I have a hypothesis that the things we do for recreation are usually metaphors that allow us to express our caveman instincts in socially appropriate ways. The nearer an activity is to our basic hunting and gathering nature, the more we like it.
Consider golf. Until recently, I had never golfed, and was baffled by its appeal. On the surface, the game is nothing but random rules about the proper way to put a round object in a hole in the ground. I have a good imagination, but prior to taking up golf, I couldn't imagine enjoying the so-called sport. That said, as part of my "Year of Trying New Things" (more on that another day), I leapt into golf with both feet. Result: Instant addiction.
What the hell??? How could such a bizarre activity be so appealing? I needed to understand this thing. I started by mapping the components of golf to their caveman origins:
- Using clubs (Okay, that one is obvious. Humans are tool users.)
- Problem solving (Every hole is different.)
- Hunting (Locate your ball)
- Killing (Whack the ball when you find it.)
- Territorial instinct (Try to capture the green.)
- Tribal hierarchy (The handicap system)
- Being outdoors
- Mating displays (Colorful fashions for men)
We know from animal studies that random rewards are far more addictive than predictable rewards. Golf has the most random-feeling outcomes of any sport I have experienced. No matter how well you golf, you never really know what will happen after you swing your club. On those few occasions when the ball goes exactly where you intend, your brain's reward center gives you a big payoff.
Golf also has a selective memory phenomenon working for it. I had always heard golfers say they remember only the good shots, but I didn't realize how true that is. Your memories of the few good shots do in fact stay with you while the bad shots fade away. Golf has a great aftertaste.
On Friday, I golfed with family members for over four hours, and during the four hours on the course, I never once thought of anything beyond the moment. That's a big deal for me, because my mind wanders in every other context. I can watch a great movie and still organize my to-do list in my head. But on a golf course, the rest of the world stops existing, and the feeling lasts for hours.
If you prefer high octane fun, you can get more of that from soccer, tennis, basketball, and lots of other activities. Society labels golf a sport because humans need to put things into categories. But golf is a different animal. It stands alone as a simple and direct connection to your primal nature.
The takeaway here is that if you're trying to design a product, or organize an event, you'd do well to find a metaphor to our primitive nature. That's what people respond to. Everything else is just rationalization.