Eettickal: If you win, you still lose: The gamification of stress

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

The gamification of suffering and stress dominated my high school years. I was so proud of sleeping for only three hours or eating only one meal a day. Why? I can’t even remember anymore. But what I do remember is that everyone around me was just as invested as me in the competition that pervaded our culture. We were all in so deep that we never realized how destructive and pointless the competition was. 

But hindsight is 20/20, and I now understand that was a terrible decision. Over the years, I did my best to change my mindset and to stop myself from making my struggles a competition. But coming to Case Western Reserve University and seeing some of my peers compete to have the most stress at an even greater level led me to reflect on why we gamify suffering and how we can reframe our mindsets so we can stop. 

It may be difficult for those of you who have never competed in this subconscious stress competition to understand why anyone would willingly participate. So to understand why, it’s important to understand what gamification is and how it works. Gamification takes day-to-day activities and adds game elements to them, such as score-keeping and competition, to encourage participation. It’s often used as a business strategy and is also applied in educational settings. While gamification in business and classroom settings is not inherently problematic, issues arise when individuals in said settings start to gamify their own personal lives. 

The biggest thing that stands out to me about games is that they are not meant to be serious. Even when they have high stakes, true games are partially divorced from reality, and the outcome generally does not have irreversible consequences on the individual’s well-being. If you were devastated by the outcome of the Super Bowl, you could still go to class the next day. Even some of the players could wake up the next morning and continue being rich and famous—regardless of how they played the day before. Their whole careers are dedicated to playing a game, but there is still a level of separation between their personal lives and their careers as athletes.

At least, that’s how I believe games should be. When activities with no monetary reward are gamified and become all-consuming of a person’s life, they cross into dangerous territory. You shouldn’t make your personal life into a game. When that boundary is blurred, the weight of an individual’s health, time, worth and identity risk becoming trivialized. The blurring of said boundary is exactly what drives people to gamify stress. People compete in academics and extracurricular activities that are often inherently tied to stress, which allows for that stress to be pulled into the game of competition. 

I propose three main reasons that people gamify their stress. The first one is for validation. Specifically, in environments like CWRU, where many students take full course loads and participate in many activities at once, the feeling of inadequacy is difficult to avoid (speaking from personal experience). There are just so many accomplished people here that it becomes painful to compare and try to compete. So in highly competitive or rigorous environments, making a game out of stress levels may allow a student to feel like they are as worthy as their classmates in their search for validity. The issue with this outlook is that it correlates stress with success. People inadvertently glorify stress and willingly seek it out. When multiple people start to seek out stressors and boast about the pressure they’re going through, competition may proliferate among their peers to the point that the collective stress of the group outweighs the success that is supposed to result from it. The energy put in is no longer proportional to the outcome, rendering the stress fruitless. While the feeling of validation is comforting, validation through stress levels can ultimately be damaging.

People may also gamify stress as a coping mechanism. Stress is an inevitable part of daily work life, and gamifying it may make it more digestible. The issue here lies in normalizing high stress levels rather than trying to proactively manage and prevent stress in more healthy manners. 

But the last reason people may make stress a competition is attention. Some people may use self-destructive behaviors to put the spotlight on themselves, and I find this to be the most dangerous reason to gamify stress. What makes this more dangerous is that individuals who make stress a game for attention are often aware of how destructive their behaviors are to their own well-being and how concerning it may be to those around them. Yet they elect to continue pursuing and vocalizing their struggles in performative ways. When the people around them remind them to sleep, eat or take care of themselves after pointing out that they’ve been failing to do so, their resistance to help and lack of desire to change their behavior can be alarming. High stress can have severe consequences, so using it to gain attention minimizes its weight. Gamifying stress for attention can distort the importance ascribed to stress, making it harder for people who don’t have a choice but to undergo stress.

The only way to remedy the gamification of stress is to distinguish between participating in stressful games and making stress the game. Instead of praising or reacting intensely to our peers’ stress when they may be provoking us to compete, we should try to reframe our minds to focus on resolving stress. That being said, stress can only be made a game when many people are trying to play, so trying to stop when the pressure of your peers goads you hard can be hard. But even acknowledging that you are engaging in competitive stress can help you leave the game. 

If I could go back and talk to high-school Enya, I would tell her that it’s not a flex to not take care of your diet and sleep schedule. Understandably, the gamification of stress is a reflection of the community I grew up in. But getting out of that mindset and space was important for me. I knew that there was no way I’d ever be the one to get the least amount of sleep or go the longest without eating—I’d lose in that regard very quickly. But even if I were to win? That’d still be a loss for me as a person. The only way to win is to end the game entirely.