Wining and losing is sort of important to us as a society.

As kids, we’re trained to want to win by pretty much everything we do. Sports and playground games come to mind, but even school teaches us that education can be “failed” and comparing marks to your peers quickly teaches you that you can be better than other people. Whether that’s warranted or not is irrelevant, what matters is that we’re trained to see winning and losing in everyday interactions.

That social gamification can be scary at times. Take a look at self-proclaimed pick-up artists, who see interactions with women as an elaborate game that they try to enter with the the upper hand. Their core gameplay mechanic is trickery, their tools are cruel psychological tricks like negging and hypnosis, and their win condition is sex. It’s gross, but it’s not a logical leap when you’re viewing social interactions like a game. If you think you can win or lose talking to another human being, then you’ll probably end up trying to get the upper hand in whatever way possible.

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Essentially, the seduction community is applying the concept of gamification to meeting women. Gamification was a tech-industry buzzword a few years ago, it’s the idea of applying game-like trappings to something that isn’t really a game. Foursquare turned going to the store into a score-based game. You got points for going to work, so long as you made sure to check in every day. There are more sinister applications of gamification, even within the mostly innocuous Foursquare. In 2010 Starbucks gave unique badges and discounts to Foursquare users who checked in at more than one location or became the mayor of their local store. Essentially, they were  encouraging people to go to Starbucks more often (and likely buy things there) for the sake of getting more points.

Of course, gamification can be used for good too. The popular exercise app Fitocracy gives points and achievements for better workouts and reaching fitness milestones. The interesting thing is though, whether used for good or evil, gamification remains popular. More and more non-game apps on iOS and Android devices are incorporating scoring systems and achievements- things we’ve commonly associated with games. People enjoy being rewarded for what would otherwise be mundane tasks. People like having their progress tracked, they like competing against other people in those mundane tasks.

So why does this matter to video games?

Well, in a way, gamification couldn’t really exist without video games laying the groundwork. Points may come from sports, but the idea of racking up points on your own and checking a leaderboard to see if you’ve bested anyone is a distinctly arcade-like experience. It makes more sense for the average person too. They aren’t actively competing against a particular person, like in football or hockey, they’re passively competing against anyone using the same service as they are, like the high score screen in Pac-Man.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Video games provided the first opportunity for a single player to feel like they’d defeated someone else without that person being there, or even existing. Arcade games had high score boards, and home games had you beating the computer. Even when there wasn’t a player two for you to beat, the computer would always make a worthy opponent, even if it was playing a very different game. Outside of fighting, racing and sports games, where you and your opponent are on the same general playing field, the computer’s job isn’t to compete against you, it’s to get in your way. Your job as the player was to best it. Because we always want to win, even when there’s no real person to beat.

So people like to win. More specifically, they prefer not to win just because they didn’t lose. They want to win because someone else lost. People are competitive by nature in that way, and gamified apps and services prey on that desire to beat someone else. Not that that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s unlikely that anyone’s feelings are being hurt when they lose their position as Mayor of Dairy Queen in Foursquare, and certainly no one is being physically harmed. And in the case of apps like Fitocracy, there’s nothing wrong at all with urging people to be more healthy, and if it takes handing out points and level ups, then so be it.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

But most people don’t win. Ever. They do keep playing though, simply to see the numbers go up and the rewards flow in. The promise of winning is important as a far off goal, but even though social multiplayer is baked in to most gamified apps, people are mostly content with seeing their progress tracked and advanced. Fitocracy isn’t about being healthier than anyone else, it’s about gaining points towards level ups, and going on quests, terms that come from role playing games. It’s a vicious cycle, sure. You do the activity and gain points, then you do it more to gain more points, because getting points feels good. Getting rewarded feels good. You haven’t necessarily won, but you’ve definitely progressed in some way.

If you bring that urge to feel rewarded back into video games, you can shed some light on why winning and losing is usually tied to the defining them. Winning and losing is our most basic way of tracking progress. It’s hard to quantify if you’ve gotten better at something without a goal post, especially abstract things like intelligence, fitness or problem solving. More often than not, that goal post is another human being, maybe because they’re trying to prove the same thing you are, maybe because you get to kill two birds with one stone. You get to feel like you’ve progressed, you get to feel like you’ve defeated someone, two things that have always felt good.  

But video games, and by extension gamified apps, let you track your progress without another person involved. Once again, the computer acts as the person you beat. Except, it isn’t actively competing against you, it’s merely reflecting the old you tracking your progress over that. Foursquare tracks how often you’ve visited somewhere and rewards you when you do it more than before. Fitocracy tracks how much you’ve exercised and how much better you’ve gotten since you started using it. Neither of these have end goals, merely rewards for progression.

So what if we took away the concept of winning? Just keep setting new goals every time the last one was reached, always rewarding the player and promising another reward down the road. There isn’t too much difference between that and what gamified apps do. Do we even need winning or losing anymore? Is the skinner box rewarding you for small steps without and end in sight enough?

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

Games are often defined as needing win or loss states. Of course, what victory or defeat means varies from game to game, but the idea that there’s a player initiated “end” is a key aspect of games, from board games to sports. But more and more, we see games without a traditional ending. Open world and massively multiplayer online games tend not to have an end goal so much as they have various goals you’re always working towards, and more often than not, those goal posts get stretched further back after a while. Winning is promised, but it’s an afterthought. But the games never stop tracking your progress. Your levels, what collectibles you’ve found, how much of the map you've explored, what you’ve crafted, how long you’ve played, dozens and dozens of numbers going up that the computer tells you make you better than you were before.

Whether you consider that a win or not is up to you as a player. You can decide if hitting the level cap and doing every raid in World of Warcraft is winning. The game tracks the progress, you set the goal. Small, personal victories seem to matter more than one grand triumph over an opponent. Judging by how gamification is slowly taking over day-to-day life, people like being tracked and rewarded, that’s game enough for them. Winning might just be the delicious cherry on top.

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