How Communal Gameplay Helps (And Hurts) Us During a Pandemic

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I first started my career at a company called SCVNGR, whose core product was a location-based mobile game. Although the company pivoted to become LevelUp – a mobile payments company acquired by Grubhub for $390m in 2018 – I really associate most of my time there with gaming. Something that really fascinated me during that experience was learning about the psychology of gaming and game mechanics, and how they are used to influence behavior. For example, in most games you play, you earn various rewards or tokens along the way, which are designed to motivate you to keep going. After all, we like when we are rewarded.

One game mechanic in particular that always stuck out to me was at the intersection of what is called “communal gameplay” and “free lunch.” Communal gameplay encourages people to form mini-communities in a game. Think of the guilds that are formed in “World of Warcraft” as probably the most notorious example. The “free lunch” dynamic is one where people become more excited about an outcome because they perceive that other peoples’ effort gets them something for free. The example that probably makes the most sense here is Groupon. A Groupon deal does not “tip” unless enough people buy the deal. In this way, an individual is led to believe that it is the effort of everyone else who “tip” the deal that allows them to have such a great deal in the first place. They say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but when you see hundreds of other people buying the same deal as you, it makes you believe that they are all going down on the ship with you if it ends up being a ruse. This builds confidence in buying the deal, because you will not be alone in your suffering if for some reason it ends up being a hoax.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have found these game mechanics to be both helpful and harmful. I think the ways in which they are helpful are fairly obvious. For one thing, we are all in this together. The sacrifices that most people are making – foregoing their usual day-to-day activities, gathering with friends and family, wearing masks – feel all the more tenable to us because we feel as though we are contributing for the greater good. We also know that everyone else around us is suffering the same circumstances. In that way, we do not feel alone in this; in fact, we feel united by it. Every time I hop on a Zoom call with a client or prospect, we always start out by lamenting how the COVID lifestyle is going before we move on to other things.

Realizing that we are part of a greater whole is a powerful unifier. For me personally, it has afforded me an opportunity to connect with a lot of people more deeply than I would have otherwise, even though I am not seeing them. For example, I have been leading a virtual workout I jokingly dubbed “KirchFit” since late March, and I frequently see several co-workers and close friends every day to suffer together. Prior to the pandemic, I hardly if ever worked out with any of my friends. I used to go to a boutique gym down the street for their high intensity interval training classes, and because I was going alone, I was always paired up with a random stranger who I would never see again. My family also started doing a weekly Facetime call, which is something we had not been doing previously. Even though the same questions tend to get repeated every week (e.g., what are you watching on Netflix, what are you making for dinner, etc.), it is still the type of thing that we might otherwise have taken for granted if not for a mutually-impactful event that motivated us to gather, albeit virtually.

However, I have become distressed to see that what should have been an obvious unifier has become a ripe opportunity for further division and stress. There is indeed something dark about the reality that we feel better to know that everyone is suffering, not just us. Of course, most of us do not consciously walk around desiring ill effects for the people around us, but it is nevertheless soothing to know you are not alone in feeling solitude or pain. Knowing that your suffering is not unique to you makes you feel that you ought to be tougher; after all, if others can get through it, so can you.

A natural extension of this selfish phenomenon then is naturally a desire to “one up” other people. It is no secret that social media has had devastating effects on the mental health of millennials and Gen Z. Quite frankly, when you only see the best moments of other peoples’ lives, you start to compare yourself to those other people and maybe you start to feel lousy about yourself. What ensues is this desperate climb to re-assert oneself, and unfortunately, that inevitably comes at the expense of other people.

What do I mean by this? Well, for one thing, the pandemic – which should have been a common enemy – was immediately politicized. Every single thing about the pandemic has been politicized. Whether or not to wear a mask has become politicized, with left-leaning individuals exercising caution and right-leaning individuals tending to throw caution to the wind. Whether or not the vaccine will be effective (or even well-intended) has become politicized. Meanwhile, it has become appropriate to gather in close proximity with many people as long as you are protesting for social justice causes or celebrating a Democratic victory in New York City; however, if you are an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, such gatherings are frowned upon. Even much-needed stimulus checks were put on hold until the election was over for very clearly politically-motivated reasons.

My social media feed is no better. I have been aghast at the reaction of people on both the political right and the political left since the end of the election. My friends on the left suggest that there should be no unity with anyone on the right, declaring that they are KKK members, Nazis, murderers, rednecks, and what have you – seemingly having learned zero lessons from the past four years or even just from studying the demographics of the election just two weeks ago. My friends on the right, meanwhile, claim there has been widespread voter fraud with zero meaningful evidence, believing that coronavirus was a ploy by the political left to rig the election. In both cases, empathy and nuance are nowhere to be found: you are either all in on one side or the other, and if you are in the middle like me, you are perceived as having no spine.

At the risk of sounding nihilistic, this leaves me feeling despair. If a global pandemic could not unite us, what can? The tremendous division between us has only worsened. It seems as though people on either side are intent to dig their heels in and point fingers at other people. It is the only thing that can make them feel better about themselves in such a difficult time. It is also the easiest thing to do. The hardest thing to do is to sit back and be less interested in being “right.” The best conversations I have had were when I really listened to someone and got to an agreeable outcome through a rooted interest in understanding. It takes a lot more time to get there, but it’s also several orders of magnitude more rewarding. Unfortunately, it feels like there are very few people who have the patience any more to get far enough to get there. There is zero accountability for the failings of anyone’s own ideas. After all, to be accountable to one’s own hypocrisy is just adding to the laundry list of problems we already face.

Do yourself a favor. Find a family member or friend and go out of your way to tell them when you were wrong about something lately. You might be surprised about how happy it makes you both.

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