Right now, over the course of the next couple weeks, somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion people will tune in to the same event.
This event is not a geopolitical one. Governmental regimes will not be decided based on its outcome. It is not an economic one. The winner will be financially compensated, but not in any way that will meaningfully affect the people of that country. National boundaries will not be redrawn as a result of this conflict. Ultimately, it comes down to twenty-two men, a ball, and who can put it put it in the opponents net the most times. It is the World Cup.
I don’t say this as someone who thinks the World Cup isn’t important. I think it’s fantastically important, and I count down to it every four years starting approximately three days after the final match. But many people believe that because it’s a game, because it doesn’t have overt real-world implications, that the World Cup doesn’t matter. Some people believe that because it’s a certain kind of game—one in which Europeans are usually dominant, not Americans—that it doesn’t matter.
But it does matter. And the reason it matters is that there’s no other event in the world that quite so many people from quite so many walks of life get worked up about. An election, a TV show, the publication of a book, a Nobel Prize—none of these things can compete with the sheer volume of interest generated by the World Cup. It may be a fiction. But it is one that a large proportion of the planet has bought into.
I think this dynamic is useful to pay attention to because this is also the way games work more generally. The points aren’t real in any sense but the number on the scoreboard. Yet people live and die by whether their team’s number is bigger than their opponent’s. They dedicate a large portion of their leisure time to following the accumulation of these points. Arguably, these kind of games are what humanity, in aggregate, cares about most.
This makes for a paradox of sorts. Even though they don’t have meaningful stakes outside the arena, games are designed to elicit concentrated doses of meaningful engagement. When you’re into a game, nothing feels like it matters quite as much as the outcome of that match. A defensible definition of a “game” is an event or set of actions which is fundamentally meaningless to which we have assigned meaning.
More specifically, this is the process of gamification, and the downsides of gamification is the topic of a recent book by my guest today. Adrian Hon is a game developer, and CEO of gaming company Six to Start. Adrian’s best known game is Zombies, Run! an app which incites runners to move faster by overlaying a plot of apocalyptic escape on their movements in the real-world. It has been downloaded over ten million times. Adrian’s an expert on the power of gamification, and his book is all about taking a skeptical look at how gamification has infiltrated our lives.
At the heart of Adrian’s observations is a tension. I think of it as the double-edged sword of gamification. By assigning points to vocab learning, or tracking the number of steps you’ve taken every day, gamification is able to take trivial, mundane actions, which we want to engage in but don’t find particularly appealing, and imbue them with meaning. This in turns gives us the motivation to accomplish those actions at a more efficient rate than we otherwise would.
Where this goes wrong is when the game itself—the points system, the badges, the leaderboard—becomes more meaningful than the original reason for wanting to perform this action. When we care more about the fictional story in a way that starts taking away from the real things we actually care about, that’s when gamification becomes a problem.
The thrust of Adrian’s book is that more and more companies are using the powerful techniques of gamification to get us to engage in their products far longer and in different ways than we might initially intend to. In other words, it’s commonplace for products and apps to be designed to exploit the most vulnerable aspects of our psychology. The psychological dynamics of games are increasingly becoming a part of our every day life, and we need people like Adrian Hon to help us get a handle on how they work.
Adrian’s new book is You've Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. It’s out now.
And if you still aren’t convinced that games matter, just look at the World Cup. Qatar spent 220 billion dollars (they could’ve bought Twitter five times over!) to host it. Why? Not because they’re going to recoup that money. Because it puts them right in the crosshairs of the world’s attention. From Ecuador, to Japan, to Germany, to Cameroon, to Serbia, to Brazil, to even a large part of the United States—everyone will be watching. And when that many people buy into the stakes of a game, there’s bound to be real-world consequences.
At the end of each episode, I ask my guest about three books that have most influenced their thinking. Here are Adrian’s picks:
Life: A User’s Manual
by Georges Perec (1978)
Astonishingly good: a lesson in how to use rules to produce interesting art.
Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East
by Amanda Podany (2022)
A look at the past not from the “big” events, but from the lives of everyday people. Stories reconstructed from ancient cuneiform texts.
The Futurological Congress
by Stanislaw Lem (1971)
The funniest of the sci-fi writers; this book is the most insightful look at what virtual reality will ultimately look like—which is to say, crazy.
Books by Adrian:
(I hope you find something good for your next read. If you happen to find it through the above links, I get a referral fee. Thanks!)