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What I Learned Playing Mafia Wars

March 14, 2015

In the early days of social media, when my friends list numbered in the single digits and my news feed was shorter than an Op-Ed column, I flirted with Facebook’s entertainment department – more pointedly, with the massively multiplayer online role playing game called Mafia Wars. You might say I had an affair.

In the game, you build an army by recruiting other players, and strengthen it with experience – performing tasks consistent with the pop-image of modern gangsterism: muggings, car theft, extortion. As you perform these tasks you accumulate stuff which allows you to do more things.

I must admit I got into it: I joined forums and friended strangers just long enough to recruit them into my army. I performed tasks with a discipline unseen in many other aspects of my life. I even bought a monthly coffee service (and immediately canceled it, with expensive repercussions) in order to gain more playing time. But no matter what I did, there was always someone with a stronger army.

Eventually I realized I was chasing rainbows. The game had no ultimate goal, no finish line, no quantitative success beyond the dubious pleasure of performing tasks and obtaining stuff; stuff which had no purpose except to allow players to perform more tasks.

I quit Mafia Wars. I hid every game advertisement Facebook pushed at me and began using the website for a nobler purpose: posting cat and food pictures.

Around this time I joined Dropbox, a free app allowing users to access data from multiple computers. Since it’s free there’s a limit to the volume of data one can store, but there are several work-arounds for people who want extra space without a monthly fee: refer a friend, invite people via Facebook or Twitter, install Dropbox on multiple computers.

I performed the tasks to get the space so I could do more things. Sound familiar?

There was a certain pleasure to it, I must admit. A sense of accomplishment. By performing all the tasks I was maximizing my potential while minimizing my costs. That was the clear endgame, even if it wasn’t exactly a game. At least I wasn’t getting off on carjacking and fistfights, right?

But in all the time since I’ve only used 1.4% of my available Dropbox capacity. I was in essence performing worthless tasks to get stuff I had no use for, simply because the option had been presented to me.

Now I can’t look at any quantitative system without seeing it through the eyes of my Mafia Wars and Dropbox experiences. If you work harder you can make more money, which allows you to do more things. But working harder takes time and energy, so you reinvest that money instead of doing things with it, or buy toys you don’t need to justify the hard work. Then you work even harder.

Eventually you recognize the rhythm. Performing tasks, getting stuff, doing more tasks. More touchdowns equals more expectation for touchdowns. More witty memes equals more followers expecting witty memes. Promotions and raises come with their own set of demands.

But are you enjoying the ride? If you never make it to the end – if your whole life consists of nothing but the game itself – will it have been worth the compromise?

It’s a fast-paced, complex world. There are always extraneous factors that will tip our decisions one way or the other. Very few people can just walk away from the games they’ve started in this lifetime, and I’m not suggesting anyone should. It isn’t a question of redefining a successful endgame, either. We all have to figure that out for ourselves. The question we should be asking, and applying to every aspect of our lives, is: how does this task I am doing right now fulfill me? And if it doesn’t, why am I doing it?

 

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