A day in 2022: Count your steps. Check your points, check your apps, check your site and your pages. ❤ your likes. Spin a wheel for an online discount. Cash in your frequent flyer miles. Dig out last year’s loyalty card for the ice cream shop. Hunt for a coupon code. Do the day’s Wordle, The New York Times spelling bee, whatever your brain uses for a quick high. Find a workaround to avoid a paywall (not ours). Call the radio station to win. Fill out a survey to win.
We have been gamified.
Companies saw our foreshortened attention spans and went casino on us. Simple transactions now tease and puzzle and lure us, and bells ring and lights flash if we walk far enough or slide enough merch into our cart. Even the little ink-stamped boxes have taken on power, driving us halfway across town so we can get another stamp, never mind that the new place might have better ice cream. Streaks and point systems take us over, too: a Lifehacker.com self-help article suggests saying “I don’t care about this manipulative bullshit” aloud as you hit delete. Education is full of articles teaching teachers how to gamify their courses to hold the students’ attention. The service industry surveys our response to the simplest exchange, and everybody wants to know how many stars they got—us, our dentist, our auto shop, even the therapist trying to talk us down from the adrenaline jag.
Gamification is simply the addition of game-like elements (points! wins! rules) to other contexts. It is hardly new. But the current version feels a lot pushier than the S&H green stamps my grandmother sat me down to sponge into books on rainy Saturday afternoons. The difference, I think, is that instead of a simple promise of reward, there are elaborate games with fuzzy rules, and their aim is to seduce you into a habit, sometimes even an addiction. The underlying message remains the same: buy enough or do enough of what somebody wants you to buy or do, and you will be rewarded. But by toying with the pleasure centers in our brain, companies make us do half their work for them. If points, stars, and levels can squirt more dopamine into our nervous system, we are in.
Social media is, of course, the biggest game of all. Social psychologist Jon Haidt points this out in a recent Atlantic article titled “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” The year 2011 was, he suggests wistfully, “the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being ‘one people.’” The internet had connected us, and its networks spanned the globe, translating and making collaboration possible.
What followed, says Haidt, repeated God’s crashing destruction of the tower, scattering humanity and destroying any chance of a common language.
Granted, the tower was built on sand anyway: “Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart”—but we no longer had even the same enemies, let alone shared blood or gods. We had resorted to a different triad to brace our democracy: strong institutions, shared stories, and extensive, tightly knit social networks. And now, says Haidt, “social media has weakened all three.”
How did a handful of innocuous, chatty, slightly cartoonish apps manage all that?
First, they took hold of our psyches by giving us variable rewards, the most alluring kind because if you just scroll a little longer you might get one…just a few more pages…that last moment of connection felt so good, the last surprised laugh, the last poignant share…there might be another one, any minute now…. Sometimes the apps changed the rules so often and with such opacity, it made us dizzy; at other times, apps gave us such reassuring rewards that it was hard to quit.
Second, social apps sped us up. “The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists,” Haidt says. They knew you had to safeguard a republic by building in “mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment.” Contrast that vision with a president who communicates with Twitter, conspiracy theories that go viral before they can be fact-checked, constant polling, and a populace with its fingers on the reaction emoji. In a gamed universe, nobody can afford to slow down and think.
Third, social media taught us to perform, to apply soft filters, to dodge and burn the truth in order to manage our brand. Instead of being genuine, a lot of people stooped to meanness, and that shattered trust. Networks that could have encouraged communication wound up severing all chance of it. We were left with factionalism, magnified frivolity, fanned outrage, and the corrosion of trust in government, media, institutions, and human nature itself.
Such sweeping characterizations are deeply satisfying—and always suspect. Not everyone lost their grip when they started using social media, and the seeds of dissent were long sown when Mark Zuckerberg took the revenge of a nerd by codifying (and gamifying) Harvard students’ ratings of one another’s attractiveness. Today’s predicament is not a simple consequence of social media. This issue feels more like gun violence, in that we were already violent, but the prevalence of available and lethal guns increased that violence exponentially, making it possible to destroy lives, futures, and neighborhoods wholesale.
Early on, former CIA analyst Martin Gurri described social media “as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere it reached,” Haidt notes. What social media offered in place of those institutions, Gurri warned, were distributed networks, the sort that “can protest and overthrow, but never govern.”
It might be time to stop playing games, at least with the country’s future.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.