I was buying groceries at one of those self-checkout tills the other day (the arcade cabinet machine of the bulk goods shopping world) and it occurred to me that these things inadvertently gamify my groceries. There’s a little GUI with various icons and menus to access my “score”. There’s genuine technique to barcode-swiping and bagging Tetris. There’s pressure to hurry and to perform without a hitch, and there are even fail states: If you weigh or scan something wrong, this green siren goes off over your checkout till and some frumpy quartermaster shuffles over to override the computer — and who knows what the consequences could be if she saw you’d rung in those bulk praline almonds as milled flour? These tills take the task of checking out from spectator sport to Alternate Reality Game, and I really do mean ‘game’, because if it isn’t somehow fun or appealing, why in god’s name would we choose to do this menial task ourselves, with an aisle full of staff already being paid an hourly wage to do it for us? There must be something worthwhile about taking this process into our own hands. There’s always a few of them in use.

But if I can classify checking out my own groceries as a gamified experience, where should I draw the line? Aren’t ATMs a bit of a game (slot machines filled with your own quarters), for the same reasons? And programming the coffee maker and driving in traffic? Maybe it’s less the case that these things are like games, and more that games are like real life, governed by microcosmic rule-sets. Games are specialized little contexts of reality, in which as many of the inputs and outputs are controlled as possible.

I guess the essential difference between Starcraft and the cashier scab complex, is how relevant their outcomes are to the rest of our lives. The things we conventionally categorize as “games” tend to be very narrowly context-dependent, so the applicability of our experience there seems to be of a lower order than are experiences in more context-general game-like activities. It doesn’t seem likely it will be ever be useful to know how to hotkey between base expansion and map reconnaissance in blistering real-time using a mouse and keyboard. Even if Earth were invaded by Zerg, and we fought a war with robotic proxy soldiers like in Ender’s Game, we’d probably employ far more complex interfaces and systems to accomplish that task than what's presented in Starcraft. Running my own checkout, on the other hand, streamlines my access to food. I can second-guess the price of things without embarrassing myself or confronting anyone, and even cheat the scale a bit to save pennies. Familiarity with checkout systems has obvious applications throughout the commercialized world we live in.

And maybe that’s exactly why “real” games have become so popular. They insulate us from the world, rather than catapult us through it. They’re a “safe space” so to speak, where our actions have incredibly high relevance in their context, immediate and vivid feedback, yet almost none anywhere else. There’s an intoxicating purity in their dislocation from day to day reality. Life is just a game that's much harder to turn off.