What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
When game designers began to leverage the networking potential of the internet to connect players together, a new layer of interaction emerged that has become a standard feature of today’s video games. Through direct competition, players were incentivized to improve themselves and achieve victory over others and were given rewards for doing so. Earning badges, ranking high on leaderboards, and acquiring skill points or other character improvements entice players to dedicate themselves to the game.
Game designers and other cultural thinkers have recognized the benefits that might come from applying these game mechanics to other things. In one of the most popular presentations on this concept of gamification, Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell illustrated the degree to which this incentive system can permeate our personal behavior.
There are numerous positive benefits gamification can bring to behavior modification—encouraging us to improve our hygiene habits, diet, exercise, study, etc. At its core, gamification is merely the encouragement of (and reward for) the completion of small tasks, each of which lead the person to the fulfillment of a larger goal. In a game, it might be the completion of a level; in real life, it might be going six months without a cavity.
There are some areas in life, however, where the obsessive focus over small tasks can be a hinderance. I suggest that this is the case with the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the broader concepts of repentance, forgiveness, faith, virtue, and service are broken down into bite sized tasks and placed on a mental checklist, it becomes far too easy to lose sight of the overarching goal and its spiritual and foundational components.
For example, by pushing everybody to complete their home teaching every month—a program whereby everybody is assigned to visit and help care for a few families in their congregation—church leaders hope to encourage service. Approached correctly, the monthly focus on visiting those assigned to our care can (and theoretically should) help us to think of others, serve them, and look for ways to meet the needs of those outside our family or social circles. But too often, the vision is lost and the checklist becomes drudgery, with a layer of soft harassment on top by those trying to encourage everybody to complete the task.
This highlights the paradoxical element to measuring and encouraging progress. We can and should break down large goals into smaller tasks; virtues and desired character traits are attained by a continuous set of precise actions. Becoming like Jesus Christ requires the fulfillment of many individual tasks, as discipleship requires that we “consistently do more of what we know is right and become better,” as Elder Bednar stated. But it also appears that it is human nature to focus on that which captivates our attention, and by focusing our attention chiefly on the smaller tasks we run the risk of becoming so myopic that we lose sight of why we started doing the tasks at all. Further, our adherence to the gospel should not be predicated primarily upon rewards received for each action performed. Blessings for good behavior are great, but salvation and exaltation is our goal.
A 1984 Ensign article drove home this point beautifully:
I count it one of the great blessings of my life that in my family we do not very often find ourselves keeping track, in a self-defensive way, of what another family member “owes” us by way of favor or thanks (or invitations or phone calls). We seldom make note of some privilege or present we should receive to compensate for what another has received so that things will be “fair.” We don’t give merely to receive a just reward. We give because we love each other and desire to serve each other. We try, consistently, to serve as an advocate for the others’ happiness and well-being. I don’t mean to suggest that lists, patterns, and rules serve no purpose; a “quiz” of some sort may be undeniably useful as a reminder or a starting point. But the actual task of being a successful parent, or husband, or wife—or Christian—requires such flexibility, spontaneity, and creativity that a list of generic suggestions can only hint at what we might wish to do. Then, as we let go of our checklist mentality, we set ourselves free to go beyond the limits of the list.
Checklist items should not become the sole (or even primary) metric of our faith in and adherence to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Discipleship should resist the gamification our culture has increasingly adopted, and stubbornly maintain focus on core concepts including faith, love, and humility. These should remain in the forefront of our minds as we cautiously carry on with the individual tasks such discipleship requires.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is predicated upon visions, both prophetic and personal. All have eyes but too few have vision, and as the proverb says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” While we should appreciate and act upon the task-based nature of the actions discipleship requires, let’s keep looking upward to Jesus Christ rather than downward at the ground immediately before us.