Gamification: Why We Play & When We Should Stop Playing

Today, I want to discuss the problematic nature of gamification. Gamification means making something more interesting, engaging, and interactive by adding a game-like experience to it. Gamification is used in virtually any aspect of life, such as sales, learning, and socialization. Intuitively, we love playing games as we receive pleasure from activities that stimulate our development, as evolutionary development leads to survival.

However, today I want to talk about gamification from the perspective of where it goes wrong in our lives. To do so, I want to address one of life’s biggest mysteries (at least to me), which is why so many people are so obsessed with sports. 

Step 1: Why People Obsess Over Sports

Take football (aka soccer), for example:

  • People watch it on TV;
  • Never miss a match;
  • Support a team, no matter if it is winning or losing;
  • Spend money to see their team play;
  • If the team changes, no problem, as long as the name is still the same;
  • Sometimes they pay for seasonal tickets and don’t miss an important game, which may cost them a fortune;
  • They know everything there is to know about their clubs: names of coaches, players, players stats, results for every game from up to 10 years ago, etc;

For some people, this behavior makes total sense, but for me, it’s a mystery. Certainly, we don’t have to talk exclusively about football fans, as the same can be said about tennis, basketball, boxing, cricket, rugby, formula 1, and many other sports. So what is happening?

My immediate assumptions are that:

  • People are earning (or want to earn) money from their sport (e.g., betting, playing, or being otherwise involved in it);
  • They are learning by watching, and are interested in improving their current (or future) game.

However, many people don’t have this immediate level of involvement, as they already know everything there is to know about the game (aside from playing it). All they are really doing is being a fan, which makes me wonder if they doing it for other reasons, such as:

  • It’s connected to their sense of identity (e.g., nationalism or patriotism);
  • It’s connected to their sense of belonging (i.e., being part of the group that identifies with the sport, such as their family, friends, and other fans).

The only thing I can imagine is that people like sports because evolutionary speaking we are wired to learn by watching other people do whatever activities (in our case watching the game). We also like the social aspect of these experiences, as being together with other people and seeing our team win (or supporting it if they don’t) makes us very happy. 

Yet, we already mentioned that people aren’t learning anything. Also, how much does our social camaraderie actually cost us? A seasonal ticket? All the merchandise we buy, while we can’t even afford to pay off our student debt? Certainly, there must be a better way to reach the same results. 

What other reason can there be for being a superfan? Any hardcore fans here? Please leave me your opinion in the comments.

Gamification is related to playing, learning, and progressing to the next level.

Step 2: The Real Reason For Gamification

In order to fully understand why we like games, we need to look back at our childhood. Back then, playing was a form of learning, with children (and even adults) of all species playing in order to further develop their life skills. For example, baby lions attack each other in order to improve their hunting skills. Human babies play with cars and barbies in order to understand the material world and develop interpersonal skills. In other words, we play in order to develop skills we will need later in life. 

However, the problem starts when people never stop playing. They play the same game over and over again, while actually there is no more learning possible from this game. For example, playing monopoly is all about knowing the rules, getting lucky with the throws, and understanding some tactics. To refine these skills, people may play several times, but eventually, the game loses its interest. No further learning can take place, so the game becomes discardable.

Certainly, there are few games that are an exception to this rule, such as chess or even football. In chess, for example, there is no end to mental gymnastics and tactical growth to make this game at any point obsolete. In football, we can also continuously grow in things like accuracy, speed, and endurance.

Step 3: The Next Game

Going back to watching football, what I don’t understand is the learning aspect of the game:

  • What are people learning?
  • Where is their growth?
  • How is fan “support” going to make this game any better, except by giving money to already fat clubs?

Overall, there should be an end to games once we mastered them, progressing to the next games to follow. In adulthood, for example, we may no longer play with toy cars, but drive a real car, we can start working on a business and raise children, which are completely different games to master. These games often offer perpetual growth and complete mental gymnastics. 

With every consecutive game, we need to realize that we are actually playing a game, learn its rules, and proceed accordingly. 

Step 4: Be Careful With Fake Achievements

Modern online games, such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, are very engaging. They offer a smilingly infinite amount of content, whereas players are incentivized to constantly discover where else these games will take them. These games offer:

  • New levels
  • New weapons
  • New enemies
  • New skills
  • New quests
  • New stories
  • New maps
  • Rewards
  • Experience points
  • Multi-player engagement
  • Etc.

In terms of learning experience, this seems to make a lot of sense. People are discovering their potential and becoming better human beings because of it. At least it should work this way if it wasn’t for a caveat. 

The caveat is that all these experiences actually make it seem like a game is offering something new, while in reality, it offers minimal growth at best. For example, a new weapon makes us wonder how much better we will perform against the same (or different) monsters, players, or on new terrain. However, in reality, it is all the same. Players are still doing the same 1 or 2 moves. They just do them slightly differently. 

Furthermore, fake achievements exist not only in games but in the real world, in places, such as our universities, where students believe that their diplomas actually say something about their real world abilities to perform certain tasks. They also exist in our bank accounts, whereas people believe that their net worth is somehow connected to their self-worth. Certainly, it is not. 

Step 5: Sunk Costs & Mental Detox

Unfortunately, often it is hard to just stop playing, as we spend an incredible amount of time, money, and energy (i.e., the sunk cost) playing them. In other words, we continue playing these games, because it is unthinkable to stop playing them. Yet, we can’t always stay in the past so occasionally we are forced to move on with our lives, regardless of how it makes us feel. Certainly, it is better to do it sooner rather than later.

Personally, I remember crying over a game I was about to delete, feeling like a junky the next few days, and going through withdrawal-like symptoms just because I was leaving this game behind. Having the game available wasn’t an option anymore as I would continue playing it regardless of my better judgment. 

This experience made me realize that the more we do something, the more it becomes us, the less able we become in simply discarding them, like open mental windows (almost like in a browser), which slow down the computer if they become too much. This is why it is imperative to keep our minds as clean as possible, closing these windows, and allowing our brains to focus and perform at its best capacity. 

Step 6: Frustration & Sore Losers

Additionally, have you seen a sore loser? They play as if their self-worth is connected to their game. Win or lose, they keep on playing, as losing is unacceptable (even if it happens regularly), and winning offers a small emotional boost to an already fragile personality. They play with their egos, not realizing that it is just a game. Their lives resemble an emotional roller coaster, even if they are too stubborn to admit it. Certainly, they have low self-esteem. Don’t be such a person.

A quick way to see if you are like this is to see how you react to wins and losses. Are you overly happy with wins? Are you overly frustrated with losses? In an ideal case scenario, your heart should remain steady regardless if you win or lose. Otherwise, you may just be a sore loser.

Step 7: Gamification at Work

My first job ever was in a financial company in the role of marketing trainee. There, my former boss told me that my job was to make our product « sexy » in the eyes of the consumer. Indeed, there was nothing particularly sexy about selling financial solutions to everyday people, but paraphrasing a quote I remember:

« To succeed in business, we need to make a dull company entertaining, and an entertaining company dull. » 

As such, people spend approximately one third of their lives at work. Yet, very few people think of their work as particularly entertaining. Actually, happiness at work seems to be a rather new concept, as many companies are still catching up with the fact that their employees’ happiness is important to their bottom line. This is not to mention that at the end of the day employees are human beings instead of commodities owned by these companies, so people want to feel happy with this one third of their life. 

As such, we need to take happiness at work a bit more seriously, making it a bit more playful and fun, as everyone will be happier because of it: from consumers to the shareholders. 

Step 8: The Cost of Opportunity & The Games to Play

Today, games are created for all ages, and as we progress we are continuously playing different games. The trick is to realize that we are actually playing a game and when we master a certain game, not wasting any additional time playing it, moving on to the next game and the next. 

We also need to watch out for fake achievements, as the modern world is becoming progressively more complex and sometimes it’s hard to say when we are winning and when we are wasting time.

In other words, we should be aware of the cost of opportunity in everything we are doing, as often we are too fixated on doing something, while there is something even more fruitful, that we are supposed to be doing.

Roman Russo

Roman Russo

Roman Russo is the founder, main author, and Chief Happiness Officer at Optimal Happiness. He is also the author of Optimal Happiness: The Fastest & Surest Way to Reach Your Happiest Potential, a revolutionary book about becoming the happiest version we can be. After studying this topic for over 8 years Roman believes that everyone can reach their happiest potential, challenging people to reach these highs. Are you ready to accept this challenge?

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