Money as a Game

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the idea of “gamification”–yes, it’s an atrocious word but a useful concept. I’m sure there’s value in thinking about how we can bring the most successful aspects of games into the concrete world of physical people and objects. I know there are many activities I should be doing that I’m not. Many tasks that the right game-like inducements could make automatic, and maybe even enjoyable.

It was while considering this that it crossed my mind that money is the most successful game idea that exists in the culture. Now certainly to say that money originated from the world of games would be, at best, generous. More likely, it’s just flat out wrong. But the thing that’s interesting about money–and the possessions that we understand to be it’s correlates–isn’t how it came to exist but what it represents about human psychology and games.

Before I get too far, I want to be sure to acknowledge that money is hardly a game when you don’t have enough of it. Possessing money represents a tangible ability to to feed, water, shelter, and clothe ourselves and our families in a safe and easy way. But for the majority of people in first world, this is no longer the way it operates. Any country rich and egalitarian enough to assure that none of its citizens go hungry, homeless, or uneducated effectively eliminates the survival value of money. Even outside of such a society, any income above the locally defined poverty line is beyond sheer survival. It is in these situations that it makes sense to talk about money as a game.

One of the most powerful aspects of money as a game is how score-like it is. Just like the score you rack up as you progress through a level in Mario or a game of Tetris, net worth is a concrete signal that you can use to judge whether you’re advancing our falling behind. Very unlike personal relationships, or professional or personal development, money is almost always transparent. You never have to wonder where you stand with money. You can easily identify that you’re $200 richer than you were a week ago, but there’s no easy way for you to know that you’re 200 points better at not being a jerk.

I’d go so far as to contend that a large part of the much-maligned use of money and material wealth to define success is that people can easily identify material progress. Being less of a jerk is so frustratingly unquantifiable that one has to be hugely better at it for people (including yourself) to even recognize that you have any skill at it. But I can clearly tell that you’re a better businessman than me because you own a million dollar home, drive a BMW, and own this whole restaurant we’re sitting in. But without being almost as unassailable as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama, you won’t see how hard I’ve worked to be less of a jerk.

Beyond the ability to know the score with money, it’s got a powerful reward system built into it. If personal development were as easy to score as money, we’d only be halfway there. The other half of money’s advantage is the pleasure that it can offer us. I need a way to get between points A and B: for essentially zero dollars I can walk, for around $200 I can get a bicycle for travel. For around $2000 I can get a beat-up but functional car, for $20,000 a nice new one, and for $200,000 a rare, intricate, and delightful one. This fact has powerful effects on the incentives for the pursuit of money beyond mere score. While we could endlessly discuss the merits of the type of pleasure imparted by say, a new Ferrarri, no one but a fool would reasonably contend that it gives equal pleasure to possess as a simple bicycle.

Wealth also provide a level of the social, cultural, and locational access that many people never see. It is undeniably a qualitatively different experience to be living on $20,000 per year than it is to be living on $2,000,000. Two million will afford you not only the ability to buy free time at will, but also the chance to take that free time in any manner you please. Want to take a few weeks off to see the sights of Kenya with your 10 closest friends? You can. This purchasing of experience is not only wise (research indicates it gives more long-term satisfaction than purchasing things), but is inaccessible to those of lesser means. One wouldn’t even take the time to consider the possibility of an African safari if they and their friends made less than $25,000 per year. This reward mechanic, which is native to money and difficult to imagine importing, is at least as important as it’s scoring value.

Before we finish, it’s worth considering the meta-game of money. There’s a saying much loved by the economics-minded (and damn hard to refute), “You optimize what you measure.” There’s an idea very much in vogue in the last decade “Gross National Happiness.” These are both deeply related to the meta-game.

Because we can only optimize the things we’ve quantified, and we can only quantify rather concrete things, most measures of performance and progress that are used today (and have been used for almost 500 years) to gauge the success of a town, county, or country relate to how well they’ve optimized their money score. This is thus what politicians make their reputation on and what makes countries into magnets. Much of this emphasis on countable measures of development is deeply valid, one clearly is much more likely to have a better, easier, and more enjoyable life in a country with a notably higher GDP per capita. Clearly the Renaissance-era Italian city-states which valued commerce and wealth were better places to live than the backwaters of Scotland. Today, given an even choice, most people would rather be an average citizen of the United States than Chile.

There is much to recommend the use of GDP (or GNP, PPP, etc) numbers. Without them we’d have almost nothing with which to gauge the success of competing countries, methods of leadership, or manners of economic progress. But there is manifestly much they leave out. While China’s a freer place than it was 50 year ago, it’s also true that it’s not the nicest place to live among all it’s economic neighbors. This basic fact is the reason that people are currently infatuated with notions like “Gross National Happiness”. While no one has yet successfully used it this way, it’s possible that if it were ever actually quantified in a universally agreed upon way, GNH could represent a new way for government schemes and governors to be judged that would better represent the whole panoply of things we humans value.

Perhaps there would be great value in striving for such a measure, which would allow people to measure how satisfied they are along all aspects of their life. Certainly a world that sweated GNH points would be qualitatively different than a world obsessed with GDP. But because any attempt to measure GNH would be inherently limited to the factors it decided to value, the notion that it would be an inherently better scoring system deserves skepticism.

And finally, we circle back to this: if you’re looking to create a better achievement scoring system for the world and its people  to judge themselves, you could do a lot worse than emulating the benefits that money has so long provided. If we mean to be serious about this “gamification” business (and not just bullshit it), money seems a good place to start.