Games, it has been said by some of the wisest sages of our civilisation, are fun.
They’re exciting. They’re engaging. And they’re a brilliant way to escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life for those of us who yearn for a simpler world, where we are Batman and need only concern ourselves with beating thugs into submission in order to work out Riddler’s dastardly plan and also not do washing and chase up invoices.
There’s another reason why games are such a release is similar to the reason why sport is such a pleasure for a lot of people: things are governed by a set of clear, unchanging rules. You master the rules of the game and the challenges the game poses are overcome.
It’s enormously satisfying: especially if you live in a world where you might otherwise feel that you don’t really have a lot of control over things. Like, say, this one.
And when things don’t adhere to that implied contract that rules will not be broken – when Batman gets trapped in a wall because of a programming glitch, or a player secretly pulls out an extra ball in the middle of a soccer game – it’s not merely annoying: it’s infuriating. The rules are being flouted and it’s actually offensive.
And it’s really, really easy to transfer that sort of game-specific behaviour in which people fly off the handle for relatively small transgressions to other things in your life that are kind of like games.
And this is a problem because loads of things in our lives are now, to use that most irritating of terms, “gamefied”.
A lot of this stuff is really cool, to be clear. Gamefying otherwise dull tasks is a great way to motivate people to do things which would otherwise be dull – like work out how to fold proteins, for example, or classify galaxies in astronomical photographs – because we find something deeply satisfying about hitting and beating a score.
And scores are important to us – after all, everything from sport to school marks to Yelp reviews are based on the idea that scores confer information about quality.
So: what do you think happens when you gamefy something that doesn’t have nice strict agreed-upon rules, like friendships or dating or discussing politics?
Here’s a hypothesis which the Cracked podcast put forward and which seems to dovetail nicely with most people’s experiences of the last decade of social media: a small but significant number of people get frustrated and angry far, far more quickly than they otherwise would.
And look, you know that there’s no magic button combination or special code that you can enter to make someone desire you, or get a friend to forgive you, or hang with the popular kids. We’ve always had social hierarchies, but the actual rankings have never been more visible or more universal than they are now.
Instagram followers are a popularity score. Twitter retweets are testimonies to how witty you are. Tinder swipes are evidence of exactly how hot you are. If you’ve grown up on games, these platforms seem very familiar – and it’s very natural to automatically seek to beat every other player and our own previous high score.
But there’s a bigger and more insidious problem. Remember that thing earlier about how games are relaxing because things are rules based and simple? Life’s not like that, and if we get lulled into thinking it is then we get really disappointed really, really quickly.
Games teach us is that every problem has a pretty straightforward solution, so when we’re in a situation that we don’t like it’s easy to not only be naturally unhappy at the situation, but actually angry and frustrated as though there’s some sort of error in the code of the game.
And thus it seems entirely predictable that the more social interactions and romantic pursuits resemble games there would be a small but significant group of people furious that they’re not getting what they assume they’ve earned – not merely feeling lonely, but that they’re actually being ripped off because they hit the “right” buttons and failed to be rewarded. Yes, I’m arguing that incels are an unintended but inevitable consequence of when gaming mechanics meet societal misogyny.
Now, let’s be clear: this is a theory, and it’s largely anecdotal. And even if it’s correct, it’s not an argument that we need to police games or ban apps or scrap social media. We can absolutely enjoy all of those things.
But maybe we need to be a little more thoughtful about what all those tiny, addictively repetitive actions are doing to us.