A game called Burning Man


Every year, about 65,000 people gather in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA, to celebrate a week of community, art, music, and radical expression. They say that Burning Man is not a festival, but an experimental community. A temporary city, purposefully created in the middle of a hostile and surreal environment, heightens the feeling that you are in an alien universe from everything everyone is accustomed to in daily life.

Burning Man is driven by 10 principles, whose most faithful followers are the ones who shape the culture of the event and inspire all who come to participate. Creating an event around principles is a recipe for a community that breathes the spirit of the event not only during the week and in that place but all year round and anywhere in the world. This is one of the reasons why Burning Man does not have a marketing budget or corporate sponsorships. Everything revolves around the community, religiously faithful to the principles, which voluntarily makes one of the most impressive events in the world happen every year, for almost 30 years.

2015 was the second time I participated in Burning Man, and it was when I noticed some properties that made me understand a little about why we are addicted to wanting to return always, and why it is so attractive to understand and live by these principles. Basically, it’s a parallel between the serendipity caused by the actions of those who embrace the principles and one of our most powerful cognitive habits, abused by game mechanics: variable rewards.

Variable Rewards

The concept is not new – it was described by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s – and certainly isn’t temporary. Skinner placed rats and pigeons in a box with a button that sometimes triggered a positive result – it released food. It turns out that we react more actively to inconsistent sequences of rewards. Double the dopamine is released if half of our actions produce rewards unpredictably. Basically, it’s what drives the slot machine industry, casual games, and what motivates you to scroll through your Facebook Instagram TikTok feed.

Burning Man is the same. During the event, you have the freedom to go out and explore an open-air museum, with people from all over the world, as your own anonymous avatar. You go in search of hidden treasures, people you would never meet in everyday life, and small ephemeral moments that will only be etched in memory. At the end of the day, you return to the camp and swap playa stories with your friends.

And what else will you find tomorrow, in this magical place?

Where is your next new friend?

What other expressionist gifts will this event give you?

We went to visit a house of mirrors, and suddenly a person dressed in mirrors arrived. What are the odds?

The Great Serendipity Factory

Over the days, you end up being inspired by all the stimuli from your “finds”, and you become a more active participant in this radically inclusive and playful culture. Over time, you see that your own gifts can inspire other people, in as varied ways as what you see around you. And so works the vicious serendipity factory of Burning Man. Just 10 principles are enough to generate infinite variable rewards.

Unfortunately, Burning Man can be inaccessible to us Brazilians, with the high dollar and the complicated logistics of moving so far away. But it doesn’t hurt to learn and incorporate the spirit of the principles to induce unexpected surprises in your own environment. What initiatives can you bring to your world, to create an addiction to serendipity?

Try this – it can be contagious.

Photos: I Hate Flash, Trey Ratcliff


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