The Winning Instinct: Why We’re Always Keeping Score

Friday, 13 Jun 2008 | 5:45 PM ET

Keeping score is a universal pastime. Although we most closely associate scorekeeping with games, the basic premise of ranking (or status) has been part of humanity since our earliest records. And while it seems obvious that games are less fun without a winner, it is also true that life is less fun without the opportunity to win.

In order to win, we need to understand some basic conditions of the game we’re playing. First, we need to know some of the rules. Second, we need to know the players, and third, we need to know the win condition(s). There are many more nuances to the definition of a game and the knowledge we must possess, but let’s use this stripped down version as a starting point.

So, what is a game? Is grabbing an empty seat on a crowded subway while others jostle to

beat you to it a game? What about accelerating down the freeway with just enough time to pass that lumbering Winnebago and still making your exit? Or perhaps ranking your child’s friends’ SAT scores or college placement feels more like a game? Or maybe it’s best expressed when you snap up that amazing item on eBay or Prized Collection (our Facebook app), beating some unknown person to the punch at the last minute.

The answer is yes. Once we perceive something as being a game, it is. And as soon as we shift into ‘game mentality’, our instinctive nature tends to take over: we play to win. It can be as irrelevant and banal as a seat on the subway or as grand and excruciating as a race for president, but once we decide to play, winning matters. It matters a lot.

My observation is that this engagement and behavior cuts across age, class, race, gender and ethnicity – although those factors may play a role in our decision to engage with a game in the first place. Though the definition of a game may vary from person to person, and across generations, the basic playing behavior is instinctive and driven by ‘signals’ in society.

While we can play games that are entirely in our own mind, the addition of a social element seems to make games significantly more fun to play. And the primary way that we socialize our gameplay is through a scoreboard: a public display of how we’re doing compared to others.

Sometimes the scoreboard is overt, as with eBay’s Feedback rating system. Other times, it’s quite unspoken, as when you’re jockeying for position with a stranger over long stretches of highway. In every case, the scoreboard gives us a quick and easy way of both understanding and demonstrating our power within the game context.

Imagine how pallid and bland our world would be without score. We’d likely have few direct games and most of our achievement-oriented efforts would cease to be interesting. Also consider the innovation and expression that have come from finding so many different ways to let people play and win. From card games to lotteries, our choices for traditional games number in the millions! Even while we engage with structured games, we play dozens of little games each day, subtly tracking our position relative to others and ourselves.

So it seems that while everything can (and might) be a game, it’s really the score we care about. From the silly to the brilliant, people seem to love playing and winning. And while we may be able to play without keeping score, it sure is hard to win in the absence of one.

- Gabe Zichermann