Big Data, Endless Wars, and Why Gamification (Often) Fails

Militaries and software companies are currently stuck in something of a rut: billions of dollars are spent on the latest technology, including sophisticated and supposedly game-changing data gathering and analysis, and yet for most victory seems a best to be a matter of luck, and at worst perpetually elusive.

As different as those "industries" are, this common failure has a common root; perhaps unsurprisingly so, given the long and complex history of cultural, financial, and technological relationships between them.

Both military action and gamified software (of whatever kind: games, nudge-rich crowdsourcing software, behaviorally intrusive e-commerce shops, etc) are focused on the same thing: changing somebody else's behavior. It's easy to forget, amid the current explosion — pun not intended — of data-driven technologies, that wars are rarely fought until the enemy stops being able to fight back, but rather until they choose not to, and that all the data and smarts behind a game is pointless unless more players do more of what you want them to do. It doesn't matter how big your military stick is, or how sophisticated your gamified carrot algorithm, that's what they exist for.

History, psychology, and personal experience show that carrots and sticks, alone or in combination, do, work. So why do some wars take forever, and some games or apps whimper and die without getting any traction?

The root cause is that, while carrots and sticks work, different people and groups have different concepts of what counts as one. This is partly a matter of cultural and personal differences, and partly a matter of specific situations: as every teacher knows, a gold star only works for children who care about gold stars, and the threat of being sent to detention only deters those for whom it's not an accepted fact of life, if not a badge of honor. Hence the failure of most online reputational systems, the endemic nature of trolls, the hit-and-miss nature of new games not based on an already successful franchise, or, for that matter, the enormous difficulty even major militaries have stopping insurgencies and other similar actors.

But the root problem behind that root problem isn't a feature in the culture and psychology of adversaries and customers (and it's interesting to note that, artillery aside, the technologies applied on both aren't always different), but in the culture and psychology of civilian and military engineers. The fault, so to speak, is not in our five-stars rating systems, but in ourselves.

How so? As obvious as it is that achieving the goals of gamified software and military interventions requires a deep knowledge of the psychology, culture, and political dynamics of targets and/or customer bases, software engineers, product designers, technology CEOs, soldiers, and military strategists don't receive more than token encouragement to develop a strong foundation in those areas, much less are required to do so. Game designers and intelligence analysts, to mention a couple of exceptions, do, but their advice is often given but a half-hearted ear, and, unless they go solo, they lack any sort of authority. Thus we end, by and large, with large and meticulously planned campaigns — of either sort — that fail spectacularly or slowly fizzle out without achieving their goals, not for failures of execution (those are also endemic, but a different issue) but because the link between execution and the end goal was formulated, often implicitly, by people without much training in or inclination for the relevant disciplines.

There's a mythology behind this: they idea that, given enough accumulation of data and analytical power, human behavior can be predicted and simulated, and hence shaped. This might yet be true — the opposite mythology of some ineffable quality of unpredictability in human behavior is, if anything, even less well-supported by facts — but right now we are far from that point, particularly when it comes to very different societies, complex political situations, or customers already under heavy "attack" by competitors. It's not that people can't be understood, and forms of shaping their behavior designed, it's that this takes knowledge that for now lies in the work and brains of people who specialize in studying individual and collective behavior: political analysts, psychologists, anthropologists, and so on.

They are given roles, write briefs, have fun job titles, and sometimes are even paid attention to. The need for their type of expertise is paid lip service to; I'm not describing explicit doctrine, either in the military or in the civilian world, but rather more insidious implicit attitudes (the same attitudes the drive, in an even more ethically, socially, and pragmatically destructive way, sexism and racism in most societies and organizations).

Women and minorities aside (although there's a fair and not accidental degree of overlap), people with a strong professional formation in the humanities are pretty much the people you're least likely to see — honorable and successful exceptions aside — in a C-level position or having authority over military strategy. It's not just that they don't appear there: they are mostly shunned, and implicitly or explicitly, well, let's go with "underappreciated." Both Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, as well as their overseas equivalents, are seen and see themselves at places explicitly away from that sort of "soft" and "vague" thing. Sufficiently advanced carrots and sticks, goes the implicit tale, can replace political understanding and a grasp of psychological nuance.

Sometimes, sure. Not always. Even the most advanced organizations get stuck in quagmires (Google+, anyone?) when they forget that, absent an overwhelming technological advantage, and sometimes even then (Afghanistan, anyone?) successful strategy begins with a correct grasp of politics and psychology, not the other way around, and that we aren't yet at a point where this can be provided solely by data gathering and analysis.

Can that help? Yes. Is an organization that leverages political analysis, anthropology, and psychology together with data analysis and artificial intelligence like to out-think and out-match most competitors regardless of relative size? Again, yes.

Societies and organizations that reject advanced information technology because it's new have, by and large, been left behind, often irreparably so. Societies and organizations that reject humanities because they are traditional (never mind how much they have advanced) risk suffering the same fate.