'It shouldn't exist': Dystopian TV show pits debt-ridden contestants against each other
America, 2018: If they win this game show, young people can have their student debt paid off
‘Paid Off’ turns your student loan nightmare into a game show
The trope: The game of life — or making life a game. Though, to be totally honest, Paid Off is neither the bloody gladiatorial contest nor the horrifying trivialization of debt slavery that it seems to be on first glance, and that entranced both headline writers and myself.
It’s just a fairly straightforward quiz show with a gallows-humor flourish — a sensibility that creators seem to have earned, as the show’s host came up with the idea for it after seeing his not-yet wife struggle with her overwhelming loan payments: “I didn't appreciate what it was to have this burden impact you all day, every day, keeping you from picturing your life moving forward - the ability to have kids, a home, go on vacations, down to the small stuff of having a second cup of coffee."
Given that testimony, Paid Off’s debt (heh) to genre might be more closely linked to last week’s column on the conditions and mindset that have made socialism more appealing than ever: In an environment where paying off one’s student loans is a goal so extravagant it can serve the same function as a dream vacation or some other starry-eyed prize, why not just bet the house on changing the whole structure of the economy, right? But the idea lurking behind Paid Off is also the dark alternative to putting the breaks on capitalism: Capitalism metastasized to fill every nook and cranny of our lives, turning every quotidian task into a competition and every achievement into currency.
The idea took hold under the umbrella of "gamification" a few years ago, though critics were quick to note that slapping points and badges onto unpleasant chores doesn't necessarily make them a game. Nonetheless, a framework that seemed like just a trendy and transparent way for marketers to vacuum up user data (the real prize) has now become its own app category, and there are ways one can "gamify" your workout, your to-do list, your meditation practice, your water intake and, yes, your finances... as well as your mental health, your life goals, and your time management.
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With that in mind, the short film “Sight” does not seem so far in the future. The only thing it adds to the current mix of gamified food-prep and exercise is augmented reality that transposes the games directly onto the objects in front of you.
The idea of commodifying everyday interactions was first introduced to me in Daemon and Freedom(TM), Daniel Suarez's books about a reclusive computer programmer whose death triggers an AI-led goose chase in the real world and online. Only in this world, people aren't so sure the competition is a good thing, unlike, oh, some other 80s-obsessed fanboy hero books I could name... though, yeah, Ready Player One is probably the best known example of gamified existence. In Suarez's quasi-dystopia, the tasks and levels gained by players are not quite the same thing as "reputation," but in Cory Doctorow's post-scarcity Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, reputation is the only currency still worth something: his characters deal in "Whuffie" alone.
Neal Stephenson's books circle around both the gamification of work and the workification of gaming, with a emphasize on the latter in REAMDE’s goldfarming plot. Jo Lindsay Walton points out that gamification is also central to The Diamond Age — the sub-titular Young Lady’s Primer essentially mediates the heroine’s world into a fairy tale.
Charlie Stross’s Life’s a Game depicts a universal gaming network, The Movement, that reads your social media and data footprint before assigning you an appropriate clan and missions for that clan. It appears to give you missions that you’d already do anyway — well, maybe with a little prompting, like the promise of some trivial reward. Stross’ game designer’s description of how they form the clans was written a little before the 2016 election but gives a preview of the gray area between what we label as “gamifying" and, well, playing with people for fun and profit: “We went deep tribal on the players' media bubbles. We mined their search history to find out what pushed their outrage buttons. Then we went long on principal component analysis to model their micro-class identity." It's Cambridge Analytica with a leader board.
Before you shout Hunger Games at me, know that I have considered it, but I think it’s worth drawing a distinction between “turning life into a game” and “playing a game in order to live,” which is also how I might describe Iain Banks’ Player of Games — or The Running Man, or The Long Walk. A high-stakes, life-or-death game isn’t the same as turning the stuff of life into a game; however gruesome the spectacle of competition or its consequences, Thunderdome-esque showdowns (or even just Banks’ really, really important board game) are, well, actual games. They are more like sports, whereas gamifying something… well, it just applies a points system to things one needs to do survive.
What makes the gamification of everything the opposite of a game is that you don’t have a choice about playing.