When we play Monopoly or basketball, we know we are playing a game. The stakes are low. The rules are silly. The point system is arbitrary. But what if life is full of games — ones with much higher stakes — that we don’t even realize we’re playing?
According to the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, games and gamified systems are everywhere in modern life. Social media applies the lure of a points-based scoring system to the complex act of communication. Fitness apps convert the joy and beauty of physical motion into a set of statistics you can monitor. The grades you received in school flatten the qualitative richness of education into a numerical competition. If you’ve ever consulted the U.S. News & World Report college rankings database, you’ve witnessed the leaderboard approach to university admissions.
In Nguyen’s book, “Games: Agency as Art,” a core insight is that we’re not simply playing these games — they are playing us, too. Our desires, motivations and behaviors are constantly being shaped and reshaped by incentives and systems that we aren’t even aware of. Whether on the internet or in the vast bureaucracies that structure our lives, we find ourselves stuck playing games over and over again that we may not even want to win — and that we aren’t able to easily walk away from.
This is one of those conversations that offers a new and surprising lens for understanding the world. We discuss the unique magic of activities like rock climbing and playing board games, how Twitter’s system of likes and retweets is polluting modern politics, why governments and bureaucracies love tidy packets of information, how echo chambers like QAnon bring comfort to their “players,” how to make sure we don’t get stuck in a game without realizing it, why we should be a little suspicious of things that give us pleasure and how to safeguard our own values in a world that wants us to care about winning the most points.
Utah Valley University