I recently listened to a podcast about the ways in which organizations are “games,” meaning structured in such a way to drive certain behaviors and outcomes or to reinforce desired behaviors by giving points for those and penalties for others. The interviewer discussed that this is particularly common in workplaces, but also in churches.

A few years ago I tried a new “mindfulness” app on my phone that presented short, guided meditations. I would listen to them on my commute if traffic was slow as a way to clear my thoughts and become grounded. Once I had done a certain number of these meditations in a specific time period, the app chimed in celebration as I leveled up, which I didn’t know was possible. Apparently, it was tracking my progress! Immediately, my first thought was, “Ha ha! Suck it, level one losers!” I’m not sure this was really the point of the app, to create a sense of superiority to others who hadn’t achieved as much enlightenment, but that’s how point systems work. When you get more points, you feel like you are winning. When others get more points than you, you feel like you are losing and eventually might lose interest in the game. In this case, I felt like the “level up” feature made the app a completely different kind of experience, and I quit using it. That wasn’t why I was using it in the first place. How do you become more mindful when you know you are being scored?

When you have a point system, it becomes really difficult to see what the experience is aside from the point system. On the other hand, when you don’t have a point system, it’s really easy to imagine you are doing better than you are, and those running the system often assume it’s working well when maybe it isn’t. After all, counter evidence is hard to find without a point system.

Points and scoring are helpful to see whether a system is successful, but points can also be deceiving. We can’t measure everything. There are many “false positives” when we rely on scoring systems to determine how well a system works. Let’s evaluate a few of them from the Church to see how effective they have been.

At some point in the last couple decades, wards began to have goals for all adults to have a current temple recommend. That’s clearly a point system. Wards can be evaluated on how “successful” they are by this one easy metric. It became the norm to only extend callings to adults who held a current recommend. I can assure you, if you are too young to remember this, that this was not a requirement for the majority of the Church’s existence. Reasons people didn’t have recommends varied greatly, but some of common reasons were: 1) not paying tithing, 2) no temple nearby so why bother, 3) didn’t have a reason to go to the temple (frequent proxy work was not the norm), 4) weren’t into genealogy, 5) had too many kids to deal with one more thing.

For a while in the early 90s, there seemed to be interest in tracking how often recommends were used, and barcodes were added to them to see how often people were going to the temple–definitely a point system. This was pretty quickly dropped, perhaps because of technologicial glitches, or perhaps because it was deemed a poor metric. Some skeptics theorized it was partly because they were running out of names and reusing them, and so the more often people attended, the more it became apparent that temple work was a waste of time (!). I’m doubtful this is the reason the barcodes were dropped since temple attendance remains a rhetorical focus at least among the leadership, and we keep building temples to make attendance easier. Dropping this tracking must mean actual attendance didn’t matter as much to church “success” as requiring a current recommend did. Members having current recommends gets the church a verbal attestation of orthodoxy and orthopraxy plus a boost in tithing. Temple attendance increases engagement, but also requires a lot of volunteer staffing and enough names that need to be worked (enter ancestry.com, stage right). Plus, it’s a big time commitment that people popping out kids left and right and holding time consuming callings might struggle to meet.

It’s pretty easy to see the fruits of tracking temple recommends and making it a point system to evaluate success. The Church is now flushed with cash beyond its wildest dreams, to the point that nobody knows how to spend it all, and the focus on orthodoxy (policing belief) and orthopraxy (policing action) has never been higher. It has essentially replaced the gospel. The attestation that all top leaders are “prophets, seers and revelators” has become not only required (it wasn’t in all prior iterations of the interview), but has completely taken precedent over studying the scriptures in our curriculum. As with my “zen meditation” app, you might say that the metric has replaced the gospel.

I could easily game that app to level up. All I had to do was let the meditation run in the background while not paying attention to it. I didn’t have to actually achieve enlightenment because you can’t track enlightenment with a point system. Likewise, you can’t track spirituality with numbers.

Here’s another example that every former missionary will know. Every missionary tracks all sorts of stats and has to set goals and then report on their performance every week in their letter to the president and in district and zone meetings. In my mission, not setting aggressive enough goals resulted in locker-room style yelling by nineteen year old boys who were put in charge. Failing to achieve your goals resulted in faux Tony Robbins style lectures from these same kids who would say nonsensical things about reaching up to Heaven and down to the people and bringing those two together or some such. It was pretty ridiculous. Visiting seventies would rant about missionaries not baptizing because they chewed gum or drank Coke or wore gaudy ties instead of conservative ones. But it was all numbers. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Nobody measured how many lives were touched, women in domestic abuse situations were supported, drug addicts were befriended and loved. I’m not saying nobody cared about those things, but how do you measure the stuff of life, the truly spiritual connections between human beings? You really can’t measure what’s important, and when you measure what’s unimportant, that quickly becomes all you can see. Did it matter how many people were baptized when many of them didn’t stay in the Church anyway? All baptisms counted equally, whether they were sincere or coerced. Did it matter how many people heard various “discussions” when it counted equally if you taught someone who laughed in your face or who had tears in their eyes, when you “taught” it to a drunk person on a bus between stops or to a family in a home?

When I talk to former Mormons who served missions, many of them still feel very positively about their missions, but when they do, it’s entirely because of that second category of success, the connections with people, the ability to serve others whose lives are so different. They loved that kind of success, usually despite the unpleasant and distracting focus on the other kind of success.

To further explain game theory, the podcast mentioned another game called Train. (SPOILERS FOLLOW) In this game you work with other players to construct a train from point A to point B that will be efficient and be able to transport a high number of passengers. You are rewarded for accomplishing various tasks. At some point during the game, it becomes apparent that the train is going to Auschwitz, and you are working for the Nazis, which wasn’t known until you were well into the game, having accummulated a bunch of points. There are two responses when players make this discovery: either they continue to play to rack up points and win the game anyway, or they stop playing because it’s a terrible genocide situation that has revealed something to them about our human condition. Part of the psychology of this game is how players deal with sunk cost fallacy. After all, they’ve gotten so many points already, it feels a shame to walk away. And it’s just a game, right? Well, everything’s a game in life. Some games should be walked away from. Train is a game you only play once because as soon as you know the secret, you can’t really play it again. It’s a game that reveals the world’s point system to the players. Some games aren’t worth playing, even when you are winning.

We are often told you can’t win if you don’t play, but sometimes winning means stepping away from the points system. You don’t become enlightened by leveling up. You might get the most points, but you don’t really win by gaming the system.

  • Can you think of things that we measure that are good indicators of true success in the Church?
  • What are things we don’t or can’t measure that are true indicators of success in life and in the Church?
  • Do you think Church members who refuse to play for points have a better or worse experience?