Measuring Success in the Game of Life

What games do you play in life?

Posted May 08, 2016

According to Jane McGonigal, one of the most forward-thinking game designers in the US, the essential elements of a game are: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

Is life a game? When is life not a game?

Why do we believe we must measure success? In life, what metrics do we think are relevant, important, and measurable? What do we mean by success? How does my success compare with your success? When we set rewards and punishments for an activity, does that define the activity as a game? What games do we choose to play? Why do we play these games? What happens when we don’t know the rules or the rules keep changing – or the goals keep shifting?

When playing games, do young people have the same mindset as older people? Their different strengths and weaknesses, and other resources surely influence their mindset.  Even though the goals as defined by the game may appear to be the same, are their personal goals really the same?

How can we reimagine reality, to define our lives as games in which we are always a winner? This would mean that each of us is playing our own game, independently, even though the ultimate rule of life is that our actions are constantly interacting. Will this make it easier to perceive opportunities for cooperation and for competition?  At the same time, you being a winner in your life does not have to prevent me from defining myself as a winner in mine. Quite the contrary, the more strongly you believe you are a winner and can share the positive aspects with others, then I can benefit from your actions, even without knowing you directly. Isn't that the essence of learning? Isn't that the most important lesson to learn in life, whatever game you choose to play?

How radical is this concept? How might it change how we, especially young people, choose directions in life?

Success, as a concept, doesn’t actually lend itself to quantification, since the assessment is contextual, and depends on individual perception and values. Popular media and culture emphasize comparisons because that creates stories of conflict, real or imaginary. Conflict brings out emotions, emotions sell.

Obviously, we do measure specific elements or reflections of success, such as money earned. The beauty of using money as a measure of worth is that it is a very objective metric. One hundred dollars is one hundred dollars. Period. If you earn one hundred dollars for a day’s work, and I only earn ten dollars, you could be said to be more successful than me. Complications arise when we consider other aspects of the activity. If we were doing very different activities, and I was able to help a lot of people, while earning a lot less, but your work involved taking advantage of people’s weaknesses (legally), what is the meaning of my “success”, or yours?

In our society, how do we define losers? What is their purpose, their role? How necessary are they as participants in society? Do we create losers so some of us can claim to be superior?

What happens to people we label as losers, especially while they are children? Aren't we amazed and delighted when we hear about examples of extraordinarily courageous people who figure out how to break out of patterns defined by society - or even life itself, such as cases of real physical or mental disabilities. Those are demonstrations of the power of the human spirit to achieve previously unimaginable abilities. Credit does have to be shared with family members, care givers, teachers, a support system. This kind of story describes shared success and human connection.

How do we design a game for ourselves, where other players lose? Is this the same as designing for winners?

When corporations are accused of inappropriate behavior, isn’t their typical response “we played by the rules of the game”? For example, Big Pharma firms typically play a major role in setting up the rules for development of new drugs and they also define how those rules should be interpreted. In such situations that involve intellectual property of potentially very high value and public safety (clinical trials), aren’t the rules designed primarily to define “losers”? These games cannot determine “winners”, but the system does offer incumbents tremendous advantages.

To survive and grow, we do have to look out for ourselves. Self-interest is necessary. But - when does self-interest morph into selfishness and greed? Does that happen when we lose direction because we embrace metrics of success that are not aligned with our moral values and sense of purpose in life?

What game(s) are we choosing to play and why?  When was the last time you had this thought?