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Multiple forces usher in game-like society

WANG SHUIXIONG | 2019-12-12 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Five men play online games. The internet has increasingly reconstructed human game behaviors and even daily interactions. Photo: FILE


With the development of the internet, scholars have captured such trends as social individualization and social fragmentation, but they have meanwhile neglected game-based interpersonal, even intergroup relations and the possibility that such relations might prevail. 
From a sociological perspective, it is not difficult to see that the internet has increasingly reconstructed human game behaviors and even daily interactions, and it is likely to revolutionize the traditional organizational model, power structures and nature of human society. 
Fusion of virtual and real worlds 
Human life has shown two synchronic processes: the socialization of games and the gamification of society. Here the virtual and real worlds blend together, and scenarios of entertainment and survival, life and work embed each other. 
A game is a human activity finished within a short period of time and targeting someone or something. It has a distinctive beginning, climax and ending, involving the implementation of strategies and the generation of feedback, triggering significant emotional responses in participants. 
The so-called socialization of games refers to a process in which two, a few, or even hundreds of people far away from each other take part in a game based on fast information transmission on the internet, while in the past people could only gather in a certain space and time to play. 
In this process, people can have virtual body contact and ritual interactions in a space not confined by doors and borders, either through the built-in systems of the game or communication tools and software widely used in social life. In this way, individuals, the game and society penetrate and embed each other through the fusion of the virtual and real worlds. 
The process has salient social attributes first in that the number of people participating or involved in online games is large and easily organized. Second, in such games, originally unacquainted players obtain individual experiences and leave unique impressions on each other through complicated symbolic interactions in multiple channels, such as virtual body movement and contact. They even gain recognition and identification with a certain group and acquire a social identity, experiencing a trust and power mechanism different from that in real life. In addition, social subgroups formed through games or interest-related groups can construct a subculture and impact social life. 
The gamification of society means that people’s daily life is multimedia-based because of internet platforms and smart portable and wearable devices. They can be more easily seen, compared and incorporated into ceremonial, competitive and fun-seeking activities. In the process, related social members, including individuals, institutions and organizations, will have feelings of competition, tension or entertainment. 
A case in point is WeChat Sports, a fitness tracking app developed by the team behind instant messaging app WeChat. It can be anticipated that with the advancement of communication technologies like 5G alongside new software and hardware, there will be a growing number of gamified features similar to WeChat Sports that act on real life. 
The two processes suggest that a game-like or gamified society is in the making. It has the following three features. 
In the game-like society, many matters of selectivity and matching concerning survival and development, including social life, will be arranged like playing games or engaging in competitions. For example, the online university application in China immerses students in competition and game playing. To a certain extent, selecting a university becomes an online “university-to-student” matching game based on certain conditions. 
In this vein, sometimes serious things turn out to be informal, while previously disappearing things will leave conspicuous traces, so that they can be made less mysterious and more open, raising the possibility of fairness. In other words, this will influence public belief in equity and impact the traditional model in which power and authority rely too heavily on concealed information. 
Second, diverse games will generate diverse cultures, but universally accepted rules will dominate. Due to the diversity of games, novel game rules will be commonplace. Contrary to the pursuit of novelty, standard game rules are more likely to attract social members to participate. In some crucial areas, unexpected rules can easily invite heated discussions and disputes. To avoid meaningless disputes, game rules in many important areas will necessarily return to common sense, despite ongoing disputes in the process. 
Like dreams in the film Inception, games of all levels are interconnected in the game-like society. Smaller games are embedded in big ones, and the theme of big games is decisive to smaller ones. It should be admitted that the gamified society is still a society. Embedded in big games, it has real spatial boundaries. In the gamified society, people still need to be physically present and share one temporary and spatial structure, so the theme of big human games, peace and development, or war and confrontation, still plays a vital role. 
Multiple forces 
A series of forces are jointly shaping the game-like society. They can generally be divided into technological, economic, political and social forces. 
First, technology endows games with more possibilities. In the internet age, wearable communication technology will be ever more developed, whether in hardware or software. That means that players will be more capable of overcoming the restrictions of desktop computers. Online games will undergo tremendous changes. It is likely that 5G technology will impact the building of new game spaces and forms. In the future, real-world activities are more likely to link to the virtual space. For instance, an abandoned factory might become a venue for people to play “online” games. 
From economic angles, interests will drive the reinvention of games and the development of a new game-like society. Currently, some social networking platforms have been attempting to gamify themselves and even directly incorporate online games with complicated interactive content into their services. In the future, the likelihood of integrating human thinking and bodies into such new game spaces as WeChat Sports will grow. As mentioned above, people might play online games at an abandoned factory. On the physical wasteland of the industrial age, a new game empire might be built. 
Despite various regulations and restrictions, the influence of games on teenagers is still immense. Once they grasp huge economic power, new generations growing up in the company of games will feed new momentum back to games and divorce the games from static computers to embrace more complex and vaster real space. 
Political forces will notice the strong social functions of games and accelerate the arrival of the game-like society. In fact, games have already been playing important roles in people’s political life and group interaction. Through games, different groups will better display their strength by symbolic means and communicate to avoid unnecessary war and slaughter. International sports games sometimes function in this way. 
In the new era featuring swift technological advances, the symbolic nature of games in human society will further weaken, and the imitativeness will be stronger. Such games will clearly unveil the common disastrous consequences of fighting to conflicting political forces, highlighting the objective necessity of building a community of shared future for mankind to promote cooperation. Obviously it is better to solve problems in grand international games through virtual war games than through real war. 
Last, social forces will benefit more and more from the holographic recording function of the game-like society. In the past, writing and its carrier “books” substantially broadened the scope of human thought and knowledge exchange and changed human life and systems, reshaping human society. In the internet age, the content of writing has been vastly enriched, evolving into audio, video and other records. In the future, holographic recording might catch on. Equivalents of books will be memorizers and cloud storage of various types. 
The game-like society will collect more traces of human behaviors and cause greater changes to the behavioral model. What people do and decide will be easily recorded by such online games. For example, university applications could require candidates to input personal information on a uniform online platform and strategically apply for universities they favor, while admission offices of universities and provinces, cities and autonomous regions need to strategically set appropriate admission requirements. All these have dramatically changed past game rules. Even incidents of low-achievers rejected by reputed universities will be hyped up. As all things are traceable, public appeals for openness, fairness and justice will be stronger, making social forces a powerful support of the game-like society. 
In the contemporary era, with the further development of network technology, the game-like society is coming. Admittedly, various regular organizations built around interest, trust and power mechanisms remain important bridges for interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, the position of related behavioral subjects, particularly individuals, and the model of association are not changeless. As the game-like society approaches, the social energy formed by the general public is growing, so changes to traditional interest, trust and power patterns should be expected. 
Wang Shuixiong is a professor from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory and Method at Renmin University of China. 
​edited by CHEN MIRONG