After seeing this season’s holiday movies “Argo”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln”, I found myself thinking, “Damn, we are good at games.” Whether it is the CIA gaming Iranian revolutionary leaders by posing as a Hollywood film crew to rescue US diplomats in 1980, The US government, military and CIA playing the long game in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden after 2001, or our sixteenth President playing the radical left against the racist right in the Congress of 1865 to pass a constitutional amendment to ban slavery, we Americans play, win and honor our games like no other nation.

Increasingly today, our lives are becoming games. Whether in business, politics, espionage, the military, education, health, sex, media, parenting, social networking, you name it, our world is being “gamified.” That is, game-thinking, rewards, win-lose competition and game-mechanics are gradually infiltrating and defining major portions of our lives. In a recent article in the New York Times on the gamification of business, Nick Wingfield writes, “At a time when games are becoming ever more realistic, reality is becoming more gamelike. Quoting Jesse Schell, a game designer, he writes, “game ideas (are) creeping into ‘every nook and cranny of everything.’”

Why does this matter?

Because games are fast becoming the defining metaphor of our time. How we think about, see and engage our world is largely determined by the metaphors we use to make sense of it. Whether we feel life is like a blank canvas to paint, an ocean to traverse, a box of chocolates to sample, or a game to play, matters. In fact, one of the most important findings coming out of cognitive science in the past 25 years is that most human thought operates through metaphors at a level that is out of normal conscious awareness. This means that the metaphors we employ shape all conscious thought, largely determining our sense of the world. These metaphors are packed with a set of basic, unexamined assumptions that affect how we frame and construct the world, influencing our social interactions with other people and operating like road maps that guide the organization of knowledge and the processing of new information, events, and experiences. In time, these metaphors become physically present in the synapses of our brains, in our neural circuitry, which can result in a total disregard for information that is inconsistent with them. So, we, too, are becoming gamers.

What is the problem with seeing – and constructing – the world as a game? Certainly in some arenas – politics and business and sports, for example – it seems perfectly fitting. The problem is not that games are inconsistent with many aspects of our lives; it is that they provide a limited and skewed lens on the world and yet are spreading and becoming ever more pervasive and determining.

Game theorists have been helpful in identifying the limits of games. Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that approaches the study of human decision-making and social interaction through the use of game matrices, or simplified models of reality. It stresses the strategic interdependent interests of humans and assumes that in games there is always a rational choice which is the best counter-choice to your opponent’s. Thus, game theorists recognize that this metaphor for understanding human decisions and behavior is limited to those situations where rational strategic thought (as opposed to intuition, affiliation or irrational or emotional impulses) is most influential.

In a brilliant treatise entitled Reason in Society written in 1962, the philosopher Paul Deising goes even deeper to explain the perverse consequences of the gamification of our world. Deising distinguishes between five different forms of reason that operate in societies: technical, economic, legal, political and social. Each form has its own assumptions, place, and consequences in the social order. But a main thrust of Deising’s work is in articulating the drawbacks resulting from an over-emphasis on the most pervasive form of reason in America, and that behind strategic games and game theory; economic rationality.

Economic reasoning is focused laser-like on the maximum and efficient achievement of a plurality of goals. In other words, in an economically-rational society like ours what is considered reasonable is that which wins us the biggest piece of the pie as proficiently as possible. This form of rationality is based on a set of utilitarian values and assumptions that suggest that people should always try to get the most out of life (maximization of goals), and that the most efficient way to go about this is to view all aspects of life as either means, like commodities, or ends, like profit. With this as our focus, there is great pressure to convert more and more aspects of life into neutral commodities which can be exchanged and allocated to achieve maximization of our goals.

As Deising writes, “The elements that become commodities during economic progress include time, land, capitol, labor, also personality itself, as well as all the artifacts produced by man: art objects, ideas, experiences, enjoyment itself, and even social relations. As these become commodities they are all subject to a process of moral neutralization and increase of mobility and competitiveness.”

This means that with economic progress, more aspects of life become commoditized. Ancient or sacred lands become real estate for sale at a premium, leisure time becomes merely another segment of time that competes with our work time and productivity, and people and social relationships become other commodities to be allocated and exchanged for our more desired ends (who is worth more today, Nelson Mandela, Donald Trump or Snooki?). And as Deising notes, “The more economically advanced a culture is, in general, the wider the scope for economic rationality.”

Seeing more and more aspects of our lives as games to win through maximization has a sort of self-perpetuating effect with perverse consequences, not the least of which is the impairment of what Diesing terms social rationality; the cherishing of unique relationships, personal connectedness, cooperative functioning, solidarity and sentiment. These niceties are in direct conflict with utilitarianism because they waste time and other scarce resources and muddy the logic of maximization. In addition, economic rationalizing encourages us to change the rules of the game. If winning efficiently is THE goal, then the rules (ethical, moral, legal, and spiritual), are essentially obstacles to game. Changing them simply allows us to move to higher levels in the competition.

We see the consequences of this gamification trend play out today on many fronts.

In our schools, competition for access to elite pre-schools, for grades, for social status, in sports, over positions of leadership, and for admission to exclusive colleges transforms one of our most basic institutions for fostering community, ethics and learning into competitive, individualistic corporate training-grounds. In these settings, the importance of competitive sports becomes paramount, for both financial and training purposes, and the artistry of cheating (see this year’s Stuyvesant High School cheating scandal) and rule-bending (see Joe Paterno) revered. Such intense competition encourages the professionalization of parenting – through tutors, highly-educated nannies, prep-courses, and professional training camps (such as investment camps). You can imagine the deleterious effects these trends have on the ethos of care and moral responsibility in our families and schools, a critical buffer against bullying and violence in the lives of our children.

In our military, we have a long tradition of viewing war as a strategic game. Today, we train our soldiers with video-computer games to hunt down and destroy the enemy with greater efficiency (in the exact terrain they are being trained for), and award points for inflicting maximum damage. We also equip them with smart-bombs and drones, which are controlled from afar through a computer console. When their actual field-missions are complete, we ask them to reboot and play again. The effects of this gamification of our soldiers are only beginning to be felt in the unprecedented levels of suicide, addiction and domestic abuse among our returning vets.

In our fight against terrorism, we face competing priorities between more efficient tactics of intelligence gathering, prevention and intervention (torture and drone strikes – see Zero Dark Thirty) and more socially-rational approaches of citizen exchanges, foreign aid and humanitarian support. Guess which is prevailing.

In governance, relationships with friends and colleagues become social and political capital to be spent, and one’s identification with social and religious institutions, like the VFW or the Catholic Church become political assets to play or deficits to avoid. Ultimately, governing, cooperating across the aisle, and heading off national catastrophes (see the fiscal cliff) are viewed in competition with winning and keeping office, which typically triumph.

In business, again, the bottom-line rules. Therefore all decisions regarding hiring, firing, salaries, benefits, outsourcing, and even staff morale, counseling and support are measured by this criterion. This is rational. Changing the rules and regulations for business is also now the rule, no longer the exception (see, well, most business enterprise).

Personally, this trend leaves many of us feeling lost in the vast gamisphere. We can’t ever work enough. We multitask so we can never go too deep on a project. Our successes and accomplishments are fleeting. Our relationships are too costly so they become ever thinner and more dispensable. We become hyper-connected through technologies, boasting our number of “friends” on Facebook, and have less and less intimacy. We choose friends with benefits or internet porn over romantic relationships as they are less messy, more efficient. We order in and eat out because who has time to cook, let alone garden. We have less time for everything and simply have no time for idle chat (i.e., conversation). Health problems are a costly nuisance to be treated symptomatically and efficiently. Life is a race and we are losing.

Ultimately, the choice between economically-rational and socially-rational decisions, actions and societies is a false one. Healthy, functioning individuals and societies must manage both effectively (as well as technical, political, and legal). Deising’s prophetic warning to us is that the economicization and gamification of our world is spreading into domains where the consequences are insidious and tragic. The antidote, of course, is to be mindful of the difference between economic and social, technical, political, and legal reasoning in our world, and to bolster the latter through alternative metaphors.

One alternative is on display in this year’s somewhat less-celebrated film, Amour. It is a small, French film about an elderly couple at the end of their life together. It is a cinematic masterpiece and a meditation on basic things like life, love and death. It is a film bereft of games. It is slow, personal, painful, moving, and requires time – perhaps even multiple viewings – to take hold. I guarantee if you see it you will leave the theater with no measureable gains. It is a must.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD is a social psychologist on faculty at The Earth Institute and Teachers College at Columbia University, and author of the books: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011) and Smart Power: How Adaptive Leaders Navigate Conflict Effectively (forthcoming).

Copyright Peter T. Coleman, 2013.

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