A Short Guide to Living More Pointlessly
The digital platforms we rely on for connection and self-improvement are invariably built on point systems. But do we really want to play life like a game?
Think of the last game you played. Maybe it was a game of basketball or a video game in your living room or a round of poker with your family over the holidays. Or maybe the last time you were playing a game, you weren’t even aware of it.
There are traditional games that take us out of our reality and into a fictional world, and then there is an entirely different kind of gaming: the gamifying of our real lives.
Think health trackers, smart watches, and social media. We’ve learned to count our success by the number of steps we take; the hours of sleep we get; and our likes, shares, and follower counts.
Even meditation apps, theoretically designed to ground us in a calmer reality, track users’ progress with this kind of point system.
On Insight Timer, for example, for every 10 consecutive days you meditate, you get a gold star.
According to the celebrated game designer Reiner Knizia, the most important tool in a designer’s kit is the point system, because it tells the player what to care about. We all know the feeling: the jolt of pleasure transmitted to the brain with every “ping” of a notification. There is no denying the deep satisfaction of winning points.
These points can really motivate us. Walking 10,000 steps a day can help you reach your fitness goals and propel you out into the natural world more often, while meditating every day will have a beneficial impact on your sense of well-being.
Games also give us clarity. If you’re running a marathon, you know you must get from the start to the finish, all by the power of your own legs. If you’re playing Monopoly, you must bankrupt your opponents before they bankrupt you. There is a certain peace in knowing exactly what your mission is and how to achieve it — a salve for the nuances of real life.
Yet the more we digitize our lives, the more games begin to infiltrate all aspects of our experience, often without our awareness. What exactly are these point systems doing to our sense of personal well-being?
How we measure success
C. Thi Nguyen is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. He researches, teaches, and writes about trust, art, games, and communities. With a platform like Twitter, Nguyen is wary of the way that a scoring system flattens out our more nuanced, richer goals in life.
“My worry is that Twitter makes us motivated and energized by giving us points, but the only way it does so is by offering us a very simplified value system,” he said. “Instead of caring about connection or empathy, what we care about is likes and retweets.”
Twitter has experienced sweeping changes under the ownership of Elon Musk. According to a forecast in the Guardian by market research agency Insider Intelligence, more than 30 million users are expected to leave the platform over the next two years.
Nguyen is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about Twitter. In his paper “How Twitter Gamifies Communication,” he writes about how the scoring system introduces a very gamelike aspect: a “clear and unambiguous” ranking. When you leave a party, he writes, you don’t usually have a ranked list of who the best conversationalists were.
But that’s exactly what Twitter is designed to do.
“Things that aren’t measured by Twitter,” Nguyen told me, “are things like how much you help people understand something, how much emotional connection you made, how much you changed people’s lives.”
Nguyen, who readily speaks in analogies, described a scene from his university classroom. There are over 200 students present. He’s lecturing about some philosophical theory and he can tell, by their body language, that it’s washing over most of the students’ heads. But one student completely lights up. They’re excited. They get it. Their life might even be changed.
“But if that happened on Twitter and I got one like? I’d think it was a failed tweet.”
The difference between traditional games and gamifying our real life is that in traditional games, you step into a fictional world. In a game of basketball, where you’re divided into teams, suddenly your best friend or romantic partner might become your opponent, someone who, by the parameters of the game at least, is essentially your enemy.
But when the game is over, no matter who wins, you step back into your real roles. You can leave the fictional world just as easily as you entered it. And with that, you gain perspective. You can ask yourself: Was that game worth it? Did it line up with my values (of, say, having fun and exercising)?
“Games, classically, have a closing point,” Nguyen said. “The problem with a lot of gamifications is that they are open-ended.”
Letter grades — the higher the grade the more you “win” — are just one example of the many ways that gamification has infiltrated our real lives. We’ve gamified everything from education to work to our relationships.
In an Amazon factory, employees try to complete tasks as quickly as possible in order to earn digital rewards to buy things like virtual narwhals and dinosaurs. With the Desire app, couples earn points by sending each other sexy dares. The more dares you complete, the more trophies you win.
In one sense, this sort of gamification seems harmless. But in the same way that social media apps replace the complexity of human relationships with likes and shares, ranking systems like these replace our rich and varied reasons for getting an education, going to work, or being in a relationship.
Yes, games can be fun and motivating, but what are we losing by this scoring of our values? Nguyen’s answer is simple: anything that can’t be measured by a computer.
Choose your games wisely
The start of a new year is a moment when many of us try out new habits and attempt to live differently. Point systems usually play a big part in our strategies for self-improvement. But the seemingly inevitable failure of these good intentions is as ubiquitous as the resolutions themselves.
Instead of defaulting to data-driven personal change, maybe it’s time to take a step back, take stock of our values, and ask ourselves a simple question: am I playing the games I want to play?
Here are a few principles to follow:
– 1 –
Work for true pleasure
Paying attention to the feeling of pleasure is valuable. Pleasure is often a good sign. Nutritious food is pleasurable because we’ve evolved to take pleasure in nutrients like vitamin C and protein.
Nguyen’s worry, when it comes to social media and our gamified lives, is systems that are engineered to manipulate society through the use of pleasure. The type of pleasure we often see in our gamified lives is quick and easy: the intellectual equivalent of junk food.
“Sometimes you bite into a chip and you’re like, ‘I want to stuff my face with that!’ But you have to step back and think, ‘Has this been finely engineered to get me to buy more, for profit?’”
One way to tell if the pleasure you’re experiencing is healthy and helpful is whether you have to work for it. Think of when you’ve finished something you’re proud of: a final exam, a big work project, a marathon. Or think of a time when you’ve had an actual, real, epiphany: did it happen on a long walk, or in the shower? That kind of pleasure doesn’t happen every day (or at the push of a button), but when it does, the satisfaction is real, rich, and deep.
– 2 –
Reflect on your values
What part of our gamified lives do line up with your values? What aspect of Instagram, TikTok, or even Headspace would you be disappointed to lose if you were to step away from the platform?
Nguyen uses Twitter to connect with other academics and share ideas. Posting something about a philosophy paper and getting feedback doesn’t get a lot of likes. He has had a couple tweets go viral, but those tweets have nothing to do with philosophy. They were stupid jokes about his kids.
“It got into my brain, and I was like, ‘I want that again!’ I actually had to remove Twitter from my phone and step back for a while and ask myself, is that why I value Twitter? And the answer is no. I had to ignore the likes and grab on to the things I cared about, which was these knowledge-exchange interactions.”
– 3 –
Break the game
Games give us clarity because the values they use are hyper-simplistic. But that’s not how value works in the real world.
“What we care about in the real world is subtle and complex and changeable and dynamic,” explained Nguyen.
What if we reclaimed the nuance in our gamified lives? What if we were intentional about taking back what gives us richness and meaning?
That could look like many things:
- Instead of focusing on getting exactly 10,000 steps, pay attention to the feeling of endorphins pulsing through your body.
- Instead of obsessing over getting that A on an essay, turn your attention to the feeling of writing a sentence that rings with truth.
- Instead of being consumed by accumulating likes on social media, look around at the community of people you’ve gathered around you, all wanting the same thing: to belong, and to be heard.
In other words, what if we chose to simply break the game?
Nadine Sander-Green grew up in Kimberley, BC, and has spent the past 15 years living throughout the country, from Victoria to Toronto to Whitehorse. She completed her MFA from the University of Guelph. Her stories can be found in Outside, the Globe and Mail, Grain, Prairie Fire, carte blanche, Hazlitt, and elsewhere. Sander-Green’s debut novel is forthcoming from House of Anansi in 2024. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.