Gamers are abandoning reality in droves. The real world can’t compete. Instead of criticizing gamers, why don’t we try to make reality more compelling.
A life spent buried in video games, scraping by on meagre pay from irregular work or dependent on others, might seem empty and sad. Whether it is emptier and sadder than one spent buried in finance, accumulating points during long hours at the office while neglecting other aspects of life, is a matter of perspective. But what does seem clear is that the choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life. And a society which regards such adjustments as fundamentally unfair should be more tolerant of those who choose to spend their time in an alternate reality, enjoying the distractions and the succour it provides to those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game.
Csíkszentmihályi argued that the failure of schools, offices, factories, and other everyday environments to provide flow was a serious moral issue, one of the most urgent problems facing humanity. Why should we needlessly spend the majority of our lives in boredom and anxiety, when games point to a clear and better alternative?
What makes a game?
…a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.
- goal / purpose (with hope for success)
- rules / constraints
- feedback / progress
- voluntary participation
(Games can have goals without wins eg in tetris the goal is to see how many points you can score.)
(Many modern games don’t have explicit rules. Instead, part of the fun is figuring out the rules by interacting with the system. This was difficult in pre-digital games.)
These conditions seem neither sufficient (eg doing pushups, practicing math problems, coding in my spare time don’t fit the game schema) nor necessary (what is the purpose of Garry’s mod? do kids playing house have feedback or goals?).
I notice that clearly defined goals and good feedback are also big features in the learning/expertise literature. What if the causality is in the other direction - our motivation systems prefer those because they are good for learning/optimizing?
Eustress - stress under these conditions can be a positive experience. Amped up rather than stressed out.
The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.
People are cultured to want leisure, but many typical leisure activities are actually mildly depressing (as measured by experience sampling).
Depression defined by:
- pessimistic sense of inadequacy
- despondent lack of activity
depression may be an adaptive mechanism meant to prevent us from falling victim to blind optimism—and squandering resources on the wrong goals.11 It’s to our evolutionary advantage not to waste time and energy on goals we can’t realistically achieve. And so when we have no clear way to make productive progress, our neurological systems default to a state of low energy and motivation. During this period of mild depression, Nesse theorizes, we can conserve our resources and search for new, more realistic goals. But if we persist in pursuing unattainable goals? Then, Nesse proposes, the mechanism kicks into overdrive, triggering severe depression.
The opposite would then be:
- optimistic sense of our own capabilities
- invigorating rush of activity
Well-calibrated challenge promotes this kind of experience.
Kinds of work that can be enjoyable:
- high-stakes work eg tournament finals
- busy work eg colouring books
- mental work eg puzzles
- physical work eg sports
- discovery work eg exploring game worlds, figuring out rules
- team work eg raids
Autotelic work = self-motivated. Much more resilient to hedonic adaption than extrinsic rewards like wealth or fame.
What if we have a clear goal, but we aren’t sure how to go about achieving it? Then it’s not work—it’s a problem. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having interesting problems to solve; it can be quite engaging. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to satisfaction. In the absence of actionable steps, our motivation to solve a problem might not be enough to make real progress. Well-designed work, on the other hand, leaves no doubt that progress will be made. There is a guarantee of productivity built in, and that’s what makes it so appealing.
If failure feels random or passive, we lose our sense of agency—and optimism goes down the drain. As technology journalist Clive Thompson reminds us, “It’s only fun to fail if the game is fair—and you had every chance of success.
Author groups positive psychology findings into four areas:
- satisfying work
- experience (or hope) of success
- social connection
- meaning / being part of something greater
the single best way to add meaning to our lives is to connect our daily actions to something bigger than ourselves—and the bigger, the better. As Martin Seligman says, “The self is a very poor site for meaning.” We can’t matter outside of a large-scale social context.
Perhaps the flood to games is a reorientation towards intrinsic rewards.
As long as we are regularly immersed in self-rewarding hard work, we will be happy more often than not—no matter what else is going on in our lives.
Fiero = triumph over adversity. Universal physical expression - arms over head and yell.
I’m sympathetic to the overall goals of this book. But I think that it has identified many features of fulfilling tasks, noticed that those also sometimes occur in games, and then thoroughly confused the two. In particular, it’s surprising that a book on gaming doesn’t discuss play or playfulness, and that many play activities don’t meet it’s definition of a game.
I’m also really dubious of the assertion that adding points and achievement badges to everyday activities doesn’t risk moving the focus back to extrinsic rewards. This is by far the most common form of gamification that I encounter and I often find it uncompelling. Which is strange, because things like climbing pyramids or ELOs do work for me and on the surface they seem similar. Where do they differ?
- they provide a strong assessment of a complex skill
- they measure something that I am already sufficiently motivated to train
- they add information that I didn’t have before
- they relate to goals that I set myself and that are intrinsically meaningful to me
An app that gives me achievement badges for not eating icecream doesn’t hit any of those. It’s cargo-cult motivation.
Lastly, I think the books quick dismissal of game addiction verges on dishonest. My personal experience is that most modern games fall far more towards ‘mildly depressing leisure’ than ‘engaging fulfilling activity’. And this is not helped by the deliberate attempts at creating addiction eg the netflix-style countdown towards automatically joining the next game, which has no purpose other than to avoid a convenient stopping point. I’m sure I’m not the only gamer to have the experience of wanting to stop playing a game but being compelled to continue for hours more, long past the point of enjoyment. That’s not what I want for reality.
Overall, I’m onboard with making reality more engaging and fulfilling, but very suspicious of uncritically borrowing too much from modern gaming culture. Not out of reflexive disregard for video games, but because I have going on three decades of very mixed experiences with gaming. Maybe let’s filter it through what we know about positive psychology and addiction first.