Saturday, January 28, 2012

Playing the Game of Life

It suddenly occurred to me as I was walking down a rainy 34th Street after writing the last post:  a lot of what is missing for people in the Mai Tai scenario is a game - something where you can compete within rules, win, lose, keep score, strive, show off, exercise skill, feel emotion, group identification and loyalty, a limited purpose which people voluntarily do for fun.

Maybe the economy is turning into something more like game playing as we move into the age of abundance. Certainly games have become steadily more important in the culture. Team sports have grown into vast businesses. Young men play endless rounds of Warcraft, to the frustration of young women wondering where the single guys are.

A century and a half ago games really didn't exist to the same extent we have today. Most of the main organized team sports go back to the 19th century, although they have more informal precursors like football played in medieval towns. The modern Olympics also date back to the 19th century. 

Of course, board games like checkers or chess are much older.  And athletic competitions date back to the original Olympic games. Spectacles and entertainment go back to Roman gladiatorial combat which long predates the Colosseum. 

But as far as I know there was nothing before the 19th century on the industrial scale of modern games. As society has become wealthier, more and more time and effort has been devoted to organized forms of play for adults. 

People get pleasure from just watching games as entertainment. But their main significance is they involve participation. Spectators at a football game are involved, rooting for their team. soaring on the joy of victory and suffering agonies of defeat, in a way they are not participating at, say, a music concert. 

They are more than just an immersive experience, as I was discussing back here in connection with the book The Experience Economy. 

So maybe these questions of purpose and meaning and incentives are better thought of as finding the right games for people to play. People want a set of game rules to give the effort meaning. 

There is a developing game science which tries to make computer games as enticing and compulsive as possible.  They brilliantly calculate just the right level of challenge and resistance to make people want to get to the next level. I wrote before about the game Cowclicker, which people get obsessed about even though there is almost no real content. Other companies like Zynga have manipulated people's motivations into billion-dollar returns. It gets at something quite primal about people's behavior and motivation. 

In many ways games are an alternative or substitute for work. 

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