Gamification in Pop Culture: “Up in the Air” and PBL Addiction

I’ve fortunate enough to have spent the last 3 weeks on paternity leave hanging out with my, now, 4 month old. He’s cute and chubby (for some reason everyone says he looks just like me…) and just an all-around happy baby.

Its been a great opportunity for some daddy-son bonding since mommy had used up all her maternity time. We staggered out FMLA time so he wouldn’t have to jump right into daycare. He’s also a great napper so in between bottles, diapers, laundry, and dishes I have had some time to catch up on my Netflix backlog.

As it turns out there were not as many movies waiting there as I had assumed so I stumbled upon some older ones I had been meaning to watch. Finally saw Lincoln. Managed to watch a bit of the Godfather (notbas violent as I expected), but I was really struck by the 2009 George Clooney film Up in the Air.

The movie, set in 2009, definitely uses all of the 2008 financial crash to its advantage. Its about a businessman who travels the country firing people for downsizing companies. There is some tech fear built in since his company is trying to use a Skype like so that they don’t have to send the travelers out in person anymore. Instead there will be termination specialists (Terminators in one dark joke) that will fire you while you sit alone at a computer. I’m going to skip over the fear of depersonalized work environments and automization; also the ‘computers can take an educator’s relationship building role’ hot take. Instead what struck me about the movie was Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham’s addiction to gamification motivators.

Ok, you got me. He doesn’t know that’s what’s going on but at several points throughout the film he gets into a conversation about his frequent flyer miles. The discussion of the miles and the status that comes with earning various membership rewards and perks is even the first discussion Bingham has with his eventual romantic interest, Alex. Eventually it is revealed that Bingham ‘doesn’t spend a nickel [in the airport]’ unless it gets him frequent flyer miles. He enjoys showing off his elite status poly-carbon American Airlines card earned through the collection of miles.

When I first started learning about gamification I read about how airports use the principles to encourage loyalty and interaction with the product. The business class lounge is an ‘access’ reward. The poly carbon card is a ‘status’ reward.

Bingham has made it his life’s goal to reach 10,000,000 miles. As he asserts he would be the 7th person to do so. In his words ‘more men have walked on the moon’. Hopefully by now you have realized that Bingham’s obsession with Frequent Flyer miles is nothing more than a PBL addiction. The miles are his points system, the cards are his badges, and he has a very clear understanding of the leaderboard. When he meets his love interest he doesn’t want to embarrass HER by discussing the size of his mileage count – he is in the lead. These are all very clearly externally motivated as is the relationship he builds with the Alex; its about physical pleasure, nice meals, and shallow talk.

There is a 3rd character who acts more like a mentee, Natalie. Bingham grows to eventual tries to groom her in the business and the two form a father-daughter type bond.

This movie is 10 years old so no spoiler complaints – but here it is.

Eventully Bingham hits 10,000,000 miles and while on that very flight he has an epiphany. While he receives his silver card engraved with his “7th member” status he realizes that reaching the goal was hollow. He has no one to celebrate with. The man he is sitting with is of no intrinsic value to him. Bingham has flow 10,000,000 miles and what has he accomplished, what does he have left to accompish? He attempts a real relationship with Alex but that proved to be just as pointless and external as the miles. (Maybe that was the metaphor?!)

The only moment of moment of fulfillment we see Bingham end up with is when he writes a recommendation letter for his mentee. In this singular acted are shown a damning condemnation of the shallow gamification techniques found in PBLs. Once the point goal was reached there was no happiness, no long lasting fulfillment. Just a Faustian bargain that leaves the player always needing to seek the next level. Bingham’s character was addicted. The airline had found a way to keep him always seeking the next hit, the next perk, the next points level. He even becomes a pusher thrusting the rewards mile signup form into Natelee’s hands at one point.

If you gamify, be careful that you are not seeking to create addicts. We are not looking for the Faustian rush, but in deep fulfillment. It is easy to rely just on PBLs and that can become problematic.

BUT!

There is always a BUT!

But, if we can find ways to bring internal motivators into the classroom along with the external motivators it is possible to build a structure that allows for the reward of good work while also allowing for the development of internal motivations. It is possible! Teaching is very rewarding internally but we are also rewarded with a paycheck and decent benefits.

Bingham’s relationship with his Natalee, is the model for PBLs. Unlike a dime store version of the story Bingham never tries to seduce her. There is never an easy love triangle cliche because the author was avoiding the external tropes of Alex. With Natelee Bingham built a relationship (Relatedness). They eventually share a common Purpose as the both seem to leave the Firing business in favor of helping people. Bingham’s recommendation letter was a way to show us that he had accepted the relationship and shared in Natelee’s desire to improve the world.

We don’t get all the answers. The movie ends with Bingham on a plane. But we do get the feeling that the internal fulfillment was far more meaningful that the 10,000,000 miles. After the epiphany we hear Bingham on the phone. He has had a bad relationship with his newly married sister. He plans on giving 1,000,000 miles away to the newlyweds so they can go on a honeymoon they couldn’t afford. Externally, as points, the miles are so meaningless to him now he is giving them away; yet as an internal device to repair a broken bond they are more precious than gold.

3 Comments

  1. What a brilliant way of looking at “Up in the Air” (a well-made and -acted movie, by the way)! I appreciate your willingness to also look at gamification as problematic if it’s only shallow or only an end in itself (instead of a means to deeper learning).

    Like

    1. The airline miles as a points metaphor can be applied to other non-traditional points systems. I remember when I had a lowly 500 followers on Twitter thinking “Man, I can’t wait to hit 1,000” how awesome would that be! Then I hit a 1,000 and immediately wanted 1,500… Followers is really just a score and if that is all we use Twitter and other Social Media for it is a broken system. Now I try to focus on the relationships and conversations. Its a much more fulfilling way to go about the business…

      Thanks for the comments and conversation!

      Like

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