Our competitive drive has been ground into our consciousness as a species; it’s part of our evolution. We naturally want to do better than other people because our subconscious mind tells us we will have a better chance of survival. We see this everywhere: Advertisements tell us a product will make us better than our peers; we hold competitions like the Olympics to find the best in the world; and we strive to become the best in every way.
The roots of our competitive drive come from prehistoric times. Professor Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont (an expert on the human competitive spirit) speaks in his book Why We Run: A Natural History of “our primal, indomitable drive for perfection.” As part of our species’ evolutionary process, we were forced by natural circumstances to strive to achieve more than our neighbors, because if you didn’t your neighbors would eat all of your food. We were pressured in every way – for food, for mates, and for safe places to sleep and live.
Although in the modern day we no longer run the risk of starvation and death unless we’re in the depths of a serious World of Warcraft addiction, the competition for resources is still present in our competition for mates and jobs. At work, we chain ourselves to computers to earn promotions and better pay – resource competition redirected into the modern setting. And the success of dating websites shows that we still put in a ton of effort to find mates. Whether or not match.com is the best way of doing this is another matter, but I guess it’s better than marrying one of your father’s rich business partners.
After returning from the daily grind of the workplace, what better way to relax and unwind than by picking up a copy of Turok and having a go? Oh, no. Our competitive drive will not disappear that easily. With online capability comes the dreaded global ranking system, evoking the horrible curse of the global leaderboard. What could be worse for your competitive drive than to acquire a quite reasonable score at a game, only to find 100,000 people better than you on the global leaderboard? It’s even worse when you find your friends above you. Global rankings are terrible, like trying to pick up a girl in a bar in which every breeding male in the world hangs out. Rankings based on experience points are worse still, because you can’t spend 17 hours a day on a game, like some of the gentlemen with which you’re competing. What could crush the competitive drive more? It fills your heart with apathy to know your mightiest efforts are an insignificant speck of ice at the bottom of the great slushie of life.
On the other hand, what happens if you get a score that near the top – say within the top 50 or so? Think of that: the top 50 of the entire connected world, a level previously restricted for Olympic-level athletes. How can any self-respecting human walk away when he’s so close to the top spot? Think of the fame! The riches! The adulation of being the world’s best, well, anything. We as a culture value the best and the brightest because we’re hard-wired to.
Our tribalism has gone global and has left us with more ways to compete than ever. The internet has become the ultimate proving ground; it’s placed everyone and their achievements on display and forced young males up against more and more competition. Our culture has evolved with us. In an age when everything you do ends up on a leaderboard somewhere, you have infinite chances to prove your worth. It beats the old days, when we threw rocks at mammoths to reach the top of the heap.
Richard Thomas is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.