The Achievement Dilemma
In a 2010 TED talk, game designer Jane McGonigal remarks that “We are optimized as human beings to do hard, meaningful work.”I repeat: humans are optimized for hard, meaningful work.In fact, McGonigal points out that gamers are very likely committed so deeply to gaming because they experience a sense of “blissful productivity,” that they find a real sense of achievement when they “level up,” (that is, to advance to the next level in the game). The interplanetary enormity of the experience is imbued with “epic meaning.” She goes on: “…gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they're given the right work.”Ultimately, McGonigal wants to harness the particular problem-solving expertise developed by the modern gamer to solve the broad social problems of the real world. Fine. In fact, great. It’s certainly an interesting idea to toy with.But I think we should point something out: committing 22 hours a week to video gaming (the average number of hours a World of Warcraft gamer plays) is likely made a heck of a lot easier because modern American culture has become so devoid of opportunity for and acknowledgement of real achievement and meaningful accomplishment. We’re obsessed with celebs. Our United Nations Goodwill Ambassadors are usually movie stars because they’re the only people anybody recognizes anymore.Frankly, it’s not just gamers who are “willing to work hard all the time [for]… the right work;” it’s an inherent human attribute. Gamers have simply found an outlet.We’re all wired to thrive on kicking ass, but our culture doesn’t fuel it.Economist Thomas Sowell is (in)famous for taking on the issue of culture and its implications in achievement gaps—both racial and regional—in the US. Let it be noted that Thomas Sowell is pretty polarizing, and that’s contextually understandable: he criticizes some core identifiers and cultural traditions of specific people groups and claims they don’t lead to societal success. As in, it’s their own fault.Now, if it were traditional in some isolated culture to chop off everyone’s right hand, it probably wouldn’t be as alarming if there were some economist arguing to teach these people to leave their hands attached, for pete’s sake. But once you start getting down to brass tacks and talking about philosophy, ethics, education, and personal responsibility and their influences on individual cultures, it gets ugly. People get defensive. They stop thinking.But let’s do it anyway.Let’s turn the cultural unfitness lens on the aggregate. Let’s turn it on ourselves.To achieve something is really just to accomplish it, whether or not it requires real effort. For example, a student may achieve straight A’s with nominal mental effort. It’s possible to “achieve” things that come easily. However, the Achievement that humans are hungry for is the fruit of concerted effort, courage, heroism, or strength.It used to come in obvious forms: killing dinner. Finding fresh water. Surviving battle. None of that was ever guaranteed.But now?For the average American, it’s pretty easy. Ignoring the implications of the financial crisis and its effect on your personal buying power this week, suffice it to say that you know there’s chicken breast waiting for you under plastic wrap down the street. Fresh water is on tap. The biggest battle you may fight before next Tuesday is with your Homeowners Association or the copy machine at work.To counteract all this predictability and safety, we’ve come up with pseudo achievement. In fact, the media has come up with pseudo achievement that both distracts us and causes us to spend money.While there are more examples of this than makes sense to list on a blog, let’s zero in on at least one.We live in a culture where you can earn a badge for checking in on Foursquare at a restaurant recommended by a host on the Bravo network. You’re getting a badge for being a consumer. You can be the mayor of your local Starbucks.Now look, Foursquare can be hilarious. Mayor Elizabeth has a nice ring to it. Roommates set up their apartments as Foursquare locations and strive to retain mayorship of it. It’s funny.But we shouldn’t let Foursquare slide without at least noticing it.We live in a culture that doesn’t promote achievement outside the sports arena. It doesn’t promote creativity. It doesn’t promote quality. We’re so hungry to achieve something that we’ll compete for badges that sometimes take nothing but showing up to earn.
I think we may be becoming very confused.When they “level up,” video gamers are presented with challenges the game knows are likely just within their reach. Every new level can be beat. That’s the safety of a manufactured reality—with it comes a level of confidence that is unwarranted in the real world. The video game says “you can do this!” …and you can. The real world cheers you on: you can do this! And perhaps you can. And you might fail.But if you do achieve, it’s an experience of true “epic meaning.”At this point, my only objective is to raise conscientiousness—I just want us all to begin thinking about what this means, being “optimized as human beings to do hard, meaningful work.” …And then start wondering if we really are.