Are We Gamifying Life?

social capitalI was denied a favor the other day. It was fairly insignificant, but I was surprised, mostly because I had an expectation; one in which a favor would be returned. But I’m supposed to do favors without expecting anything in return.

Which made me wonder about this idea of social capital – that you help and give (specifically in the online world) expecting nothing in return. It made me think about time management and how we choose to spend it, and wondering if Seth Priebatcsh is possibly achieving his goal to add a game layer to life.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but in a world where we give of our knowledge, our expertise, and our time, when it comes to seeing a return, we sort of kind of expect one.

Even though we say we don’t.

We have a joke around our house about scorekeeping.

“Hey – the knife is dirty. I thought I asked you to clean it when you put it back on the cutting board.”

“I’ll stop if you’ll stop hanging your shirt over the bedroom door.”

“OK, scorekeeper.”

Always scorekeeping. We can’t help it. Everything is a competition.

Leaderboards abound. My Runkeeper app now allows me to track my training against my friends; not my races – my training. Am I training more or less than Susie Q? Am I faster? I actually LOVE this – it makes me train harder. But you see where I’m going, right?

We get paid for work we do. We get thanked for deeds we perform. We win medals for races. We get badges for achieving levels.

There is no such thing as a selfless act. We expect something in return even if it’s simply the feeling of having helped someone.

I love being helpful. I really do. It  makes me happy when friends and colleagues ask me for something. Often, I’m honored. It means they respect my ideals or feel comfortable enough in asking me. I help because I want to; not because I want to be repaid in some way.


Social Capital

I like to think of myself as someone who gives without keeping score. But let’s be real here, that’s kind of a lie, because when the time comes when I could use a favor, I register surprise at being denied. I’m just not zen enough to blow it off.

And yet, I struggle with the concept of social capital because it fosters a culture of scorekeeping. Life: gamified. It’s happening in the subtext whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. It’s hard to escape – even when I’m just having a discussion with my husband at home about who’s going to take the dog outside in the middle of the night for an emergency potty break: “I took her out last night.” Or when I’m in yoga class trying to beat everyone in the room.

“I’m Too Busy”

You and I make choices every day on how to spend our time. Everyone is busy. Not having time for something means we choose not to make time for it. The other day, I had time to go for a two-hour trail run, read a book on my deck for an hour and walk my dogs in the woods. I also had time for some client work. I did NOT have time to help out with trail work party or for a “pick my brain Skype chat” with someone requesting it. I felt a little bad, but I’ve been working hard and traveling a ton lately. I made the choices what to do with my time.

I’m busy = I choose not to make time. And that’s OK – I don’t have time for a LOT of things. I get it! Just don’t make it seem like it’s something that it is not.

I don’t have any answers – just questions today. Curious to know your take. I’m off to yoga class. Wish me luck. I’m pretty sure I can win tonight.


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  • Kaarina Dillabough

    You make me think and you make me smile: two good things :) Cheers! Kaarina

    • Lisa Gerber

      then my job is done here. :)

  • Ardath Albee

    Hi Lisa,

    Love this post. It also raises a lot of other questions, such as – does guilt play a role in our gamification of life? This person has helped me in the past (but I didn’t ask them to) so when they ask me for a favor, do I feel obligated to do it? What would be the consequences if I don’t? Could it cost me a life badge? Is that how we weigh choices these days?

    Lots of interesting stuff to think about!

    • Lisa Gerber

      Hi Ardath!!
      You’re so right… and then are we more likely to help people with more influence than regular schmoes (a term I use very lovingly) which makes me think about the Mortons Steakhouse and Peter Shankman story where they had steak waiting for him when he landed. Which was a great move, but not something they’d do for anyone. I just hope they don’t come up with a Klout score for favors and good deeds. :)

      • Ardath Albee

        And your point with the steak raises a lot of issues about the value of influence. Well placed or misplaced… I’m with you on the Klout bit :)

  • Marjorie Clayman

    I struggle with this all of the time, but for me it’s really restricted to the online world. In the “real” world it’s much easier for me to choose (or not) to support someone in one way or another and not really expect anything in return. However, in the online world, people know exactly how much time is required to do the things we do. If you attend a chat because a friend asks you to, they know what that time investment is. If you promote a person’s post, they now how much they were competing with for your time, yet you still supported them. If they don’t return those kinds of favors, they become categorized as “takers” in my book, and then I really struggle the next time they ask me to do something.

    I wouldn’t say I keep score, but I know the people whom I tend to regularly support or promote or whatever. I do notice when they fail to support me when I need it. It’s a tricky business.

    • Lisa Gerber

      That’s a great way of putting it – there are givers and takers. I think we all eventually begin to avoid the takers. And that’s why we don’t really need to keep score. We just know. we notice. Especially when we tend to be givers because we like being that way.

  • Bob Phillips

    I wonder if social capital really exists. Maybe it’s like political capital –which I believe does not exist. PolCap should (at least) be totally not necessary. Politics should be conducted in an arena of rational thought rather than in an IOU basis.

    • Lisa Gerber

      Hey Bob! I can’t speak for politics but I can say that in life in general, as Margie put it, there are givers and takers. We like to think we aren’t keeping score but I think there is an element of that happening no matter what.

  • Shonali Burke

    There was a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (I think it was yesterday) about how parents are getting their kids to do chores, and actually enjoy them, by using apps that keep score. Surprise surprise, the kids *want* to do more chores, because they win. So, yes, we are. It’s tiring.

    However, I think there is a level of friendship/closeness in a relationship (I’m not going to call it an inner circle or anything) where it disappears. I think this is what truly close friends experience, where they are just so deeply connected to the other person that there is no question of keeping score. You just do what you’re asked if you can do it. If you can’t, you say “no” and the other person understands and doesn’t think anything of it (or doesn’t take offense).

    So when you, or I, are surprised when people say “no,” I think they are not really as close as we thought they might be, or maybe we are not as close to them as we thought we might be. On the other hand, if it’s a favor they could easily have done (something as simple as sharing a tweet), then they probably got what they wanted from you/us, and don’t need you/us any more, therefore say ‘no.’ In which case good riddance to bad rubbish.

    • Lisa Gerber

      To take it even further, for those of us who are closest – we can go awhile without being in touch and there is no expectation of why haven’t you called or emailed or whatever? I have a good friend in Alaska and I can go many months without touching base and we can pick up where we left off. It’s not the same as what we’re talking about but a similar idea.

      and I don’t have kids of my own but that app actually sounds brilliant. LOL.

  • Jessica

    I once asked a (somewhat influential) friend if it took the meaning out of the experience when you “check in” somewhere on a social network. Are you checking in because you really appreciate the person’s company? Or are you checking in to game the system to make others think you’re influential, too?

    The response? Checking in makes things less meaningful. It goes to say, neither of us checked in to our location, or promoted the fact that we were hanging out with each other. Not using games almost makes the experience *more meaningful.* Because it doesn’t involve the ulterior motive of gaming the system.

    What does it mean for our future if everyone checks in to “game the system”? Will we only rely on this data, and defer to life as merely a game? What do these new rules mean for humanity? hmm…makes me wonder.

    on another note, I do believe in karma (and not because that’s the name of my pup!) it’s on a more spiritual level, and it’s something that technology can’t touch. I find beauty in that.

    absolutely love this post, Lisa! well-done.