Augmented Reality and the Gamification of Society

On the 5th of July 2016, Nintendo launched what would become one of the most popular mobile games of all time – Pokémon Go. The game was an instant cultural phenomenon, breaking multiple world records in its first month. After just 20 days, it passed over $100 million in revenue and by the end of the year had been downloaded more than 260 million times.

Its hook was a burgeoning technology in the mobile realm called augmented reality. Using your phone, the game projected virtual Pokémon onto your real-life environments. You might turn a corner and run into a wild Jigglypuff or visit the library and see Pikachu hanging out. The game even transformed actual locations into gyms where players could battle each other and PokéStops where they could collect items.

This was more than just a gimmick. Through the power of AR, players were transported directly into their favorite fictional world, blurring the boundaries between game and reality, and fans loved it. But as Pokémon Go was smashing records, a darker side was quickly emerging. Immediately following its release, hundreds of Pokémon Go-related accidents were reported around the globe.

Many of these were traffic incidents involving players who were distracted by the game’s immersive AR technology. In fact, a study by Purdue University found that in just one county in Indiana there was a 26.5% increase in accidents at intersections within 100 meters of PokéStops. These accidents accounted for 31 injuries and two deaths across the United States.

Other players injured themselves after being led by the game into dangerous or otherwise off-limit areas. In one such case, two men in San Diego were hospitalized after climbing through a fence and falling down an unstable cliffside. Pokémon Go was so absorbing that not only did it inadvertently cause an international surge in traffic accidents, but it actually seemed to be motivating players to break the law and risk their own well-being in order to “catch them all”

Thankfully, incidents have dropped significantly since their peak in 2016, but Pokémon Go-related accidents continue to be a problem. As recently as August of 2022, two people In Argentina were killed when a man lost control of his vehicle while playing the game. In total, 26 people have died in the pursuit of all things Pokémon. This is the inherent danger with blurring the lines between reality and virtual reality. And that’s not even the worst of it all. 

Smartphones have long aspired to break down the barriers between users and the digital realm. For the most part, this has been successful. So much so, that many people view their smartphones as an extension of themselves. In a sense, technology has become a part of us. Augmented reality takes this idea to the next level by fully merging the digital with the physical. It works by overlaying computer generated sensory information on top of a person’s environment in real time.

This might include anything from a heads-up display feeding users information, to full on computer-generated characters that appear as if they’re standing right in front of you. Unlike virtual reality which creates a totally different artificial environment, AR allows us to stay grounded in the real world merely adding digital information as a secondary facade. Currently, this technology is mostly used by smartphones, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which wearables become dominant.

Products like Google Glass have already been trying to do this since 2013. And although those initial attempts proved to be less than successful, tech companies haven’t given up. Apple is predicted to launch their own AR headset as early as 2023. As if that weren’t enough, earlier this year, Mojo Vision revealed a working prototype of an augmented reality contact lens.

Less obtrusive than glasses and nearly invisible, devices like these could one day become as ubiquitous as smartphones. Although not yet available to the public, Mojo has demonstrated that this technology isn’t a thing of the future, it’s already here. The potential applications of AR are essentially limitless. 

Imagine looking around a grocery store and knowing the nutritional information of every item on the shelves, or being able to follow GPS directions merely by glancing down at the sidewalk. The benefits to every field, from medicine and engineering to art and education, are invaluable. And it is this sheer usefulness and practicality that makes it inevitable.

However, one serious drawback of this technology is that it makes it even harder to unplug. Spending a few hours staring at your phone is bad enough, but what about being immersed all day in a digitally altered environment? What kind of effect would that have on us? Phone addiction is already something that millions of people struggle with. It can lead to communication problems, low self-confidence, trouble sleeping and even health issues.

Think you’re not addicted? Let me ask you this: how did you feel the last time you lost your phone? Did you get anxious? Frustrated? Did you tear apart your house in a panic-fueled frenzy? If you did, you’re not alone. Every one of us has been trained to value these devices above all else, conditioned by a thousand different apps all competing for our ever-dwindling time and attention. 

We often prioritize our digital lives over our real ones, ignoring friends and family in favor of endlessly scrolling through posts from followers and subscribers. Because profits are directly tied to screen time, app companies are financially incentivized to keep us locked to our phones. The best way to do this is by manipulating human psychology. One method is data collection.

By recording where on the internet you spend your time and money, companies can feed your interests back to you in an infinite echo chamber of targeted content. As anyone who’s been on TikTok can tell you, it’s highly effective. But an even more powerful strategy is gamification. This is the practice of adding game-like elements such as point scoring, competition and rules to non-game settings.

Humans are naturally competitive. We want to be the best whether that means getting the highest score, completing the most difficult quests or obtaining the rarest items. We already do this in our regular lives with our jobs, with our purchases, but the internet has expanded this, creating new kinds of competition. Social media is the most obvious example.

Metrics such as likes and follower counts function as “points” and the algorithms behind these platforms are designed to promote accounts with the highest numbers. This creates rivalry between users as we all attempt to outperform one another like a virtual keeping up with the Joneses. For some, there’s also an additional monetary incentive.

Many content creators and social media influencers depend on the income they receive from these platforms. Likes and subscribers aren’t just a means of attaining status or self-validation to them, it literally affects their ability to earn a living. The competition then is even more serious. But gamification isn’t limited to social media. Everything from meditation to navigation apps have implemented this strategy in one form or another.

Unlike data collection and targeted content which simply recycle our interests, gamification keeps us invested by creating stakes. You’re not just sitting in a lotus position and breathing calmly for fifteen minutes, you’re earning points you can redeem for in-app purchases or badges to show off to your friends.

On the flip side, if you miss a day, there goes all your progress and you have to start over. As Pokémon Go has shown, games can be so addictive that players are willing to jeopardize their own health and safety in pursuit of virtual rewards, but the best example of this actually happened in the days before Android and iOS became part of the cultural lexicon.

In 2004, Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game that would redefine the genre and become nearly synonymous with the idea of video game addiction. For most, WoW, as it came to be known, was just a fun hobby. You’d log in for an hour here and there, go on some quests, hang with friends, and then sign off. But other players’ relationship with WoW was less casual.

For some, it became a full-blown obsession. These individuals spent thousands of hours, literal years, grinding away, trying to acquire new gear for their characters. People sacrificed their health, lost jobs and ruined relationships in pursuit of virtual items. Multiple articles, documentaries and books have been written on the topic. At one point, there was even a Wowaholics Anonymous, an entire community devoted to helping players quit.

Games are incredibly effective at keeping us playing because they engage our brain’s natural reward and punishment system. Every time you catch a Pokémon, earn a new piece of equipment for your WoW character or gain a follower on Instagram, you’re treated to a hit of powerful neurochemicals that ensure you’ll keep coming back for more.

Then if you decide to take some time off, well, we’ve all experienced the horror of seeing our follower count go down and feeling the immediate jolt of self-doubt and insecurity that comes with it. Dopamine specifically plays a big role in these behaviors. Called the pleasure molecule, this neurotransmitter drives motivation. It pushes us to seek out what makes us feel good, then rewards us for doing so, encouraging repetition.

Tech companies understand how this system works and the most effective means of leveraging it. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the entire planet’s population was locked indoors and glued to their screens, Instagram pulled a bait and switch on its users. In perhaps one of the most explicit examples of predatory capitalism in recent memory, they released an update that replaced the app’s basic activity button with a button that linked users to a shopping tab.

Millions of people conditioned to hit a specific part of their screen in order to receive a hit of dopamine were now being redirected to make purchases. This is a terrifying realization, especially as we appear headed toward a future where these companies will literally shape our world through the power of augmented reality. Yes, the characters and environments created by AR may not be physically present, but we will interact with them as if they were. So, really, what’s the difference?

Currently, AR is limited to visual and audio information as in the case of Pokémon Go, but in theory this technology could include touch, smell, even taste. In a previous video, I talked about Neuralink, Elon Musk’s implantable brain-machine interface that aims to once and for all eliminate the barriers between human beings and their devices. With Neuralink, we could potentially control an AR device like Google Glass or Mojo’s contact lens just by thinking.

More than that, these devices could send back sensory information to our brains. Not only could you catch and battle Pokémon, but you might actually be able to reach out and touch one. Again, these aren’t some far off, futuristic ideas. All of this technology exists today. While I can’t deny the allure of being able to scratch Pikachu on the head, the potential implications of all this are truly frightening. Augmented reality, with everything it promises, seems poised to become an even more distracting and addictive version of smartphones.

It's now at a stage where the future it paints feels downright claustrophobic. Picture being surrounded by streaming walls of information, hordes of virtual characters all vying for your attention, digital traffic signs and advertisements crowding streets and storefronts everywhere you go. No matter if it's a city with 10 million people or a town with only 100. 

What started as a way of supplementing the physical world could very easily turn into our sole focus. Impossible to ignore, endlessly distracting and always right in front of us. Real life may then become merely an intrusion into our digital pursuits, leaving us increasingly disconnected from the very environments that our AR creations are projected on top of.

Assuming your augmented reality device is something more akin to Google Glass and not an intracranial implant like Neuralink, you could just take it off. But if you do, what might you miss out on? What rewards will go unclaimed, what opportunities will pass you by? The cost of unplugging may simply be too high. But if you’re always plugged in, what’s to prevent tech companies from gamifying every part of our lives? What’s to stop them from turning reality into one giant video game?

And if that isn’t terrifying enough, consider this. The key component of AR is of course the camera. The device needs to be able to see to map digital information onto the environment. Because of this, a necessary consequence of augmented reality is opening up every moment of our lives to data collection. Security concerns aside, which are considerable, companies would potentially have access to greater and more intimate data than ever before.

The sheer amount of information generated by one individual alone would be staggering, and all of it could be used by companies to create the most immersive, most addictive experiences possible. Think back to the grocery store example. What if besides just being able to see every product’s nutritional information, you were rewarded for buying certain items?

In a perfect world, you might imagine that this system would incentivize healthier choices, but in all likelihood every food company, whether they’re making kale chips or Double Stuf Oreos, will get in on the action. What we could end up with is a proverbial race to the bottom as we spend all our time trying to earn fabricated digital rewards created by companies that only have their own financial interests in mind.

If we’re not careful, we might very well find ourselves living in a society where every aspect of our lives becomes about competition, where we’re all addicted to virtual point scoring, and where the game never ends.