A lesson that keeps coming back to me is that, while humankind in general may seem quite complex versus the apes in which we apparently descended, the reality is that we’re very much driven by incentives.

If any major difference can be found between us and the apes, it’s only that the complexity of these incentives may include imagined benefits as opposed to obvious ones.

In Games

I’m playing an MMORPG, City of Heroes, and it is very much a construct of imaginary incentives.  Like most RPGs, the goal is to accumulate experience points and wealth in order to increase your power in order to accumulate even more experience points and wealth.  The backdrop of socialization with your other players and spun story of being a superhero provides a bit of an insulating buffer to not immediately realize you’re essentially a mouse chasing cheese on an artificial treadmill.

So long as you’re having fun, no real harm is done, as games exist to wile away your time in exchange for fun (and perhaps skill building) anyway. However, given the depths of my adequately insane intelligent mind, even the simple “grind” of accumulating imaginary progress was not the true incentive that came into play for me.

As I’m learning from reading The Now Habit, I was actually seeking perfection in this game as I do in all things because (to an extent) I held my characters as a very real measure of myself.   Consequently it was too tragic to accept any real imperfections in them: when the game got boring, to some extent this was a failure of the game to entertain, and to another (perhaps greater) extent it was a failure of myself in failing to produce perfection in a persona of my creation.

As I’ve recently fully submerged myself into City of Heroes once again, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t quite flexible enough to ever reach true satisfaction.  The archetypes and power sets provided run the gamut of either having far too much redundancy (e.g. the average Blaster set with 7 attacks, an aim, and a stun) or far too little potency (e.g. the Controller damage tables).  For the perfectionist, City of Heroes ensnares one with promises of flexibility, while remaining just inflexible enough for true perfection to remain out of reach.

I started an Assault Rifle/Devices Blaster out of stark disagreement with the concept of perfection or originality for originality’s sake, and was happier for the choice.  However, it was not long until I decided to give a Dark Melee/Fiery Aura Scrapper a try just because (after writing the previous paragraph) I was able to identify enough variety in the powers available that I felt I may have found a set with both variety and potency.

On Message Boards

I now realize my inability to deal with criticism, both on message boards and in personal relationships, was very much this same drive of perfectionism.  I put a great deal at stake at writing good, solid arguments that (as far as I can honestly determine) logically hang together.  When someone says something in disagreement, it’s not my message they’re disagreeing with, it was nothing less than a full blown attack on my own self-worth.

Such is the peril of perfection: a person should never find their work to be a measure of themselves.  It raises the stakes too high, and this induces paralysis to act in anything of consequence.  In the case of a message board, it brought me the motivation to hang on to a conversation far longer than seems rational, inducing chagrin and belief I’m trolling.

Yet, even in my irrational desire to defend perfection nonexistent, I reacted with (what I felt was) civility.  I engaged whatever “poor fools” would disagree with me in a logical conversation to see if there was something wrong with my perspective.  I was willing to change if I saw something out of place – such a change could only bring more perfection.

Usually the conversation failed to even get that far.  In the most cases, the person I’m explaining myself to isn’t even listening to me.  (Perhaps they didn’t feel adequate incentive to do so.)  They usually just skim each of my careful expectations quickly, and reply uninformed.  I get frustrated, and (more or less passively) begin to insult them.  Insulted, they’re even less likely to read what I was writing.  It continues to snowball into pain and suffering.

In this way, any message board flame war may by a tragic twisting of two people’s irrational drive for the impossibility of perfection – being “right” – without any possible resolution because neither participant is truly capable of reading the other’s messages.

In Very Broad Terms

Our current economical situation is also a matter where incentives have gone awry.

For example, globalization.  We start with a desire to compete with a foreign country, and given the freedom of globalization, we decide to outsource our workers in a such a way that the same job can be done for the fraction of the cost.

The immediate incentive is obvious: we’ve now a major competitive advantage against any poor fool who tries to get work done in a place with a higher cost of living.   However, the long term incentive (as we’re learning) is that there’s inadequate people able to pay the cost of what we would like to charge for our products.

An obvious solution would be a simple adjustment in incentive: government regulation that executes a tariff of sufficient weight as to make outsourcing as costly as hiring a national.  Unlike any current such regulation, this would be utterly universal, forcing companies to make a choice between supporting the people around them or basing themselves elsewhere (leaving a power vacuum in which less grasping organization could operate).

Unfortunately, our government officials have their own incentives.  Successful national campaigns are expensive, and with support come certain expectations that the candidate will rule in the favor of those who can afford it.  The rich having their hands in the pockets of those who should regulate them, there’s little hope for seeing a true solution adapted.

Plain political solutions are very difficult to employ so long as the people are wiling to take arms against anyone with the integrity and foresight to cut off short-term incentives in order to avoid ones that are long-term harmful.  Self-gratification is a deadly yet easy habit to adapt, and on the societal scale it is very persistent.

In life, as in MMORPGs and message boards, it’s hard to balance our incentives in such a way as to bring harmony.

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