Even founder Daniel Gross has a hard time explaining Pioneer. Over the course of one phone call, he compared it to Fortnite Battle Royale, Airbnb, Google, a sci-fi novel, a human accelerator, and an Ivy League campus.
Gross launched the project he claims will change the world in August 2018. Then, he described Pioneer as a bias-free search engine for human ingenuity. In newspapers, blog posts, and on television, Gross said the fund/tournament was designed to identify “lost Einsteins”—hidden geniuses with the potential to effect change—at an early stage using software and put them on the path to greatness.
Since then, tens of thousands of people from around the globe have entered Pioneer’s eponymous tournament—a convoluted, semi-anonymous online competition that uses software and game mechanics like points, quests, and leaderboards to quantify participants’ real-world productivity and incentivize behaviors Gross and his team believe are key to success. Of those, 67 participants have “won,” earning the title of Pioneer and prizes including cash, cryptocurrency, cloud computing credits, a flight to Silicon Valley, mentorship opportunities, and, supposedly, the path to world-changing genius.
To get there, they had to endure IQ tests, fake-outs, a search for the price of Mexican agave, ciphers, and demands to use more GIFs in professional emails. Pioneer distills and concentrates some of the best and worst elements of Silicon Valley into a game with real consequences: constant demand for more hustle and productivity, fierce competition, hype, and a lack of awareness of the toll on participants.
In large part, Pioneer reflects Gross’ personal experiences and interests. At age 18, he was accepted into the Y Combinator incubator, leading him from an Israeli military camp to Silicon Valley. There he created a social search startup called Cue, which was acquired by Apple for its predictive search capabilities in 2013. Early backers of Pioneer include payment processing firm Stripe and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.
Gross is admittedly obsessed with gamification—the dopamine-inducing mechanics like point totals and achievements that lure users back to videogames and social media. He has a Google Scholar Alert for the term and lauds its drug-like potency in public and private. “Gamification and points systems simplify the world,” he says. “They give people focus.”
He says he appreciates the dangers but shrugs off apprehension about the ill effects of gamification and the quest for attention on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Asked whether Pioneer has worked with researchers who study gamification and its ethical implications, Gross chuckles. Sure, he reads academic studies, he says, but for now he and the company must focus on ensuring its existence and expansion.