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How games are used to control you You don't have to play by other people's rules

'Casinos keep their customers happily losing money by distracting them with minor side games they’re likely to win.' (Bernard Annebicque/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

'Casinos keep their customers happily losing money by distracting them with minor side games they’re likely to win.' (Bernard Annebicque/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)


April 13, 2024   18 mins

For years, some of the world’s sharpest minds have been quietly turning your life into a series of games. Not merely to amuse you, but because they realised that the easiest way to make you do what they want is to make it fun. To escape their control, you must understand the creeping phenomenon of gamification, and how it makes you act against your own interests.

This is a story that encompasses a couple who replaced their real baby with a fake one, a statistician who cost the US the Vietnam War, and the biggest FBI investigation of the 20th century. But it begins with a mild-mannered psychologist who studied pigeons at Harvard in the Thirties. B.F. Skinner believed environment determines behaviour, and a person could therefore be controlled simply by controlling their environment. He began testing this theory, known as behaviourism, on pigeons. For his experiments, he developed the “Skinner box”, a birdcage with a food dispenser controlled by a button.

Skinner’s goal was to make the pigeons peck the button as many times as possible. From his experiments, he made three discoveries. First, the pigeons pecked most when doing so yielded immediate, rather than delayed, rewards. Second, the pigeons pecked most when it rewarded them randomly, rather than every time. Skinner’s third discovery occurred when he noticed the pigeons continued to peck the button long after the food dispenser was empty, provided they could hear it click. He realised the pigeons had become conditioned to associate the click with the food, and now valued the click as a reward in itself.

This led him to propose two kinds of reward: primary and conditioned reinforcers. A primary reinforcer is something we’re born to desire. A conditioned reinforcer is something we learn to desire, due to its association with a primary reinforcer. Skinner found that conditioned reinforcers were generally more effective in shaping behaviour, because while our biological need for the primary reinforcer is easily satiable, our abstract desire for the conditioned reinforcer isn’t. The pigeons would stop seeking food once their bellies were full, but they’d take far longer to get tired of hearing the food dispenser click.

Skinner’s three key insights — immediate rewards work better than delayed, unpredictable rewards work better than fixed, and conditioned rewards work better than primary — were found to also apply to humans, and in the 20th century would be used by businesses to shape consumer behaviour. From frequent-flyer loyalty points to mystery toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals, purchases were turned into games, spurring consumers to purchase more.

Some people soon began to consider whether games could be used to make people do other things. In the Seventies, the American management consultant Charles Coonradt wondered why people work harder at games they pay to play than at work they’re paid to do. Like Skinner, Coonradt saw that a defining feature of compelling games was immediate rewards. Most of the feedback loops in employment — from salary payments to annual performance appraisals — were torturously long. So Coonradt proposed shortening them by introducing daily targets, points systems, and leaderboards. These conditioned reinforcers would transform work from a series of monthly slogs into daily status games, in which employees competed to fulfil the company’s goals.

In the 21st century, advances in technology made it easy to add game mechanics to almost any activity, and a new term — “gamification” — became a buzzword in Silicon Valley. By 2008, business consultants were giving presentations about leveraging fun to shape behaviour, while futurists gave TED Talks speculating on the social implications of a gamified world. Underpinning every speech was a single, momentous question: if gamification could make people buy more stuff and work more hours, what else could it be used to make people do?

The tone was generally utopian, because back then gamification seemed to be mostly a force for good. In 2007, for instance, the online word quiz FreeRice gamified famine relief: for every correct answer, 10 grains of rice were given to the UN World Food Programme. Within six months it had already given away over 20 billion grains of rice. Meanwhile, the software-as-a-service company, Opower, had gamified going green. It turned eco-friendliness into a contest, showing each person how much energy they were using compared with their neighbours, and displaying a leaderboard of the top 10 least wasteful. The app has since saved over $3 billion worth of energy. And then there was Foldit, a game developed by University of Washington biochemists who’d struggled for 15 years to discern the structure of an Aids virus protein. They reasoned that, if they turned the search into a game, someone might do what they couldn’t. It took gamers just 10 days.

Even established corporations saw gamification’s potential. In 2008, Volkswagen debuted a campaign called “The Fun Theory”, based on the idea that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better”. Piano stairs were installed at a Stockholm rail station to encourage people to use them instead of the escalator, leading to a 66% increase in stair use. Volkswagen also tried to gamify gamification itself, creating a contest for good game ideas. The winning idea was a “speedcam lottery”, where people who kept to the speed limit would be entered into a prize draw, funded by speeding fines.

It all seemed so simple: if we could only create the right games, we could make humanity fitter, greener, kinder, smarter. We could repopulate forests and even cure cancers simply by making it fun.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, gamification took a less wholesome route.

***

Humans, unlike pigeons, don’t respond much to clicks; but we do respond to another arbitrary sound: applause. We associate the sound of clapping hands not with food, but with another primary reinforcer: esteem. And esteem appears to be one of the main reasons we play games. Will Storr has argued that the evolutionary function of games is to organise societies into hierarchies of competence, with score acting as a conditioned reinforcer of status. This association is so strong in our minds that, like the pigeons pecking the button long after the food dispenser has stopped dispensing, we’ll chase scores long after everyone else has stopped watching.

So when, in 2009, Facebook added the “like” button, it abruptly created a score to compete for. It motivated people to post more content — hitting “send” became like pecking a food dispenser button or activating a slot machine, initiating an excitingly uncertain outcome. The post might go completely unnoticed, or hit the jackpot and go viral. Other social media platforms followed, leveraging Skinner’s three laws to maximise button-pecking. They offered immediate reinforcement in the form of instant responses, conditioned reinforcement in the form of “likes” and “followers”, and unpredictable reinforcement that varied with each post and each refresh of the page. These features were crucial in turning social media into the world’s most addictive status game.

But this was just the beginning. Many in the managerial class began to wonder how they could use gamification for their own ends. The Chinese Communist Party was among the first to apply the principles of social media to the real world. In several towns and cities, it began trialling social credit schemes that assign citizens a level of “clout” based on how well they behave. In some areas, such as Rongcheng and Hangzhou, there are public signs that display leaderboards of the highest-scoring citizens. The lowest-scoring citizens may be punished with credit blacklists or throttled internet speeds.

Meanwhile, in the West, gamification is used to make people obey corporations. Employers like Amazon and Disneyland use electronic tracking to keep score of employees’ work rates, often displaying them for all to see. Those who place high on the leaderboards can win prizes like virtual pets; those who fall below the minimum rate may be financially penalised.

Game features are even more pervasive in the digital world. The dating app Zoosk works like a role-playing game, allowing you to accumulate experience points simply by using the app, which unlocks new abilities, such as animated virtual gifts to send to prospective dates. Meanwhile, on Tinder you can purchase various “level-ups” — Boosts, Super Likes, and Rewinds — that increase your chances of winning and compel you to keep playing to get your money’s worth. And if you have no luck on dating apps, there are always AI girlfriends to play with: apps like iGirl and Replika award users points for their commitment, which can be used to “level up” their virtual lovers into a version that is more intimate.

These are only a few examples. Virtually every kind of app, from audiobook apps to taxicab apps to stock trading apps, now employs game mechanics like points, badges, levels, streaks, progress bars, and leaderboards. Their ubiquity attests to their success in hooking people. Gamification once promised to create a better society, but it’s now used mainly to addict people to apps. The gamifiers, like Skinner’s pigeons, prioritised immediate rewards over delayed ones, so they gamified for the next financial quarter and not for the future of civilisation.

So where does this all lead? What is the endgame?

***

At the University of Michigan in the mid-20th century, there was a zoologist named James V. McConnell. A strong believer in fun, he often presented his academic research alongside satire and poetry, so it was difficult to tell which was which. One of the few things McConnell took seriously was behaviourism. He was transfixed by Skinner’s work on pigeons, and wished to expand the work to humans, with an eye to creating a perfect society. In a 1970 Psychology Today article he wrote: “We should reshape our society so that we all would be trained from birth to want to do what society wants us to do. We have the techniques now to do it. Only by using them can we hope to maximize human potentiality.” In short, he wanted to turn society into a Skinner box.

A decade later, McConnell noticed how captivated people could become by video games like Donkey Kong and Pac Man, and he became one of the first proponents of gamification. He pitched an ambitious project to gamify education to tech companies such as Microsoft and IBM, but he was 30 years too early, and they couldn’t yet see its promise. There was, however, one person who’d taken a keen interest in McConnell’s work. His name was Ted Kaczynski.

Kaczynski had come to Michigan as a postgraduate from Harvard, where he’d studied mathematics and graduated at just 18. But at Harvard, he’d also been subjected to cruel experiments. In a lab not far from where Skinner had once experimented with pigeons, psychologists linked to US intelligence were now experimenting with humans — one of whom was Kaczynski. Under the glare of blinding lights, he was methodically humiliated to see how he reacted. He claimed the experience didn’t affect him, and yet, within just a few years, he developed a paranoia about psychological conditioning and mind control. And so, when Kaczynski learned of McConnell’s proposals to turn society into a Skinner box, he concluded that the jocular professor was an existential threat to humanity, and that he needed to die.

It wasn’t a decision Kaczynski had made lightly; he’d developed an entire philosophy to justify it. Influenced by techno-dystopian writers such as Aldous Huxley and Jacques Ellul, Kaczynski believed the Industrial Revolution had turned society into a cold process of production and consumption that was gradually crushing everything humans valued most: freedom, happiness, purpose, meaning, and the ecosystem. In his view, everything society now produced — including science and technology — served society, not humanity, and thus was increasingly being purposed not to enrich our lives but to psychologically condition us so we wouldn’t resist what was being done to us and to the earth.

In short, where society had once been shaped to accommodate people, now people were being shaped to accommodate society. And this mis-shaping made people anxious and depressed because it conflicted with our deepest nature.

Kaczynski believed modern society made us docile and miserable by depriving us of fulfilling challenges and eroding our sense of purpose. The brain evolved to solve problems, but the problems it had evolved for were now largely solved by technology. Most of us can now obtain all our basic necessities simply by being obedient, like a pigeon pecking a button. Kaczynski argued that such conveniences didn’t make us happy, only aimless. And to stave of this aimlessness, we had to continually set ourselves goals purely to have goals to pursue, which Kaczynski called “surrogate activities”. These included sports, hobbies, or chasing the latest product that ads promised would make us happy. For Kaczynski, the result of reorienting our lives to chase artificial goals was that we became increasingly dependent on society to provide us with them. And without our own inherent sense of purpose, we’d inevitably be made to chase goals that were good for the industrial machine but bad for us.

Kaczynski’s theories eerily prophesy the capture of society by gamification. While he overlooked the benefits of technology, he diligently noted its dangers, recognising its role in depriving us of purpose and meaning. Today the evidence is everywhere: religion is dying out, Western nations are culturally confused, people are getting married less and having fewer children, and AI is reducing the need for labour, so the traditional pillars of life — God, nation, family, and work — are crumbling, and people are losing their value systems. Amid such uncertainty, games, with their well-defined rules and rewards, provide a semblance of order and purpose that may otherwise be lacking in people’s lives. Gamification is thus no accident, but an attempt to plug a widening hole in society.

Unfortunately, it seems to be only a sticking plaster. Kaczynski observed that surrogate activities rarely kept people contented for long. There were always more stamps to collect, a better car to buy, a higher score to achieve. He believed artificial goals were too divorced from our actual needs to truly satisfy us, so they instead kept us too busy to notice our dissatisfaction. Rather than a fulfilled life, a life filled full. Today, people increasingly live inside their phones, bossed around by notifications, diligently collecting badges and filling progress bars, even though it doesn’t make them happy. On the contrary, substantial research comprising over a hundred studies finds that prioritising extrinsic goals over intrinsic goals — in other words doing things to win prizes and achieve high scores rather than for the intrinsic love of doing them — leads in the long term to lower well-being.

“People increasingly live inside their phones, bossed around by notifications, diligently collecting badges and filling progress bars”

Kaczynski seemed to recognise this long before the arrival of smartphones. He felt that building a life around chasing what was offered on billboards and in magazines wouldn’t make him happy, and would only feed the Machine, so in 1971 he fled industrial society, holing himself up in a log cabin in the Montana wilderness. There he attempted a simple and self-sufficient life, enjoying the small things like the sound of birds singing and the feeling of the sun on his back.

But this idyll wouldn’t last. While hiking across one of his favourite spots — a rocky ridge with a waterfall — he was aghast to find a road had been built across it. As he saw it, industrialisation, like some creeping fungus, had followed him even here. Enraged, he decided modernity couldn’t be escaped, and had to be destroyed. His emotional instability got the better of him, and in 1978 he began posting bombs to those he accused of betraying humanity. In 1985, a package arrived at McConnell’s home. It was opened by his assistant, Nicklaus Suino. The package only partially exploded, injuring Suino and McConnell, and leaving them both shaken for life.

They were lucky. Less than a month later, Kaczynski would send another, more carefully prepared bomb to computer store owner, Hugh Scrutton, who’d become Kaczynski’s first murder victim.

By then, the FBI’s investigation into the bombings had grown into the largest in its history. For over a decade they scoured the country as Kaczynski continued to kill and injure, but much of their time, money, and manpower was wasted chasing mirages, for Kaczynski would often scatter his bomb parcels with red herrings such as notes referencing fictitious conspiracies and signed with made-up initials.

Kaczynski’s actions, though unforgivable, can teach us as much about gamification as his philosophy. His red herrings lured people away from what they actually sought, and this is also what gamified goals threaten to do. To understand how, we must consider a human error known as surrogation.

***

While Kaczynski wanted to demolish industrial society and return humanity to an agrarian life, US defence secretary Robert McNamara wanted the opposite: to use American industrial might to crush the agrarian society of Vietnam.

McNamara was a statistician who believed what couldn’t be measured didn’t matter. He charted progress in the Vietnam war by body count because it was simple to measure. It became his way of keeping score. But his focus on what could be easily measured led him to overlook what couldn’t: negative public opinion of the US Army both at home and in Vietnam, which deflated US morale while boosting enemy conscription. In the end, the US was forced to withdraw from the war, despite winning the battle of bodies, because it had lost the battle of hearts and minds.

Thus, the McNamara fallacy, as it came to be known, refers to our tendency to focus on the most quantifiable measures, even if doing so leads us from our actual goals. Put simply, we try to measure what we value, but end up valuing what we measure. And what we measure is rarely what we mean to value. As Skinner showed, the goals of games — points, badges, trophies — are secondary reinforcers that only derive their worth due to their association with something we actually desire. But these associations are often illusory. A click is not the same thing as a food pellet. And points are not the same as progress.

We’re easily motivated by points and scores because they’re easy to track and enjoyable to accrue. As such, scorekeeping is, for many, becoming the foundation of their lives. “Looksmaxxing” is a new trend of gamified beauty, where people assign scores to physical appearance and then use any means necessary to maximise their score. And in the online wellness space, there is now a “Rejuvenation Olympics” complete with a leaderboard that ranks people by their “age reversal”. Even sleep has become a game; many people now use apps like PokĂ©mon Sleep that reward them for achieving high “sleep scores”, and some even compete to get the highest “sleep ranking”.

Most such scores are simplifications that don’t tell the whole story. For instance, sleep trackers only measure what’s easy to measure, like movement, which says nothing about crucial facts such as time spent in rapid-eye-movement sleep. A more accurate measure of how well you slept would be how refreshed you feel in the morning, but since this can’t be quantified, it tends to be ignored. Further, if increasing one’s youthfulness score requires a daily two-hour skincare routine, a diet of 50 pills each day, abstention from many of life’s pleasures, and constant fixation on one’s vital metrics, is it really worth it? Of what value is adding a few years to your life if the cost is a life worth living? The scores we use to chart progress can’t articulate the nuances of reality, and yet we often tie our life goals and even self-worth to such arbitrary numbers.

In the end, Kaczynski himself was led astray by red herring goals. In 1995, he enacted his endgame, demanding the New York Times and Washington Post print his anti-technology manifesto to prevent further bloodshed. All along, his goal had been to get the widest possible newspaper coverage, to maximise how many people would see his manifesto, but like McNamara, he didn’t account for what couldn’t be quantified, such as how people would see his manifesto. Skinner’s pigeons had learned to desire the click of the food dispenser because it had been accompanied by food, and Kaczynski’s intended audience learned to hate his arguments because they had been accompanied by violence. By maximising audience size at the expense of everything else, Kaczynski gained a massive audience unwilling to give him a fair hearing.

Further, his manifesto contained a peculiar choice of words (“eat your cake and have it”), which was recognised by his brother, David, who alerted the police, leading to Kaczynski’s capture. And so, by fixating on the most obvious metric — the size of his audience — Kaczynski lost the one thing he’d been fighting for all along: freedom.

Kaczynski played the wrong game, and was trapped by it. Today, we all face similar traps. We chase numbers and icons because they’re always available, and the chase is often so immersive that it keeps us from seeing where it leads, which is often far away from what we actually seek. This can lead to what the evolutionary psychologist Diana Fleischman calls “counterfeit fitness”: the constant, momentary “wins” that come with playing digital games give us a false sense of progression and accomplishment, a neurochemical high that feels like victory but is not, and which, if it becomes a habit, risks overriding our actual ambitions.

It explains why so many young men have lost themselves in video games, and are no longer in employment or relationships. The false signals they’re getting from video game progress, combined with the sexual reward of online porn, are convincing their dopamine pathways that they’re winning in life, even as their minds and futures atrophy. It’s easy to persuade people into tying their sense of progress to fake or trivial goals. Casinos keep their customers happily losing money by distracting them with minor side games they’re likely to win. The small victories convince them they’re winning overall even as they lose the only games that actually matter.

This strange quirk of human behaviour can even cost lives. In South Korea, a young couple became so addicted to raising a virtual baby that they let their real baby starve to death. The parents prioritised what they could quantify — levelling up their virtual baby — over that which they couldn’t — the life of their real one.

What makes pathological gameplaying so dangerous is that the more harm it does, the more alluring it becomes. If your baby is dead, why not raise a virtual one? If your life of playing video games has stopped you finding a girlfriend, why not play the AI girlfriend game? Thus, bad games form a feedback loop: they distract us from pursuing the things that will bring us lasting contentment, and without this lasting contentment, we become ever more dependent on false, transient metrics such as scores, trophies, and leaderboards to imbue our lives with meaning.

All the things a gamified world promises in the short term — pride, purpose, meaning, control, and happiness — it threatens in the long term. It has the power to seclude people from reality, and to rewrite their value systems so they prioritise the imaginary over the real, and the next moment over the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, there is a solution.

***

In prison, Kaczynski wrote a little-known sequel to his manifesto, entitled Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, in which he outlines his belief that all sufficiently advanced civilisations become trapped in fatal games. To illustrate his point, he employs a thought experiment involving a forested region occupied by several rival kingdoms. The kingdoms that clear the most land for agriculture can support a larger population, affording them a military advantage. Every kingdom must therefore clear as much forest as possible, or face being conquered by its rivals. The resulting deforestation eventually leads to ecological disaster and the collapse of all the kingdoms. Thus, a trait that is advantageous for every kingdom’s short-term survival leads in the long term to every kingdom’s demise.

Kaczynski was describing a “social trap”, a term coined by a student of Skinner, John Platt, who had theorised that an entire population behaving like pigeons in a Skinner box, each acting only for the next immediate reward, would eventually overexploit a resource, causing ruin for everyone. What Platt called “social traps”, Kaczynski called “self-propagating systems”, because he viewed them as negative-sum games that took on a life of their own, defeating every player to become the only winner. He believed such games were an inevitable consequence of technological advancement, and had to be stopped before they reached a critical mass of players and became “alive”.

In jail, Kaczynski was forbidden access to the web, and in letters he struggled to understand what Facebook was. Nevertheless, his warnings could easily have been referring to social media. On Instagram, the main self-propagating system is a beauty pageant. Young women compete to be as pretty as possible, going to increasingly extreme lengths: digital filters, mask-like makeup, plastic surgery. The result is that all women begin to feel ugly, online and off. On TikTok and YouTube, there is another self-propagating system where pranksters compete to outdo each other in outrageousness to avoid being buried by the algorithm. Such extreme brinkmanship frequently leads to injury, and has even led to the deaths of, among others, Timothy Wilks and Pedro Ruiz.

On X, meanwhile, there lives a self-propagating system known as “the culture war”. This game consists of trying to score points (likes and retweets) by attacking the enemy political tribe. Unlike in a regular war, the combatants can’t kill each other — only make each other angrier — so little is ever achieved, except that all players become stressed by constant bickering. And yet they persist in bickering, if only because their opponents do, in an endless cycle of mutually assured distraction.

Those are just three examples of social traps that have emerged in our gamified age. But the most worrying social trap is gamification itself. Every company that exploits our gameplaying compulsion to sell its products will have an edge over those who do not, which forces every company to compete to gamify in ever more addictive ways, even though in the long term this harms everyone. As such, gamification is not just a fad; it is the fate of a digital capitalist society. Anything that can be turned into a game sooner or later will be. Games will be created not just to extract money from people, but also data.

The 2025 Enhanced Games, for instance, is a new futuristic version of the Olympics, funded by tech moguls including Peter Thiel, where contestants can exploit anything from cybernetic implants to performance-enhancing substances to get a competitive advantage. The purpose of the games seems to be transhumanist: to motivate people to discover new ways to augment human abilities, with the eventual goal of turning men into gods. There is, after all, a vacancy in heaven. When God is dead, and nations are atomised, and family seems burdensome, and machines can beat us at our jobs and even at art, and trust and truth are lost in a roiling sea of AI-generated clickbait — what is left but games?

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Games can motivate us to destroy ourselves, but they can also motivate us to better ourselves. In a gamified world, it’s possible to play without getting played, if one only chooses the right games. As the poker player-turned-podcaster Liv Boeree said: “Intelligence is knowing how to win the game. Wisdom is knowing which game to play.” So how do you decide which games to play? The story of gamification offers five broad rules.

First: choose long-term goals over short-term ones. Short, frequent feedback loops offer regular reinforcement, which helps motivate us. But what is made to motivate us too often addicts us. So consider the long-term outcomes of the games you’re playing: if you did the same thing you did today for the next 10 years, where would you be? Play games the 90-year-old you would be proud of having played. They won’t care how many trophies you have; they will care how many times you saw your parents before they died.

Second: choose hard games over easy ones. Since the long-term value of games lies in their ability to hone skills and build character, easy games are usually a trap. People with unearned wealth — thieves, heirs and lottery winners — often end up losing it all, because the struggle to obtain a reward teaches us the reward’s worth, and is thus a crucial part of the reward.

Third: choose positive-sum games over zero-sum or negative-sum ones. Games evolved to confer status, and status is zero-sum — for some to have it, others must lose it. But we no longer have to play such games; we can change the rules so a win for me doesn’t mean a loss for you. Educational games are one example. Wealth creation is another. Positive-sum games — where every player benefits by playing — are a form of competition that brings people together instead of driving them apart.

Fourth: choose atelic games over telic ones. Atelic games are those you play because you enjoy them. Telic games are those you play only to obtain a reward. Chasing trophies and leaderboard rankings can help drive us to succeed, but a fixation on such rewards can become a source of stress, and can even make leisure activities feel like drudgery, turning games into work.

Finally, the fifth rule is to choose immeasurable rewards over measurable ones. Seeing numerical scores increase is satisfying in the short term, but the most valuable things in life — freedom, meaning, love — can’t be quantified.

“The most valuable things in life — freedom, meaning, love — can’t be quantified.”

There are an overwhelming number of games to choose from. If you want to keep fit, try Zombies Run, an app that takes the form of a post-zombie-apocalypse radio broadcast telling you which direction to run to avoid being eaten. If you want to learn general knowledge while helping those in poverty, play the FreeRice quiz. If you want to learn a new language, try Duolingo. And if you want to form good habits, there’s Habitshare, which lets your friends track your attempts, motivating you more than if you were only accountable to yourself.

But if, among the countless games out there, you can’t find one right for you, then you can just create your own. By now there’s an app to keep any kind of score, and an AI to formulate any possible ruleset. Kaczynski killed himself last summer, still adamant humanity was doomed. His disturbing legacy has since passed to his disciples, such as the Liverpool man Jacob Graham, who was last month jailed for terrorism after trying to emulate his idol. Graham may have thought he was saving the world, but, with all his talk of maximising kill counts, he was just playing a bad game.

In the end, Kaczynski and his followers made the same mistake as Skinner: they viewed us as mere puppets of our environment, devoid of agency and the ability to adapt. They needn’t have feared the world becoming a Skinner box because, among all the papers written about that troublesome contraption, one fact is always omitted: Skinner’s pigeons only kept pecking the button because they were in a cage, and had nothing else to do. But you are still free. Even in a world where everything is a game, you don’t have to play by other people’s rules; you have a wide open world to create your own.

Your move.


Gurwinder Bhogal is a freelance writer. His work can be found at gurwinder.substack.com

G_S_Bhogal

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Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
1 month ago

I have always understood that “eat your cake and have it” is the correct form of the aphorism, even if the illogical “have your cake and eat it” is more common colloquially.
I cannot help but suspect that the actual story of Kaczynski’s identification has been obscured. Perhaps his brother had other ‘clues’ but this made for a story convenient to all.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Gerry Quinn

Having listened to a lengthy interview with David Kaczynski, I believe his side of the story.
A worthwhile conversation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvY5IcQw2RU

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago

Uptick. Now you have a vote to encourage more articles like this…

Rob Mort
Rob Mort
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

My wife and I are Christians. We see Thru all this shit with a 3000 year old philosophy of mind that openly and happily eschews the material world effectively! It’s not about US, it’s about others always. I often tell people when describing what it’s like be a “Christian” I tell them its like playing 3 dimensional chess with God. Of course, he makes the first move! Thank you lord

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob Mort

Please explain what the hell you mean. Except for conceding the first move, you believe you’re playing by the same rules and on the same scale as the Creator?

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob Mort

I am also a Christian but I don’t understand your answer!

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob Mort

If you consider cargo-cults, then, to an outsider, the rituals of any religion can easily look like ‘pecking the button’.
In general, we like habits/habitual behaviour since it simplifies risks and choices. Those habits are then reinforced through games/rituals (that we call education among other things) with points and rewards for playing the game well. So everyone plays, even if you think you don’t. And sometimes it feels like everyone is ‘pecking a button’ about something. Stopping pecking can be really hard.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

I played the game and upvoted.

Great article.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

I’m glad to see that your comment has shot back up to the top, despite the new UnHerd practice of wiping the comment votes clean at seemingly random intervals. Let’s have a few more articles that combine thoughtfulness with knowledge, without becoming doom-sermons or lamentations.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

Agreed. Most interesting article I have read here for a while.

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

LOL – very good. The article is also very good. Though I’ve wasted my time on many things/games/sites like this, Duolingo didn’t work so well. Their rewards got in the way and drove me nuts – only the “Freeze” and the day count worked, but then only because I competed with the Wife. Finally when I only got to use about 4 of the phrases on my trip, I gave up on Duolingo too.
Good to know how you are manipulated however, coz it then means you can screw their ‘algorithm’ when you see the pattern.
Meanwhile I’m waiting for the sun to appear so I can laze about in it. Thanks to that damn 2022 Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai eruption, all that water it shoved into the stratosphere now appears to be coming down in my back yard. So the sun doesn’t appear. Once it does, I’ll return to dozing in the garden. Retirement may not bring wealth, but I do have time to spare, at present, and no games addictive enough.

Paul Ten
Paul Ten
1 month ago

In a sense there is nothing new in this. Focus on quantification and short-term reward isn’t the same as gamification, nor are immediate paybacks necessarily a distraction. They have been a feature of corporate life for decades, through things like sales quotas and production targets, with associated commission payments and piecework rates. The trick is to engineer the incentive structure to align with the overall goals of the organisation. This is easier in commerce because the goals are themselves quantifiable (profit and loss) so, if the hierarchy of incentives doesn’t support them they are (or should be) easier to fix.
But I agree this doesn’t play well in many other walks of life. Perhaps the most egregious example of capture by short-term metrics was the COVID pandemic, when our entire society was damaged because of an obsession with positive test case numbers on a day-by-day basis.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 month ago

Great to start the weekend with such inspired writing. I’ll venture to add that maybe the next level up from chosing the best game is chosing the most helpful metaphor. Often game but sometimes war, dance or Love. And sometimes being in nature, worship or certain types of companionship best experienced without metaphor at all.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

Cue for some philosopher type to write that ‘not playing a game is still playing a game’.
A more nuanced answer (perhaps alluded to in the broad rules in the article) is to ‘game’ appropriately. But people generally take nuance and broad rules and make iron rules out of them. There’s nothing as rigid as a ‘rule of thumb’. It’s what humans generally do.

Andy Glover
Andy Glover
1 month ago

Great article. I downloaded the zombie running app this morning and tried it out – love it, it’s a fun way to keep your mind occupied when running. I’ll check out the other ones later (I already have Duolungo where I have a long term goal in my mind which I’m sure keeps me using it daily).

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

Excellent. An intriguing exploration of the games we play and get played by. Whether the games in our lives kill, elevate, or just amuse and distract, Mr. Bhogal rightly insists on our crucial measure of agency, as bounded by death, taxes, and other limitations as that agency may be.
Though no joke or waste of time, in one sense the paths of Gautama Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth are a kind of game, or all-in wager of the ego-self on the faithful prospect of an expanding, enduring reward.
Skinner and Kaczynski were engaged in a sort of gamesmanship or gamification too, but they attempted to take hope, joy, and human dignity off the board. Neither were any fun and they both got played, as do those who take such self-anointed authorities too seriously.

Christopher Hickey
Christopher Hickey
1 month ago

Duolingo referenced as a positive example of gamified learning is ironic since I recently noticed my foreign language learning had stagnated by using it. To be fair, there are ways to narrow its focus by making one’s profile private, but in its default state it leverages all of the worst features of gamification and pollutes learning with its pushy, competitive design that rewards quantity over quality.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

I have to agree, and thanks for stating that with a clarity I didn’t have on my own. Having just gone back there after a pause of more than a year, the shallow aspects are too apparent. Rather predictably (in hindsight anyway) I’ve found it to be quite useless for “boning up” my rudimentary Latin.
Has anyone here tried Rosetta Stone for Latin? Alternately: Any textbook recommendations for the would-be Classical autodidact?

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

A fascinating article, not least because i was unaware of the motivation of Kaczynski. I became aware of Skinner’s theories as a student, and ultimately found them reductive.
I’m now, in my later years, painting and exhibiting. This is a prime example of what the author accurately describes within his five ‘solutions’ to ending the reliance on gaming. He’s wrong about one thing: computer-generated art will never be better than human-created art.
I suspect the reason the author thinks it can be better is due to misunderstanding art. It’s absolutely not about reproducing a comely scene, portrait, still life or even an abstract piece. It’s about creating something which enhances us all, through a distillation of life, experience, joy, pain, failure and achievement.
Machines without senses filtered through a heart and brain i.e. a living body, can’t hope to get anywhere near that moment when you step in front of a great painting or sculpture for the first time, and experience a profound sense of recognition; of humanity, of worth, of hope and of a future.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I agree with you, but some of cruder taste may already think AI has generated some equal or superior output. Your background–a part of which you’ve sketched elsewhere–and passionate engagement with making art give you a more discerning, perhaps more humane eye than most. So please continue to speak up–not that I see much risk of you becoming a silent observer.

Osmo Vartiainen
Osmo Vartiainen
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Well put. Art, as sport, will probably not ever truly succumb to AI, as it hasn’t done albeit technology having been available, applicable and competitive for decades. People are interested in people’s craft and achievements.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

What a fascinating read. I must look at Skinner again

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 month ago

So. the writer says that there is something in life beyond status games and short-termism. I had no idea.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

Very good essay.
“They” have been treating us like silly children for a long time now, with games and nudges and fear-mongering, too. It’s awfully annoying but also kind of comical, since “they” tend to be a lot thicker than most kids I know.
One just needs to keep the bullsh*t detector well oiled and fully charged. Always remember the story about Huck Finn conning his friends into doing his work (whitewashing that fence) for him. I think they paid him for the priviledge.
Covid was a prime example (followed by monkey pox!), but climate change is even better. Just last week the UN said, for the tenth year in a row, that we only have two years left to change our sinful ways. A couple of months ago the favorite tale was all about how the Gulf Stream was about to dry up. I can’t wait to hear what’s next!

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago

The author says “the evidence is everywhere: religion is dying out“. But then his five recommendations for what we should choose all actually point to religion! Here are the five.
First: choose long-term goals over short-term ones.”
The salvation of your soul on judgement day is as long-term as goals get.
Second: choose hard games over easy ones.”
Being a true Chistian is as hard as it gets.
Third: choose positive-sum games over zero-sum or negative-sum ones. Games evolved to confer status, and status is zero-sum.”
In Christianity, pride is a deadly sin. And that goes for people practicing it for status.
Fourth: choose atelic games over telic ones. Atelic games are those you play because you enjoy them. Telic games are those you play only to obtain a reward.”
Going through the motions of being a Christian because you think that will get you the ultimate reward means you won’t get the reward.
Finally, the fifth rule is to choose immeasurable rewards over measurable ones.”
Christianity’s rewards are indeed immeasurable.
Incidentally, the author’s assertion that religion is dying out is not true of Christianity. The increase in Africa and the Far East more han compensates for the shrinkage in Europe and North America.

Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
1 month ago

So, Kaczynski was in fact the world famous Unabomber? How strange not to mention that.

Robert
Robert
1 month ago

“Your move.”
I think the only winning move is not to play.

Philip May
Philip May
1 month ago

The “McNamara Fallacy” is chilling.

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones
1 month ago

Man, this was such a bloody good article. Well done mate.

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
1 month ago

Rarely have I read an article as profound as it relates to my life. Who wants to give me a thumb’s up? Who cares? I’ll never see Angry Birds 2 or X in the same light. Chasing or just spending precious time on that which I can easily do without wouldn’t have crossed my mind until now.
The moral is that we find what satisfies us and becomes a cause for growth without need for approval or score. I have a couple of avenues for that but to break habits and plot direction is the challenge and the next step. No need for anyone to wish me luck. It’s a choice for all of us to make for our own sake alone.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

15 minutes a day can teach you a language. What can 15 minutes of social media do?

I see this on occasion while using Duolingo, which I’ve been doing for 15 minutes daily for the last year+. I’m now moderately conversationally fluent in Hebrew and am increasing my skill level in leaps and bounds to an ability.

What distinguishes a ‘skill’ from an ‘ability’? A skill is something you know. An ability is something you are. Deeply is it ingrained into your very core and cannot be lost while your core lasts.

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
1 month ago

absolutely wonderful long read. Thank you for all your work. Fascinating, poignant…

Drew Gibson
Drew Gibson
1 month ago

Many thanks, Gurwinder. I’ve enjoyed trying to think more deeply about sport for many years so this was a most thought-provoking essay. I was particularly interested in the fourth rule about choosing atelic (or autotelic) games over telic ones. When we chose the latter, games (and sport) become work. This has destroyed sport for many children and teens by stripping most of the simple joy out of it. How can we get away from organised football teams/leagues for kids and get them back to simply kicking a ball around in a park? Answers on a postcard…

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
1 month ago

I was planning on reading an easy article and almost fell out of my chair for the depth and clarity this article just gave. I just sent this to everyone with a working brain this link. Kudos to the Unherd team!!

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 month ago

Fine piece with a whole world we barely guessed at. Thank you. What a fine journal is this.