I'm looking for a word, expression, or more succinct phrase that captures the idea of taking something that did not start as or was not originally intended to be competitive, and making it into a competition.


"The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they ______."

It is a similar idea to "weaponization" of something - taking something that wasn't intended to be used as a weapon and transforming it into one.
"Competitionization" doesn't really hold water, nor does adding "-ization" to most of the synonyms for "competition."

Is there an appropriate word?

  • '..., but the competition soon hotted up.' Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 17:25
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    ... but it degenerated into competitive machismo.
    – k1eran
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 20:38
  • 1
    Do you know that when you embed text into a block, you no longer need to quote them? You could but the point of the text block is to help to not needing any longer use quotes. Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 6:51
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    @BlessedGeek, I would have thought that also, but someone decided to edit my question for me, and I chose to ignore rather than "turning it into a competition." (Though here, actually, "escalate" would work also.) Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 11:51
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    "Stack Exchange" is two words. Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 18:42

11 Answers 11


A term for taking a task and turning it into something resembling a game is gamification. Stack Exchange exploits this paradigm by awarding points and ranking the contributors in each space as well as answers. Answers are also tied directly to each contributor.

Merriam-Webster defines it as:

the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation

  • 4
    Oooh, that's so close, and very accurately describes SE's paradigm. The itch I still have involves the participants (rather than the designers) gamifying something. I love the answer, though, because it (a) describes the SE paradigm perfectly, and (b) made me think even more about what I'm really asking about, so I can improve my question. Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 17:16
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    That's a great word but gamifying something is intentional, added by design or as part of good parenting. Original question seems to be more spontaneous.
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 21:49
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    @Criggie Yes, I don't think it's the right answer, especially after the edit. I understand the request. There's not a single easily-understood word for every situation, maybe because males will tend to make things into a competition naturally. Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 22:49
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    I don't think gamifying is quite the same thing as turning things into a competition between individuals. A lot of gamifying is to make things more like one-player games.
    – David K
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 3:43
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    I'm going with this as the answer, because I found a company specializes in gamification (bunchball.com), and read more about it there. While it seems that gamification is typically purposefully enacted by people other than the participants, I can't find evidence that it couldn't be done spontaneously by the users/participants. Thank you all for elucidating and thought-provoking discussion. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 2:40

It can be expressed relatively succinctly using the term escalate.

"The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they escalated it into a competition."

"The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but it escalated into a competition."


escalate VERB

1.1 Make or become more intense or serious.
[no object] ‘the disturbance escalated into a full-scale riot’
[with object] ‘we do not want to escalate the war’

‘Soon enough playful shoving escalated into an all-out war, which ended with Alex tackling Jamie to the floor.’

‘When you've made your point and the other party has made his point, please do not escalate it to a never-ending heated discussion.’

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    I disagree. There is a sense of change, not escalation, required. Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 19:06

You could say that the learning exercise devolved into a competition:

to gradually go from an advanced state to a less advanced state

The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but it quickly devolved into a competition.


  • 2
    +1. You use devolve whenever an activity with a purpose starts to lose sight of that purpose and turns into something undesirable. In this case, one can assume that turning it into a competition easily makes them pay less attention to the finer intricacies of correctly using the skill they're supposed to learn. Thus, the training devolves into a competition.
    – detuur
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 22:15

Succint it is not, but far and away the most apt (and I daresay widely known) expression is "turned it into a pissing match (or pissing contest)." (Credit due to new user Robert Baugh for mentioning it first.)

The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they turned it into a pissing match.

"Pissing match" is defined by wiktionary as "a pointless competition, dispute or conflict, often over some trivial matter."

If you're open to a still more vulgar expression that is (normally) applied to men, especially in the case of absurd displays of machismo and braggadocio, you can use "turned it into a dick-measuring contest."

Alternatively, if brevity is more important than use of an established term, I suggest "competify/competification," both of which have seen some limited use but don't yet seem to be "official" words (they haven't even made an appearance in Urban Dictionary yet). I suggest these because they follow the word formation patterns and general meaning of gamify and gamification.

The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they competified it.

To lend the word just a bit of credibility, here is one of the few examples in which it actually has been used within the same context:

My wife's classmates were children of writers ... Columbia academics, publishers, doctors, and lawyers as well as socialites and product brand names -- most of whom have largely been replaced in my daughters' classes by the children of people in the financial industry. This clearly mirrors what has happened in the city itself -- banking, providing never-before-imagined levels of cash flow and vastly scaled-up net worths, has changed these schools as it has changed (sleeked up, amped up, intensified, competified) Manhattan life.

Source: New York Magazine, "The Price of Perfection" by Michael Wolff


I think any of the suggestions above for a verb plus competition (e.g. made it into a competition) would be fine and expected. However, if you really want a single word, there are a couple of existing words that might work.

Rivalize may be closest; it can mean something quite similar to what you describe. From Oxford Dictionaries:

rivalize (also rivalise)

no object With in, with. To enter into rivalry; to compete.

If your firefighters have rivalized, then they have entered into rivalry and begun to compete (with their fellow firefighters), thus turning a neutral exercise into a competition.

The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they (soon) rivalized.

Although the term is generally not used with an object, you could also stretch the term to rivalized the exercise and I think would be well understood.

Finally, adversarialization is a term that sees some use in a legal context1, and that might suit your purposes.

The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they adversarialized (it).

This term typically refers to "getting lawyers involved"—i.e., moving a discussion, negotiation, or dispute into the adversarial system. But it seems that it would work for any situation where a once-non-adversarial activity becomes adversarial.

1 For example,

The principal complaints center upon the adversarialization of the proceedings that proceeds from growing lawyer participation in the process.

(Thomas E. Carbonneau, Arbitral Justice: The Demise of Due Process in American Law, 70 Tul. L. Rev. 1945, 1959 n.42)


but the trainees turned it into a competition.

but the officers treated it more like a competition.

May we change the point of view?

but it quickly morphed into a competition

but it veered into a competition

("It" refers to the exercise.)

but the trainees' competitive spirit kicked in and it became a fight to the finish.

but the trainees found themselves competing to see who could complete the drill the fastest.

but the "Pearl Harbor" team challenged the other teams to see who could complete the course the fastest (or turned it into a challenge).

but the "Pearl Harbor" team injected some testosterone and the drill became a race to the finish line.


I would say they locked horns:

to become involved in something such as a fight or competition with someone

Macmillan Dictionary


"They competed to outdo one another" is simple and to the point. This also has the benefit of being without gender connotations, especially if there are women in the cohort. If the firefighting class already had a competitive streak or pecking order, one could say "they brought their rivalries into it."

"They turned it into King of the Hill" would be a kinder colloquialism than "pissing match" if you want to play the machismo angle but avoid the minor vulgarity.


You might consider one-up:

do better than (someone).

"he deftly one-upped the interrogator"

Other forms are one-upping or one-upper.

The purpose of the firefighters' training exercise was to learn a new skill, but they started one-upping each other.


The word which came to my mind is "game" (but gamification I would avoid as it suggests a mechanical conversion process).
I work with multiple-handicapped children and I am coming to understand that games are important for social and emotional learning. Games are especially important when able-bodied kids join our class as helpers or peer buddies. The change and improvement in their regard toward the handicapped kids I work with is genuine and touching. During a school year, you can see how the kids play with each other change as the kids move along developing more sophisticated thought processes.

How about your remembering the original event you observed and describing in more detail what happened. Was it fire fighters? What would you say was the emotional or physical bond or skill being practised? Was it a physical activity or a social activity? What is the motor skill being practised? What did the players say? Was it an activity with a haptic component? Did the activity cause anxiety or excitement in the participants?


Whenever men gather for whatever activity, the alpha males, who only know how to relate through competition, will turn the event into a 'pissing contest'.

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