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Don't hate the player...or the game.

This post was taken from the weekly B-mail message sent March 22, 2022 to subscribers. Click here to get on the list.


I feel a bit silly admitting that I start and end each day playing online games.

Silly, but honest. 

In the morning, the mini crossword and that singular round of Wordle give my brain a quick jumpstart (or so I choose to believe) and at night a bit of mindless Toy Blast or 1010! eases me right out of my day. 

You, too? Don't worry, there's no shame in the game, er, game.

Games are all around us. And, as revealed in a podcast I listened to recently, we're all participating whether we know it or not. Here's a short excerpt from the episode's show notes that gives a tidy yet thorough recap:

According to the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, games and gamified systems are everywhere in modern life. Social media applies the lure of a points-based scoring system to the complex act of communication. Fitness apps convert the joy and beauty of physical motion into a set of statistics you can monitor. The grades you received in school flatten the qualitative richness of education into a numerical competition. Our desires, motivations and behaviors are constantly being shaped and reshaped by incentives and systems that we aren’t even aware of. Whether on the internet or in the vast bureaucracies that structure our lives, we find ourselves stuck playing games over and over again that we may not even want to win — and that we aren’t able to easily walk away from.

It's worth a listen if you're in the mood for a deep think. 

Relevantly, in recent weeks I've sent you messages about using data, launching streaks, improving open rates, and ideas related to better gift conversion rates - all metric-focused, "gamified" topics. Which makes this week's existential examination of our "total steps" society an ideal coda. 

It's a reminder that when we work primarily to improve metrics, we often fail to capture the most important aspects of why we do what we do. Measurements like open rates, retweets, and video views give an incomplete picture of the impact that our online content is making. And, numbers and ranks show nothing of the possible richness and depth of an organization's contributions to the people it serves.   

Indeed, perhaps none are as metric-obsessed as nonprofits. In a constant crusade to justify their existence, organizations rely on various forms of measurement to prove their worthiness. From KPIs to cost-to-raise-$100, we expect numbers to explain our impact even when numbers alone won't do. 

Here are some examples of the ways nonprofits are rated or summarized based on quantifiable metrics: 

charity watch ratings
encompass ratings
nonprofit dashboard

To be honest, the process of constantly measuring our work has always sparked a bit of an internal conflict for me. On the one hand, I readily admit to nerding out while making charts and graphs. Yet, on the other, I know that true purpose can rarely be captured in an infographic. Making a profound difference often comes down to specific circumstances and individual people - not the aggregate. 

What would a graph of one life-changing exchange look like, anyway?

If you’ve been reading my messages for a while, you’re probably familiar with what’s coming next. The part where I straddle the fence and say: I don’t mean to imply that things like KPIs and other business metrics are bad. On the contrary, they can be incredibly useful ways of keeping ourselves on track and accountable. And, in this world of ubiquitous gameplay, they are often necessary to attract funding, build our teams, and keep our jobs. But, for all our conscious and unconscious chasing of points and benchmarks, it’s important to stay connected to the intrinsic value of the work we do. To notice when measurements are arbitrary - albeit alluring - and don’t really correlate to the mission. To keep sight of the true impact our organizations make even when it can’t be displayed in badges. And, if we must all be players, to let us at least recognize that we’re in a game.


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