Game On?

I think there is a really good reason why sports, video games, movies, and celebrity in general are so popular. It is not because this stuff has any great long term value. Indeed, I cannot even remember who won the super bowl this year even though it was big news just a few months ago. Nor do I really care. But that won’t interfere with my pleasure in watching next year’s contests leading up to yet another one.

So what is it? The conventional wisdom is that we need a “release” from day to day stress. We need to “escape“. Let’s assume for a moment that this is true. What does such an escape look like? Well first, it has to have a complete domain. The rules of the game must be clear. We don’t want any cheating that makes it impossible for one team to win. Nor do we want the dragon in the movie to suddenly breathe fire into the movie theatre. We enter an alternate reality. Something like the hologeck on Star Trek, The Next Generation.  And the game has to provide a stage or platform for assessing performance.  The intensity of the play or the plot or whatever, is in how we assess the challenges that arise during the game and how the players meet those challenges. Escapes without challenges of performance don’t do it.

Let’s assume for a moment that escapes look like that (1) they offer an alternate domain and (2) they offer a platform to assess performance. Csikszentmihalyi asked, why we think that these apply only to trivial or pre-fab games? Why do we think that life does not offer chances to play in a complete domain where we can assess performance? The answer, of course, is that life does offer these things but that we don’t see it that way. In other words, we tend not to gamify life.

Why not? Perhaps it is because we suspect that we are not supposed to. We are not supposed to think beyond the rigid constraints of the institutions that govern us, whether they are religious, political or employment related. Certainly I was not taught to think this way during my education. I took in a certain amount of knowledge, but very little gaming strategy. Perhaps that is why the film “The Thomas Crown Affair” was shocking back then. The main character stepped outside the pre-fab game of life to play his own game. BTW, if you like this sort of story, you might read “The Vatican Cellars” by Gide. There is quite a lot of stepping out there.

I think there are also practical reasons. Far too often we experience two things that kill our gaming spirit. They are (1) we get overwhelmed or (2) we get bored. In either situation, our gaming instincts shut down and we tend to give up.

This idea of “overwhelming” experience is close to home. Isn’t that what we are doing when we “multi-task”? When we stretch our consciousness to its limit to do as much as possible? When we strive to reach “productivity goals”? And yet, we are urged to become ever more productive. Hint: that means ever less able to move beyond tasks.

The idea of “boring” experience is also close to home. We get bored when we find ourselves in the middle of tasks that do not challenge us. Repetitive movements or decisions. Indeed, that is what the assembly line was made for. Yes, that great invention of the 20th century is no friend to gamification.

But can we do better? Well, one way to start is to see your activities — no matter what they are — as part of a larger game. Assume the game and work backwards to seeing the activity in that light. The key to making this work is to assume that the larger game is being played at the highest level, even if you are not at that level. Then ask yourself “what level am I playing this game?” I see three possible levels (though there may be more:

  • beginner – at this level of play you should not expect to win or even understand the game well. To the contrary, playing is for the purpose of identifying the most important skills you need in order to get as high up as possible (this is Tim Ferriss’s 20% of skills that produce the 80% of results)
  • intermediate – at this level you know what you need to do to play better, but have not practiced enough to do those things at a high level. The point of playing here is to reach the “breakthrough” level to see how you might master the game. That happens only when you internalize what you do so that it happens at a high level automatically. That is a moment of “flow”.
  • master – at this level you are no longer just playing to win a game in itself. You have mastered the skills needed to play at the highest level. Now you can see more clearly how this game relates to the broader landscape. That “seeing” adds a new dimension of meaning to life and new gaming opportunities

Dan Pink makes the very good point that the possibility of achieving mastery in life is highly motivating. John Wooden said that achieving it is less important than being satisfied that you did all you could to put yourself in the position to win. So how many things in life have you “mastered”? What are you trying to master now? And how does that mastery fit into the larger game around you? But a key point – there is no shame to play at the beginner level. To the contrary, as the zen saying goes, this is the most fun place to be. It is where everything is before you.

You might see the above as an algorithm for gamifying experience. Take yourself step by step through the thought process to see when you are playing and when you are not. And ask, can’t I play more?



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