The Perils of Gamification

No Power Glove, No Power Love

We’re living in a time when the rapid proliferation of apps and smart devices is leading us a point in society when every aspect of our lives is broken down into numbers to be dissected, compared, and used for marketing purposes. As invasive as that sounds, we’re allowing it because it has happened under the guise of the Gamification of Everything.

The Gamification of Everything is fitness trackers, calorie-counting apps, rewards points accrued for every store and restaurant we visit. It is the illusion that we are building our personal stats toward some end goal, a boss encounter that can only be survived if we’ve spent enough time on personal quests to power ourselves up.

When you grow up on videogames, the Gamification of Everything makes sense. I’ve been playing the Final Fantasy series, for instance, since its very first installment (and I’d be about the millionth person to point out the irony of its title). I find it and other games in its genre to be comforting, a world you can escape to where the stakes are low because if you fail an encounter, you can just reload from your last save point and start again with lessons learned.

There’s a problem with this, though, which is that you are always living in the future. If everything you do is to prepare yourself for the final encounter, whether it’s with a fictional, overpowered monster or with God (if you believe there’s any difference between those two things), then you’re not living in the present. Living in the present, it turns out, is pretty important for mental health.

One important thing I’ve learned through therapy (and there have been many in the short time I’ve been doing it) is that depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Depression is dwelling on the past, while anxiety is dwelling on the future. One can make the argument, then, that by gamifying our lives, we are exponentially increasing our collective anxiety. And you know what? It doesn’t take spending too much time on social media to come to the conclusion that we have a whole lot of collective anxiety these days.

Anxiety is important for capitalism, though. If the financial fabric of society depends on us spending as much money as possible on things we don’t really need, then it works much better if we’re convinced we actually need them. If we’re anxious about our weight, we’re going to buy disproven diet products and questionable exercise equipment. If we’re anxious about being alone, we’re going to compulsively swipe through Tinder. If we’re anxious about not having accumulated as many things as our friends on Facebook have, we’re going to spend until we catch up with them.

These are all future goals, and questionable ones at that. They do not make us happy in the present, except for perhaps the momentary hit of dopamine we get from clicking the “Add to Cart” button on Amazon or getting a notification from our fitness tracker that we walked 20,000 steps in one day. Those dopamine hits last mere moments, though, and the more of them we experience in a day, the less effective they are.

If we spent more time focusing on the present, on enjoying the people we’re with or the music we’re listening to or just the world around us in general, we might be happier than if we have our faces buried in our phones, seeking those brief dopamine hists as we build arbitrary stats. I know it has made a difference for me when I’ve made the effort. Inevitably, I lose focus on that effort and fall back into the same traps that everyone else falls into. I’m trying to do better, though, and it is not without considerable irony that I use a mindfulness app as part of that effort.


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