Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My low, low high scores

Game nerds generally agree that the world is becoming more like a game, and will become much more like a game in the future as our social networks and various websites become more thoroughly integrated with our lives. This is often portrayed as a good thing, even as a potential source of some measure of utopia. Imagine it as a sort of benign social engineering: picking up litter in public places could get you experience points. Helping old ladies cross the street could level you up. If you brushed your teeth twice a day, you could get points for that too. And so on. This is an idea with a lot of potential, and I get excited sometimes when I think about it. Then I think about how the increasing gamification of my lifestyle has affected me so far, and I get a little nervous.

Take this blog. Did you know that this blog is like a game? There are a number of scores associated with my performance. Here's a segment of one screen I reload probably ten or fifteen times a day:

This is the site's back-end, the "Edit Posts" page to be specific, and it's the best way to check how many comments the blog has received without artificially inflating our traffic count. (Why do I care about that? You'll see in a second.) As you can see here if you squint or click the embedded image, the Uncanny Valley blog does not have an extremely committed set of commenters. We have a fair number of readers, but for us, four comments is an unusually high number. At other lit blogs -- say, HTMLGiant -- that would of course be a pretty disappointing outcome. So, because I am competitive and also because I want to hear your thoughts, I have an incentive to write posts that will draw attention and hopefully comments. When we do get a lot of comments on a post, it's often the blog's "staff" talking to itself, but this doesn't seem to bother me. I'm just happy to have some conversation going on here; it makes me feel less alone.

This is another set of numbers I spend a lot of time studying, often reloading five or six times in a given hour:

If you're familiar with Sitemeter, you're probably nodding in recognition and some measure of pain. To put what you're seeing in perspective, 89 is about the highest average per day I've had for a site I personally started, and in this amount of time -- given our relatively light posting schedule -- I'd say it's pretty good. For a while our average was higher (about 106 visits per day) but the last couple of days brought it down a little. I'm not really happy with our traffic, exactly -- I've read that HTMLGiant once got 40,000 hits in an hour, which is slightly more than we've achieved in nearly a year. But these things take time, and they also tend to snowball, so I try to stay optimistic.

I really do reload this page often, though. It's another kind of score. And it gives me an incentive to write better posts, more interesting posts, and, yes, occasionally, more inflammatory posts. When I am tired from a relentless week of school work, teaching, writing, job applications, and etc., it is my need to keep these numbers high that brings me here to write about fruit candy or whatever. 

This is another image from Sitemeter:

This is a list of websites from which people have recently come to the blog. There are two things I really like to see here -- links like number 4, from Puerto del Sol's site, which tell me that like-minded people are finding us. Seeing a new name here is like getting a new character or special item in an RPG; it makes me feel more powerful, as if I have added the person who provided the link to my inventory, as if they are mine. Where it says "unknown," this usually means that the visitor simply came by entering the URL into their browser -- in other words, they came here on purpose. This is extremely exciting. (Though sometimes less exciting if I go to the page that lets me see where geographically viewers came from: New Mexico hits are generally from me or Tracy or Robbie or one of our friends, which makes the visit seem to count less, and there's a city in Florida that tells me it was probably Tim Dicks, who also makes the visit seem to count less, though of course I love all these people.) The more people coming from more different sources in different locations around the world, the happier I am, though I am never really happy: the blog has not done all that it can, and probably won't until we've gathered the funding for a print magazine (which, honestly, I promise we are working on: we need jobs first, is all).

There is a sense in which I can live on good traffic. When the blog does well, I feel good, I feel optimistic, I feel like I am achieving things. This definitely leads to uncomfortable obsessiveness -- I really do reload the sitemeter pages way too often -- but at least it also leads to good behaviors. Writing better blog posts is a good thing to do. Writing more blog posts is a good or at least neutral thing to do. Trying to engage the community in an attempt to get more comments is a totally reasonable goal.

But then there is my iTunes, where I have had to actually deactivate certain features in order to ensure my sanity. Here is a full screenshot of my iTunes (click to grow):

You may immediately notice one feature I no longer use: I don't let myself see album covers. Why? Because I didn't have all of the album covers on my computer; it might have been easy to find them, but I didn't want to do it, and I hated having an empty box where I should have an album cover. Not having an album cover where there could be one was like not having one of my shoes, or, in the context of an MMORPG, not having the best helmet. It made me feel crazy.

You may also notice that my current "score" where music is concerned is that I have 8.2 days of it. This would be enough for some people, but not for me; before an unfortunate hard drive crash, I had something closer to a month. I could begin at the top of my playlist and play through to the bottom and if I left it on at all times, whether I was listening or not, it would take something like forty days to get through all that music. This was an especially proud achievement for me because I legitimately own almost all of my music. I paid for it myself, or received it in review copy form. My playlist seems very small now.

The key feature I've turned off, however, is the simplest and the most insidious iTunes offers: a count of the times I've listened to a song. This feature very nearly drove me insane before I turned it off, and I know at least one other person who felt the same way.

What is the problem with this feature? Well, consider this: I love Modest Mouse's albums so much. If I were to turn this feature back on, however, it would say that I had listened to many of their tracks only one time, and many others only zero times. Of course this isn't true. I've listened to The Moon and Antarctica like a hundred times, probably. But that was years ago. I haven't listened to it very much on this computer, which is the relevant issue where my current iTunes is concerned. So sometimes, if I could see how many times I had listened to a song, I would see that I had listened to say "3rd Planet" zero times, and this would strike me as a travesty. So in spite of the fact that I wasn't in the mood for the song, and in spite of the fact that I wanted and needed to do other things with my time, I would try to sit through it. Then maybe I would listen to it again to get the count higher. This is actually something I have done. And the most frustrating part is that I could never listen to the song enough times to get my score to the point where it reflected my love of the song; I didn't have the time.

And besides, I needed to listen to my other songs. When I had a new album and I hadn't listened to all of the songs yet, and this was reflected by the blankness of the "times played" column, it would make me feel like I had wasted my money, like I was being frivolous. I needed to get those numbers up to prove I was not wasteful. My ideal was that every song would be completed three times.

But, and this was the biggest problem of all, iTunes doesn't count a song as played unless you listen to it from beginning to end. This sounds intuitive, but often there will be dead space after a song has finished but before the track is really done, or it will have a too-long outro, or a boring intro section, or it will have a "secret" track appended to it after several minutes of silence, and so you have to choose whether to A) put up with this or B) let your score go unrecorded. And if you want to switch to another album when the track is over, you have to wait for the next track to start playing, even if there is all this silence, if you want iTunes to count it toward your score.

This is not the sort of thing I need to be worrying about. I have actual problems and ambitions. I used to spend serious minutes of every day frozen in place, totally immobilized, trying to figure out how to maximize my score without coming to completely resent my music, without it becoming a grind, without it becoming too much or too obviously like leveling up Pokemon, which was sometimes exactly what it was too much like.

So I shut down the feature. I don't let myself see how many times I've listened to a song.

I do let myself see when I last completed a song, however -- this column serves as a sort of checklist, to make sure I am actually hearing my music. It doesn't tell me how often I've heard something, only that I've ever heard it at all. It turns out I couldn't let go of the score completely.

What all this means is that when the world becomes more like a game, I may not be able to handle it. I take some comfort in the fact that I have never completed 100% of any RPG, found all the hidden items and leveled my characters completely. But on the other hand, I have certainly tried.


  1. Oh Mike, you're adorable.

    I just started playing Oblivion again, from the beginning, and I have to admit that I almost had a heart attack reading this just now realizing that I could never do ALL THE THINGS that the game has to offer.

  2. I never even caught all the pokemon. Although, I did receive some vicarious sense of accomplishment from buying a used copy wherein the previous owner had "caught em' all"

  3. Ben, I think that is a real phenomenon. I remember being really pleased when I rented a SimCity cartridge where a previous renter had achieved the level of "Metropolis."

  4. I wonder if this extends to other aspects of life?
    Is this the same pleasure spectators feel when watching their team win a game? Or the national pride some feel when they learn about their countries accomplishments?

  5. i used to love checking my top 25 most played list, until in graduate school I decided to share my music library with my housemates. I didn't realize it would track what they played on my itunes as well. It has never recovered from the 225 times Brand New Colony was played during that year.

  6. I read almost every article posted here through Google Reader. Are you tracking RSS subscribers? I used to comment more often on lit blogs but I've pulled away from that recently. I'm not sure why. I'm shy, I suppose, even on the Internet. Plus some people aren't nice.

    But I wanted you to know that I'm a committed reader and I enjoy what you're putting forth here.

  7. Brad -- that's a good point. I have no idea how to see how many RSS subscribers we have. Guess I should try to figure that out.

  8. Run them all through Feedburner and you can go look at a report.