Hacker News pointed me to an article recently called “Addicted to Fake Achievement“.

That article is about video games, but this one isn’t. The thesis of that article is that some games (it mentions Role Playing Games) don’t actually require skill, just time. You start with a weak character and perform some task that’s almost too easy to fail. You’re rewarded by gaining access to another task that is also almost too easy to fail. The process creates the illusion of achievement. His point is that he’d like to play more skill based games, which he thinks would provide a more “authentic” level of achievement because you have to practice them and master a skill.

The skill, of course, being mashing buttons in a particular way.

Which brings me to my thesis, which is that he didn’t go nearly far enough.

The article is surprisingly interesting, and his point cogent, but there’s a whole meta discussion that he seems to have missed: regardless of whether the video game you’re playing is skill based or treadmill based, it’s still a video game. Far be it for me to judge a person’s choice in entertainment media, but no one who watches reality TV labors under the illusion that they are achieving anything substantial. Any achievement in a video game is a “fake achievement.” And video games aren’t alone.

The Social Pathology of Fake Achievement

The game article, and the meta discussion surrounding it is actually part of an even larger discussion that affects more than just video gamers. Games are just a minor symptom of a systemic disease:

  1. Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!).
  2. Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.

Why work hard for achievements, when you could relax and achieve the same? That’s not pathological, that’s how exponential progress works.

But why achieve at all when you can plug into any number of “achievement games” and get the same personal satisfaction? That’s when it becomes pathological.

Misaligned Incentives

Two days ago I got a call from the vice principal of my 5th grade son’s school.

My little guy can be a handful, but at school he’s an angel. Teachers love him, he always behaves. Except this time: he stole $10 out of a classmate’s backpack. So he’ll be getting punished, but there’s a line I need to walk here. I punish him for stealing to disincent him from stealing. But the true effect is to disincent him from getting caught stealing. His options for that are to actually stop (which I want), or just get better at it (which I don’t want). So the trick is to figure out a punishment that will make him think twice about stealing, but not one that will just make him more savvy.

Similarly, by creating profound pressure to achieve, our society has sprouted ways to exploit that insatiable drive by setting up “games” that simulate achievement, but that are actually meaningless.

Examples of Games

Gradubation

One salient example is our education system. Like a role playing video game, one educational challenge leads to the next, with each challenge being trivial for the people who are at the right level to undertake it. After years on a treadmill that’s too easy to fail at, players—students, in this case—are acclimated to the game of education, rather to real achievement. Their work for those years is not valuable at all, and often doesn’t even simulate what valuable work would be like: they have only managed to repeat patterns they’ve been shown back at the educators. This is the game. One possible side effect of this system is learning.

Even learning, when it really does happen, is not itself an achievement. Learning just tends to promote achievement because a prerequisite for many achievements is knowledge.

The only saving grace of the system is that education, while not directly fostering learning (which doesn’t directly foster meaningful achievement), tends to promote both as one of the possible side effects.

Another great example of a game that has an achievement side effect is money. People are rewarded for acquiring money, because money acquisition tends to promote achievement. Achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to money, and just because someone has money doesn’t necessarily mean they achieved anything. Again, achievement just a correlation—a possible side effect—of money.

How to Recognize Fake Achievement Treadmills

The good news is that these little “achievement games” are fairly easy to recognize once you realize what’s going on. The bad news is that more are cropping up at an alarming rate, sped largely by the intertubes.

Games fast becoming standard are the “followers” and “friends” games for example. Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, et al, all have their own ostensible raison d’etre, but the psychological underpinning they all share is this treadmill of achievement. This accumulation of points that’s correlated with whatever the intended benefit of the service is.

This explosive growth in “achievement porn” is why it’s more important than ever to get your mind right about what you’re doing with your life and why you’re doing it.

Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life?

The easy part to culling the bullshit is to ask yourself: Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life? Is it a real, true prerequisite for a tangibly effective activity? Alternatively, am I totally okay with doing this just because I like doing it, laboring under no illusion that it benefits me or anyone else?

The hard part is ignoring the voice in your head that will definitely crop up should you discover that you’re on a meaningless treadmill. That voice will tell you all the really great benefits of your bullshit treadmill in an attempt to convince you that it’s meaningful.

I know that voice will pop up because like every bullshit treadmill that exists, it exists because it’s correlated with something we consider “good”. Just like punishment is correlated with good behavior, education is correlated with scientific advancement, and money is correlated with value, your treadmill of choice is correlated with something good too:

  • With Facebook it’s “reconnecting” or “staying in touch.”
  • With Twitter it’s “influence.”
  • With WarCraft it’s “forming friendships.”

The fact is that each of these correlations are pretty much true, but none of them are necessary, and they are almost never optimal. People had influence before Twitter existed. In fact, Twitter influence is a sorry substitute for robust influence over devoted followers. Close friendships formed before World of WarCraft came out, and the fact is that there are far better ways to connect with people for the purposes of forming friendship.

If you like these things because they entertain you and relax you, fine, more power to you. I have a 110″ inch screen in my media room that I play games on a couple hours a week, because I think they are fun. But don’t delude yourself: they are bullshit. They are treadmills that are impossible to fail at, that exploit our deep-rooted desire to achieve, and that are sorry substitutes for whatever you’re trying to convince yourself they are good for, friendship, connections, influence, or otherwise.

Get off the treadmill. Go for a walk.