete actions that are always bad, but I’m not sure I could think of a concrete action (needs to be able to be documented/proved) that’s always good.

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