Gamification of pain and pleasure

Philosophy of games. What are games and why do we play them? 

An ordinary challenge becomes a game for someone when they self impose struggle. A case in point: if you take an Uber to complete a marathon, then you are not playing the game. Bernard Suits (philosopher and author of The Grasshopper) summarises eloquently — "playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."

In real life, most of the challenges people face are too big , too small or plain boring. But games on the other hand have been manicured to create a challenge worth doing. Gamification allows one to tweak the constraints to maximise satisfaction. The journey of our struggle with agency make this an awe-inspiring experience.

Key takeaway. We volunteer to engage in certain challenges — motivated in the process of overcoming certain obstacles.

Neuroscience of rewards. How does the pain and pleasure balance work ?

One of the most significant findings from neuroscience shows that the same parts of the brain processes both pain and pleasure. The pain-pleasure circuitry directs us to work very hard so that we return to a balance state (neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio refers to this as “homeostasis”). This explains why we may experience Monday morning blues following a fun-filled weekend.

Anna Lembke (Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University) illustrates the pain-pleasure balancing act with the analogy of a weighing scale. When we feel pleasure, the balance tips one way and when we feel pain, it tips in the opposite direction. With any stimulus moving us towards pain or pleasure, there will be an equal and opposite drive to the other side. 

Key takeaway. When we get a lot of pleasure from an experience — our reward circuitry balances this with a pain response and vice versa.

One of the great pleasures of games is they simplify the meaning of life — C. Thi Nguyen (Philosophy professor at University of Utah)

Gamification of life. What do conspiracy theories and Fitbit trackers reveal about human nature?

We often carry too many values and it is incredibly time consuming to consider them for every decision we make. As the idea of bounded rationality has it, we don’t have the cognitive resources to evaluate all our values. However, in a game, we have clarity of values since we all agree on the point system. Conspiracies often tap into this innate desire for sense making as they offer us a simplified explanation of the world. It’s not just conspiracy theorists who like games; the concept of gamification is widely adopted by many technology companies.

Fitbit is renowned for their outstanding gamification by simplifying fitness into straightforward challenges like daily step counts. An unintended consequence of simplistic values on platforms like Twitter is that: people’s pluralistic values are squashed into narrow metrics of likes and retweets. This oversimplification may not always represent our true values.

Key takeaway. We like to have simple rules of engagement — this account of gamification explains our "motivational stickiness" to numbers.


Games: Agency As Art (book by C. Thi Nguyen)

Mindscape | Games, Art, Values, and Agency (podcast)

The grasshopper (book by Bernard Herbert Suits) 

Huberman Lab Podcast | Dr. Anna Lembke: Understanding & Treating Addiction (podcast)

Nguyen, C. T. (2020). Echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Episteme, 17(2), 141-161.

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