We’d just begun a family vacation this summer, when my teenager woke up barely able to swallow, with a throat raw and sore. I took her to the nearest ER, where the wait was blessedly brief. A triage nurse whisked into the examining room with a laptop on wheels and began questioning my daughter. Name? Weight? Pain on a scale of 10? The nurse was efficient, yet something was missing. During a 10-minute checklist, she never once looked at the case – the bundle of humanity (and mystery) that is my daughter.
Was I expecting too much of this moment? Checklists in medicine can prevent infections. Taking 10,000 steps a day is now a global health movement. Shaking hands for six seconds boosts oxytocin, the “trust” hormone, Jane McGonigal recounts in her TED talk on how simple game-based tricks can better our lives. Anything daunting or monumental – health, medical diagnosis, resilience – demands entry points. The lists and formulas and tips that we adore point our muddled selves in the right direction, making small but powerful changes possible. Now portable and automated, they can help the fragile roots of good habits take hold.
But are these entry points to change too often seen as endpoints today, especially when they come to us so easily, with a click and a touch? Are we increasingly sated by the checklist and tipsheet? Consider that a majority of teachers now see a link between middle and high school students’ use of digital tools and careless, short-cut writing. Most online searches consist of one query, and we tend to open just one document per search. Since the mid-1980s, Americans show a 35-percent drop in their ability to elaborate on ideas, a key measure of creativity. While briefly using my daughter’s laptop, I was taken aback to see slightly off-target word suggestions flashing above my prose – the work of her school software. How often had an algorithm’s choice eclipsed a moment of potential student musing?
Yes, we evolved to survive a threatening world by plucking the low-hanging fruit – and by using tools to extend our grasp. Shortcuts and quick fixes appeal to what psychologists call our “cognitive miserliness.” Yet in a highly sci-tech society, our zeal for efficiency and brevity become akin to Plato’s wild horses of appetite and instinct battling the charioteer of deliberation. Nearly anything cloaked in a template or metric – six seconds, three steps, nine questions – seems unarguably sufficient. Insurers now reward doctors for treating complex conditions such as pneumonia with checklists that stipulate administering antibiotics within six hours of hospital arrival, writes the cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar. “But doctors often cannot diagnose pneumonia that quickly,” he notes. “Checklists lack flexibility.”
And some walking behavior researchers – yes, they exist – are concerned by our sometimes blind faith in the 10,000 steps regimen. “This is just a guideline,” says Catrine Tudor-Locke. Not only do differing populations have varying exercise needs, but the myriad step-counting devices on the market measure “a step” in a plethora of ways, she says. In multiple ways, confidence in a magic formula is unwarranted, reminding us, as Aristotle once wrote, that versatile minds do not try to measure a fluted column with a rigid straight-edge.
McGonigal is right in asserting that we can’t condemn games wholesale as a waste of time. Content matters. A ‘game’ that inspires an elderly recluse to walk farther each day is a good thing, and surely better for us all than one filled with gruesome violence. But shouldn’t we remember most of all that challenges don’t come with clear rules, levels of play and push-button heroics? The eminent British woodcarver David Pye once wrote of automation as a “workmanship of certainty.” Once in production, the widget as product is predictable. But craftsmanship is a “workmanship of risk,” in that the process of making is uncertain, like life itself.
On that crisp blue-sky late-summer day, my daughter and I left the emergency room in great time, toting a correct diagnosis and an incorrect prescription, not knowing that ahead lay a two-week saga of three more doctor’s visits before she truly could begin to mend. As we click through checklists, apps and games that promise so much, let’s remember that games have a place in our lives, but life is not a game.