J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

On Video Games, Motivation, and The Psychedelic Realization

Is the cake a lie?

Jane McGonigal has some provocative ideas about the potential benefits of video games.  Her TED talk is a good introduction to her thinking, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Young people in countries with strong “gaming cultures” (think U.S. or South Korea) put some serious hours into gaming (especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft) — hours roughly equivalent to total secondary school education.
  • The massive amount of time invested in virtual game worlds causes a permanent shift in psychological makeup, generally for the positive.
  • The qualities developed in these uber-gamers include a sense of “urgent optimism,” the ability to “weave a strong social fabric,” the enjoyment of “blissful productivity,” and the experience of “epic meaning” (she explains all of these terms in the TED talk linked above).  All in all video games create “super-empowered hopeful individuals” (at least in the context of their games worlds).
  • These positive qualities can be harnessed and used to solve real-world problems, via the use of “world-saving” games that promote social awareness and include real life actions (one example is a “peak oil” game designed by McGonigal that encourages players to make changes in their real lives that will reduce their real life oil consumption).

I found McGonigal’s talk to be thought-provoking and refreshing.  I think she may be on to something, but overall I find her views to be Panglossian.  McGonigal sees the millions of hours we collectively spend in game worlds as an escape from real-world problems and suffering.   She seems to overlook the possibility that video games themselves might be a causing real problems.

Gamers, hard at work solving the world's problems.

Well-designed video games can be so addictive that susceptible types (myself included) can be pulled in to a degree that will appear, to any dispassionate outside observer, to be excessive, destructive, and possibly demented.  More so than other forms of entertainment (novels, movies, magazines, etc.), it is easy to lose entire work-weeks to video gaming.

Some of the arguments against video gaming are bogus.  Playing FPS (first person shooter) games will not turn your child (or you) into a real-life criminal or sniper.  On the other hand, real life psychopaths probably are drawn to psycho games, presenting us with a quandary not unlike that faced by the early believers of Calvinistic predestination (they who are saved will act with virtue — because that’s the only way you can know!).  Generally, though, I go with the “virtual violence as catharsis” hypothesis; violent entertainment doesn’t make us more violent in real life, and may in fact function as a harmless release valve.  For adults, anyway.  When I was little, my mother had a pretty good argument for not letting me watch Batman (one of my favorite shows).  Immediately after watching (or sometimes even during) I would reenact the fight sequences, pummeling on my little brother while yelling “POW” and “BAM.”  I called it “playing Batman,” but neither my mother or brother were buying it.

Take that, little brother!

The valid arguments against video games are really just arguments against the overindulgence in entertainment; they can be just as easily applied against excessive TV watching or internet browsing.  From personal experience, I can testify that playing more than one or two hours of video games a day can lead to the following issues:

  • negative impact on health, specifically eyestrain, sleep deprivation, sitting too much, and poor eating habits
  • over-stimulation of the dopaminergic system (experienced subjectively as excitement and anticipation) leading ultimately to desensitization (after hours of exciting game world immersion regular life can feel a bit dull and slow)
  • social skills get rusty from lack of use — it can be difficult to have a regular conversation when your main “interface” is a keyboard/game controller and screen for most of your waking hours
  • neglect of real life responsibilities (housework is the first category to suffer, your job/career and creative work will also suffer)
  • neglect of real life relationships (not just significant others but, more sadly, children)
  • to summarize, a giant f*cking waste of time

Now, please don’t call me a hater.  I love playing well-designed video games, and I don’t intend to stop.  I’m just pointing out that the rewards tend to drop off after more than an hour or two of play on any given day, and the negatives quickly add up.

Too much of a good thing?

As an analogy, it’s enjoyable to eat a bowl of ice-cream.  It’s not enjoyable to eat a bucket of ice-cream.  It’s gross.  You feel sick afterwards, and you probably lose your capacity to enjoy the taste around the second bowl.  At that point you’re  just shoveling cold paste into your mouth.

Video games are the same way.  After a few hours, you’re not really having fun.  You’re just grinding away, addicted to virtual task completion.  It’s like work.  In fact, it’s not like work, it is work, except that you’re not getting paid.

There are exceptions to this.  I’ve had marathon sessions, where I’ve played games for a whole day, and felt burnt, but happy at the end of that day.  Elated, even.  Kind of like going to Disneyland or something — you ate too much sugar and got sunburned and stood in too many lines and got motion sickness, but you still had a really fun day.  Playing a great game all day can be like that.  So can reading 400 pages of a good novel.  Your vision might be a little blurry and your back might be stiff, but it was worth it to lose yourself in another world, to be totally immersed in a fantasy.

I spent hours wandering through pretty forests in Oblivion, ignoring *real* forests ten minutes from my house. You can't get more hi-res than real.

More often though, the physical discomfort and undone dishes and the game grinding all add up to a big not worth it.  I try to keep a two hour daily maximum on all forms of entertainment.  It’s not about self-denial, it’s about getting the most possible enjoyment out of what might in fact be a great work of art.  There are only a few games that fall into this category, so I like to savor them.  Every gamer has their personal favorites; games that were so intense that they felt transformative.  “I will never be the same again,” you thought as you watched the closing credits.  Or at least, “that was really really really fun.”  My own list includes both Myst and Riven, SimCity, CivIV, Portal, Fable 2, and Elderscrolls Oblivion.  From what I hear it will probably include Dragon Age once I get around to playing it, and I can’t wait for CivV.  I’ve never had a thing for sports games or racing games or FPS games or MMORPGs or anything from the GTA series — I’ve tried them all and there’s just no spark.  To each his own.

Shortcuts to Happiness

One of the arguments that hardcore gamers make is that their in-game experiences are just as real and valid as what non-gamers call “real life” experiences.  There is some validity to this argument; if our minds are engaged and we’re feeling happy and we’re not hurting other people, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with spending dozens of hours every week playing games (or engaged in other kinds of entertainment).  Is gaming, in fact, a possible shortcut, or more direct route, to happiness?  Could the same argument be made for reading or watching films?  What’s wrong with escapism?  Maybe “reality” is overrated.

What did Leary's McLuhanesque catch phrase mean exactly?

Timothy Leary made a related argument in the 60’s, with his suggestion to young people to “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out.” What he meant, more or less, is that it’s unnecessary to follow the conventional social pathways or engage in the “rat race” in order to get the “feel good” rewards of social status, wealth, etc.  Instead, you can tap into those “feel good” rewards directly, via the expansion and exploration of consciousness (one route being psychedelic drugs, another being meditation and spiritual development).

From Leary’s autobiography Flashbacks:

‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’.

The important thing to realize is that we’re all engaged in what is essentially trying to get our neurons to fire the right chemicals so that we feel good.  It’s the way we’re built — there’s nothing we can do to change this.  It’s what human motivation is.  So whether we’re trying to add more zeroes to the number in our bank account, or write a hit song, or make and raise children, or get a high score in Guitar Hero, or get more Twitter followers, or remodel our kitchen, or stop global warming, or eat only organic food, or achieve “enlightenment,” or seduce a beautiful person, or become a crime lord, or become a virtual crime lord, it’s all essentially the same thing — we’re trying to feel good.  We’re trying to get that squirt of dopamine or serotonin or oxytocin or endorphin in our brains that feels like wide-awake excitement or go-with-the-flow relaxation or cozy domestic bliss or an explosion of joy or “I’m a good person” or “I’m the king of the world” or whatever is it we want to feel (or at least think we want to feel).

The difficult, circuitous routes we sometimes plan for ourselves in order to get those feel-good neurotransmitter squirts are sometimes over the top.  That was essentially Leary’s point, and it’s the essential lesson of psychedelics or meditation.  You get to open up the hood and look inside for a few hours.  Oh, that’s what’s going on inside my head.  Okay, I get it now.

Does this realization necessarily lead to becoming less motivated?  It might, if we’re suffering in order to achieve a goal that we think will make us happy in the future.  The ability to defer gratification is a useful and necessary skill, but we’re less likely to be willing to defer gratification for years or decades at a time once we realize the absurdity of “The Great Neurotransmitter Chase.”

Does this mean the kitchen is never going to get remodeled?  If everyone looks under the hood, will nothing that requires vast amounts of difficult work ever get done?  I think we’ll still work hard, because most people like to work (even if they don’t realize it).  Real world accomplishments feel good.  Overcoming difficult real world obstacles feels great.  And unless we are independently wealthy or have sufficient passive income, we also need to work in order to eat and keep a roof over our heads (regardless of our own sophisticated understanding of our own motivational substructures).  What we let go of, once we’ve had the psychedelic realization, is unnecessary suffering or toil in the pursuit of dubious imaginary rewards.  Instead, we want to enjoy the process.  We want to try to enjoy everything, because we know it’s possible.  The only thing that matters in our lives is our experience of the moment (not just the outside world via our physical senses, but also our inner experience via our mind’s eye, which can include past and future), because that’s all there is.

Vice & Virtue

What are commonly called vice and virtue I like to think of as “expenditure shortcuts” and “benefit shortcuts” (shortcuts to happiness or “feel good” rewards, in both cases).  Vices, or expenditure shortcuts, make us feel good but cost us something in terms of health, time, money, social approval, brain chemistry, or whatever.  Drugs, drinking, smoking, and gambling can potentially make us feel good (at least for awhile), but can have negative effects on our health and/or bank balances (successful professional gamblers working in smoke-free environments excepted).  Virtues, or benefit shortcuts, make us feel good but also create tangible benefits in our lives — things like meaningful work (which produces income), volunteer work (which helps other people and creates good will), recreational sports (which increases our fitness), meditation (which lowers our blood pressure), and eating delicious sustainably farmed food (which helps the environment) all fall into this category.

Most benefit shortcuts are boring and obvious.  Enjoy times with family and friends.  Eat healthful foods and keep your vitamin D levels high enough.  Get enough sleep.  Find a job or income-producing activity you enjoy (if you need money) and/or creative pursuit/volunteer work/line of research/adventurous quest (if you don’t).  Do something that makes the world a better place.  Clean your house.  Exercise, stretch, and/or do Yoga.  Meditate and develop yourself spiritually, practicing gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion.  These things aren’t always easy to do, but they’re within the realm of possibility for anyone who is willing to rearrange their life to some extent.

Video games fall somewhere along the middle of this spectrum, potentially offering some tangible benefits (improved reflexes and fine motor skills, enhanced spatial awareness, increased problem solving abilities, cooperation and team building skills) but also coming with some downsides, as mentioned above.  On the vice/virtue spectrum I would say that video games are less virtuous than novels (which expand the inner life immensely, encouraging you to visualize characters and places and experience the perspectives of people different than yourself) and more virtuous than television (which is generally consumed passively).  Exceptions are many; to complete the game Riven you have to think in a base-5 system with no zero — this is surely more brain-enhancing than a pulpy romance novel, no?

Remember this village? Right up there with Portal, Riven is one of the best thinking games ever made.

In Conclusion

Moderation is the key to transforming possible vices (video games, television, red wine, dark chocolate, etc.) into virtues.  Duh, you say.  The second part of my conclusion, that we can safely abandon “The Great Neurotransmitter Chase” and instead directly hack into our reward centers with healthful, non-destructive behaviors, is perhaps more interesting.  And great works may still be created, even if we stop flogging ourselves.

Reverse Hacking Motivation

In my next post I’ll explore how video games hack into our motivational psychology, and how we can use the knowledge gained by our choice of games and style of game play to “reverse hack” our real life motivation and increase our effectiveness.


Overcoming Our Cognitive Bias Towards Excessive Caution Using the 3rd Person View


Reverse Hack Video Game Psychology to Increase Real Life Motivation (and Why We Play Video Games Instead of Living Life)


  1. John

    This blog really got me thinking about the great neurotransmitter chase. I look forward to a conversation about this and your other blogs in the near future! See you soon.

  2. J.D, man, I do not know how you feel about synchronicity in the grand program of Reality, but I just came on to this site, after deep contemplation over how I can best serve the planet, laying spread eagle in the middle of a moist football field, on a quest for High Intelligence, and had an epiphany of a blog I can start about what I have been exploring lately, and I found this. It discouraged me for a moment because I thought I had struck an original idea, a momentary flash of Clear Light and of ingenuity, but I quickly realized it made sense considering the objective values of Truth (besides, Leary vocalized it before me, so it was not truly original).
    Then I forgot the pitiable Ego and became glad that there are other people out there devoting time and mental capacity to this exploration; we need more. Everyone. Everywhere. It is exactly what I want to write about and explore, and you do it incredibly well. Definitely going to follow and tell friends.

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