The rules of the game of life are changing constantly. It takes strength to define your own rules. But as cultures fracture, we might need to find that strength.
“All the world is a stadium and all the men and women merely gamers.”
With access to the real world restricted, I have spent a lot of time in lockdown playing in virtual worlds. I’m not alone. Spending on gaming leapt £1.6bn in the UK between 2019 and 2020, to £7bn. Game-related internet traffic in the US jumped 75% in just one week in March 2020. Oculus’s Quest 2 – a device I have spent a lot of time with – has been a breakout VR success.
When we talk about people spending even more time gaming and on screens, it doesn’t conjure up the healthiest picture. And yet there is growing evidence that games – yes, even ones on screens – do us good. Games are the new playground for the young, the place they don’t just test themselves but interact with others. Games themselves appear to have helped some people deal with lockdown better than their non-gaming counterparts.
These though, are the games that we play consciously. One of the many draws on our time of which we now have a surfeit of choice. Though these are a big focus for me right now – a client has me thinking about the future of gaming – I’m also very interested in the games we don’t choose to play.
The game of life
“Be a winner at the game of life,
get married, have a baby!”
You have to be of a particular vintage to remember that little ditty. In MB’s defence, at least they showed the young girl getting the job and making the big bucks, and the boy holding the baby. That was seriously progressive for children’s toys in the 1980s. Some would argue we’ve gone backwards since then.
The reason this particular advert came to mind was because of some work I’m planning for an FMCG company. They’re interested in different life stages and I wheeled out my idea about extended adolescence. If being a winner at the game of life means getting married and having a baby, then it is taking us all longer and longer to be winners, as average ages at marriage and first child continue to rise. What about all the people who don’t do those things? Are they losers? And what are people doing throughout their twenties? Just playing?
I’m being somewhat facetious: the rules of a 40-year old game aren’t really the rules of life. But, it does illustrate how much the metrics by which we judge ourselves and others have shifted in that period. And how much they haven’t. While some might be open minded about the time shift that has taken place in the key milestones of adult life, those milestones are still ranked above much else in the eyes of popular culture. What are you unless you have a good job, a home and a partner? And of course, kids. It’s not easy to challenge expectations around any one of those, let alone two, three or four of them.
Rather than removing these expectations, it seems we have just deferred them. And added in new ones to fill in the gaps. Social media has become the venue where we demonstrate our worth before the big milestones of life. Our holidays, our cocktails (guilty), our thigh gaps (not guilty). What we show and how many people see us do it are now the points we seek to acquire in the game of life.
I have become a little too obsessed with online perception of me in recent years. There is a professional lens on this, as I have been chasing profile to win work. But it’s hard for me to separate my professional and personal lives online, since I am to a large extent, the product that I sell. My search ranking, social media profile, and newsletter subscribers have been monthly metrics that I’ve tracked for the last three years. Only recently have I begun to question these metrics.
The first note of caution came in January 2021 following my first truly viral tweet:
Hearing Jamiroquai's album launch tonight has gotten a little out of hand pic.twitter.com/QAdFfzraXX
— Tom Cheesewright (@bookofthefuture) January 6, 2021
It wasn’t really relevant to my work, but it took off more than anything I had tweeted about the future. It was thrilling watching the likes and retweets rack up. I thought about trying more similar tweets to attract such levels attention. But then I looked at the impact: had it driven more followers? A big uptick in web traffic? No. I looked at the profiles of other peoples with similarly viral tweets. Had they gained thousands of followers? Mostly they were still small accounts.
Was the effort of trying to write more such tweets worth it? Probably not for the business.
My scepticism increased over the course of the year. This, I’m pleased to say, has been an incredible year from a new business perspective. Both the scale of the projects and the nature of the brands I’m working with has been incredible. As has the total number of enquiries. What’s driving it? Surely those metrics I’ve been tracking must correlate?
Nope. All those metrics were pretty steady. I don’t have all the data yet but my sense is that this additional work is not coming from social media but from much more old fashioned routes: primarily, word of mouth.
My kids have been complaining for some time that I spend too much time on Twitter. My excuse is always that it’s important for work. Suddenly, I couldn’t make that argument with any honesty. So last week, I took it off my phone. And what a release that has been.
I’ve regained probably twenty to thirty minutes each day that I had been spending doomscrolling. I’ve dodged so many comments and opinions that would make me furious.
Downsides? I’m less well informed about day to day events: Twitter has become my primary news source. But I am less distracted from deep research on the things that matter.
I’m not the first to do this by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, I am very late to the party of people stepping back from being ‘very online’. And I’m not saying I won’t go back to Twitter on my phone (I still log in periodically on my laptop, but there, for some reason, the doomscroll temptation is less). I’m not immune to concerns about my social profile declining. I have an ego and it needs feeding.
I am struck though by our willingness to submit ourselves to the evaluation of others through social media. Especially when in other parts of the world we already have examples of such profiles feeding into a more formal system of social credit.
China’s social credit system is not, yet, the terrifying digital panopticon of some headlines. But it is headed in that direction. An aggregation of data across social, payment, and governmental systems to benchmark the behaviour of citizens. It’s easy to see it expanding out into the physical world, with algorithms processing camera data for small infractions: bad driving, inconsiderate parking, or jaywalking. Where here we enforce behaviours and to an extent, participation, on each other through social pressure and the hunger of our own egos, there both the pressures and the consequences look set to be much worse.
Making up the rules
Coming back to where this post started: games. There are the games we play consciously, and the games of life. The latter are becoming more game-like all the time. As we, as a group, get richer and focus less on survival and more on self-actualisation, so the rewards we seek are less physical (food, shelter) and more ephemeral (success and social approbation). The achievement of these things is increasingly ‘gamified’ through the application of psychological understanding to ‘nudge’ us into different behaviours – often using very game-like rewards. This is done by governments and companies alike. But we also do it to ourselves, subscribing to an ever-changing set of rules, created and managed by the shared consciousness of culture and society.
Often these rules will change more slowly than our reality. It takes time for change to permeate society. So there will be a lot of tension between the rules and our desire to follow them, and the reality of what is best for us. Making your own rules, and defending them to the world takes a lot of strength. As does challenging the rules imposed by others, whether it’s society or the state.
I think this is a strength that many of us are going to need, particularly as our cultures fracture and become more diverse.