Twenty-nine years ago, at the 1988 Seoul Olympic games, USA runner Florence Griffith-Joyner set two world records that are widely held to be two of the most unbeatable in history. How did she do it? What made this moment in time so miraculous?
The USA spent a lot of money developing an Olympic training center in Colorado Springs to bring the best athletes and sports scientists together to maximize our chances of grabbing the gold. She didn't train there. Actually, the running joke was that Colorado Springs was where American runners would go to end their Olympic careers.
Her trainer (me) was a 22 year old exercise physiologist who hadn't even finished his degree yet and probably wasn't qualified to get a position as a trainer at a local high school.
It would be tempting to just say that FloJo had amazing genes, an indomitable spirit, and a heart of gold. All these things were true. But to me there must have been something else. For almost 30 years this riddle has been bouncing around in my head. Then I started getting wind of new research about human physiology that was not available in 1988 and I started putting the pieces together. What do I think her secret was?
These were not any ordinary fingernails. If you Google “FloJo fingernails” you will see those four inch babies in all their glory! Right about now you may be thinking I'm crazy, and you wouldn't be the first. In fact, you might have to get in a pretty long line... But hear me out, there is a method to my madness.
FloJo's fingernails were each individually custom painted. Usually each one was different. FloJo and Jackie Joyner-Kersey (who also set a world and Olympic record in the women's heptathlon in 1988) both trained with the UCLA women's track team that year. After practice, instead of going to get some special food or do weights or roll into a sports medicine center, she sat down with the team and they painted each others' nails. For up to two hours!
I had run with much of the team since I was 16, well before I had decided to pursue sports science as a career. This team was family for me, and I think that is why they chose me to be their trainer even though there were hundreds or thousands of more qualified candidates. The oldest woman on the team, Midge (Magdalena), was pregnant that year and ran with the team during her first two trimesters. Her last trimester she trained on a bike but still showed up to practice daily.
Morale, Connection, and sense of community were incredibly high for that team in 1988 training at Drake Stadium on the UCLA campus. None of that would have existed at Colorado Springs, and the scientists there probably would have suggested that FloJo dump the nails. I knew the key to optimal performance was a careful balance between catabolism (during training) and anabolism (during recovery).
We've been doing catabolism right for hundreds of thousands of years. You get a tiger to chase you and you will have no problems with catabolism. But how to boost recovery? That question led many an athlete to go down the dark and twisted road of substance abuse using human growth hormone, testosterone, and (a couple years later) erythropoietin. One of my professors actually predicted the use of erythropoietin for performance enhancement in detail in 1989, so many knew what Lance Armstrong was up to years before he was officially “caught”.
But there was one anabolic hormone that was possibly much more powerful in its effects, both physically and mentally. We knew a lot about sports physiology at the end of the 20th Century but we didn't know about the real nature of this one hormone:
Previously thought to be a “female” hormone because of its role in lactation and pregnancy, it's now understood to be a powerful immune system booster, greatly speeding injury recovery. It also produces a very powerful feeling of euphoria that causes feelings of trust and happiness within one's “tribe” or family. This concept of tribe is critical because the same hormone can actually produce feelings of aggression towards those that are “non-tribe”, which I call xeno.
I'm convinced that FloJo had a massive oxytocin edge that year in 1988. She was the Queen Bee in a very closely Connected running family. She inspired them and in return they worshiped her. That could easily have made a 1% or even 2% difference in recovery rate compared to her competition. In elite competition, 1% is the difference between last and first place.
A proper discussion of how oxytocin and its related tribal effects affect gamer behavior and game design is too complex to discuss properly in a Gamasutra article [but I did it any ways a month after I wrote this article], and take up a full two chapters in my upcoming book on scientific methods of game design. The short of it is that oxytocin is released when we Connect to other members of our Tribe, or add new members to our Tribe. More Tribe = more oxytocin. In this way Tribe also acts as a bulwark against addiction. I believe that is because oxytocin is frankly a superior high to anything you can buy directly. Oxytocin has such a short half life that trying to have some shipped to you in a bottle doesn't work.
This is important to us because an oxytocin high can lead consumers to do a lot of risky behavior, like telling the truth, having sex, getting married, having children, or giving other people money.
Games that bring people together in a happy and friendly way are like the design equivalent to the 1988 UCLA Drake Stadium. A good example of this is Pokemon GO. Major parks around the world were filled with GO players meeting their neighbors often for the first time. It certainly had a celebratory feel. Games that foster fear and aggression between players (standard in pay to win games) suppress oxytocin and are the equivalent to the Colorado Springs Olympic training center.
As our games increasingly become sterile Excel spreadsheet affairs relying on decades old psychological tricks to trigger spending, our games are racing towards the Colorado Springs model of game design with predictable (low performing) results. The Niantic team brushed up against the Drake Stadium model for a brief moment in time, possibly completely by accident. I had given a conference talk in Saint Petersburg just months earlier predicting that the first game to do this was going to make a lot of money, without knowing that GO was in development.
I apologize again for giving just the most cursory description of the science involved here, and will rectify that soon. I am not trying to say that the science we are attempting to use now is false, just like I'm not saying the science deployed in the real Colorado Springs training site is false. It's not false, it's incomplete, ineffective, and perhaps obsolete.
Many thanks to FloJo who taught me so much, I really miss you!!! I hope you don't mind me giving up your secrets...