Nobody wins when we gamify our faces and bodies

Tech's ability to change our looks with a couple of clicks is enslaving us to beauty standards, while we willingly become cartoon versions of ourselves

09 August 2020 - 00:02 By
Recently, there was a proliferation of plastic-surgery game apps - which faced a backlash.
Recently, there was a proliferation of plastic-surgery game apps - which faced a backlash.
Image: Asha Zero

My grandmother could tell a very salacious bedtime story. One in particular was a real winner. Apparently at some distant point in the past in a town that shall remain nameless, a gentleman with a very singular approach to commerce decided to wander the streets and sell his wares.

His USP (unique selling proposition for those not versed in this stuff of commerce) was a tin of gold paint - and his route to market? Application of this golden paint to the bums of willing ladies. After the painting would come the drying. Preferably in a passing breeze - perhaps from an open window - above street level - so that everyone could have a good view of this new and wondrous trend.

Naturally this tale was a hit. I demanded countless repeat tellings. So funny - so crazy - so unbelievable - who would be so stupid as to fall for this ludicrous prank and pay top dollar in the process? It was like a very naughty version of the emperor's new clothes - except this version preyed on women. Foolish, frivolous creatures whose judgment was clouded by the magpie thrill of the new and the promise of happiness. A morality tale that struck at the heart of the commercial proposition and its interface with gender stereotypes.

I remembered the golden bums when I read about the proliferation of plastic surgery game apps on Apple, Google Play and Amazon, which resulted in a campaign called #surgeryisnotagame.

Consider this for a moment - companies unashamedly called things like Happy Baby Games produced a range of offerings for children called Girls Plastic Surgery, Superstar Face Plastic Surgery, Liposuction Surgery and Grandma's Plastic Surgery, which lured girls and boys as young as three into a lurid world where they injected Botox and fillers and scalpelled away at the noses, eyes, double chins and waistlines of wide-eyed cartoon characters until, presumably, they won.

The imagery was the classic plastic surgery before-and-after leitmotif - dotted lines outlining some idealised shape of cheek bones, unlined foreheads and super inflated lips. The player gets to delineate a new-fangled version of beauty as defined by the app.

Who needs a plastic surgery game when the rabbit hole of the internet, Instagram, Tik Tok etcetera is just a giant Photoshop opportunity in itself

The games have mostly been scrubbed in the past year or two because of the campaign, but not before a bitter multi-year battle. Just as they got rid of one game many more would pop up, even after the internet monoliths promised they'd banned them. A random search of plastic surgery games presents a mutable story. On Google Play games called Body Plastic Surgery and multiple variations thereof thrive.

The gamification of your face and body is still redolent in the culture albeit in a slightly different guise. Perhaps less attractive to the fledgling plastic surgery acolytes the games initially catered to - but who needs a game when the rabbit hole of the internet, Instagram, Tik Tok etcetera is just a giant Photoshop opportunity in itself. Photo editing on a grand scale. The gamification of the antiquated selfie with filters creating a superannuated smoothing, lengthening, prettifying, cartoonitifying version of reality.

A parallel universe that chips and chips away at what is left of our ability to tell the difference between reality and virtual aesthetics, so that so many of the pictures people post of themselves are filtered through cartoon versions of themselves. Bigger, bluer eyes, smoother skin, higher cheekbones, cleaner lines.

David Runciman, a historian at Cambridge University, worries that instead of AI getting smarter than humanity, humanity may just be dumbing down to the simpler algorithms of the AI. He may have a point. We're already scrubbing humanity from our pictures, seeking out a way to look more like our avatars. We may already be thinking like them.

Kylie Jenner, the poster girl for the gamification of her own aesthetics, was 16 when the #surgeryisnotagame campaign was in full flight. That was the year she augmented her lips and her sister launched a cartoon-like app that gameified being Kim Kardashian. Now at the advanced age of 22 she's parlayed her raft of plastic surgery - her before and afters - into a multimillion-dollar cosmetics empire and a freewheeling justification of this process. She's the new testament to free will and notional empowerment.

Don't panic yet. In the US there were 18.1-million cosmetic procedures between 2018 and 2019, which roughly translates into a procedure for about 5% of the population. In real terms this is not a plastic surgery crisis. But what these statistics point to is a culture in thrall to Stendhal's notion that "beauty is the promise of happiness".

Put aside for the moment how the standards of beauty are ever-changing and always political and ask yourself why we humans are so susceptible to the notion of beauty and how happy we are to blur the lines between fiction, fantasy and the lure of golden bums.