Well-designed games, more than any other form of entertainment, directly hack into our motivational substructures. They play into our desire to achieve status, collect things, complete tasks, explore the unknown, solve mysteries, be powerful, and make tangible progress (otherwise known as “leveling up”).
Video game theorist Ian Bogost explores and satirizes this aspect of games with his Facebook metagame Cow Clicker. The game is maximally minimalistic; all you do is click on a virtual cow at regular intervals (the game that Cow Clicker satirizes, Farmville, is a mass social networking game phenomena with more users than Twitter, netting hundreds of millions in revenue for its creators). Bogost states that his game “distills the social game genre down to its essence.” His point is that game architecture can be distilled into simple psychological tricks the designer uses to engage the player. In a well designed game, these tricks are used with brutal (or in some cases, subtle) effectiveness, and the game is hard to stop playing. Some game designers have even been accused of making their games too addictive.
A good game cleverly manipulates us, playing on our various urges (competition, avarice, curiosity, desire for completion or closure). In the context of the game, our skills are a good match for the tasks at hand, and rewards are frequent and well-timed. Real life, on the other hand, is messier. Our skills are often a poor match for the tasks at hand; what we need to do is often too easy (and therefore boring) or too hard (and therefore intimidating). Rewards come unevenly and sometimes apparently randomly; we can work diligently for years or even decades and the world will basically shrug at us. At other times, we can’t believe our good luck, and don’t feel worthy of the good fortune life bestows upon us.
Are there ways we can apply the motivational energy (or dirty tricks, depending on how you look at it) used by video games to our real lives? This is one area where I completely agree with game designer/theorist Jane McGonigal (I discussed her recent thesis in my last post); I think we can. McGonigal gives a brilliant example of this technique when she describes how she recovered from a debilitating concussion. What else can we do to “reverse hack” the tricks video games play on our minds?
1) Understand Your Character
Consider the type of games you most like to play — you’ll probably see a common theme, or themes. At the same time, other types of games do nothing for you. The aspect of taste that relates to genre (swords & sorcery vs. space opera, for example) is less significant; what is more notable are the kind of things you are required to do as a player. Are you building an empire? Exploring unknown lands? Strategically allocating resources? Mastering tactics? Solving mysteries? Do you prefer head-to-head competition against other players, or collaboration towards a common goal? Good vs. evil or a more nuanced moral landscape? Zero-sum or everybody can win?
I prefer empire building games. In real life, I’ve only had limited success building any sort of empire (for example, in twelve years, I’ve helped take a small, obscure, independent music label and turn it into a small, slightly less obscure independent music label). Still, its something I love doing — I’m in the right field. On the other hand, I’ve never had a thing for head to head zero-sum competitive games (like first-person-shooters in multiplayer mode). Similarly, I would suck at a job that took place in a zero-sum competitive environment (say, high tech business-to-business sales, or something like that).
It would be facile to state that taste in games directly indicates aptitude in various careers, but we can gain insight into our natural motivations; the kind of work we would do even if nobody paid us. The same type of introspection might glean clues about the sort of heroic archetype we identify with (warrior, king/queen, explorer, trickster, martyr, mercenary, rockstar, mad scientist, seducer, etc.). This is valuable information to have on hand when we encounter major choice points in our life path. What kind of work, and what kind of role, feels natural?
2) Choose Your Quest
In the context of a game, there’s usually a clear task at hand. “Sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto or Elderscrolls Oblivion potentially allow us to “do anything” (within programmatic and design limitations) but there are still multiple quests that a player can accept (or not — in Oblivion you can choose to ignore the main plot line and allow the denizens of the underworld to run around the countryside wreaking havoc).
In life, there’s nobody to tell you what your quest is. Or is there? When you take a job, and work for an employer, you’re surrendering your free will to someone else for the majority of your waking hours. Your employer defines your agenda. Make this, sell that, fix this, file that, etc. Accepting a job is much easier than defining your own quest. To do that the latter, you need to consider the state of the world and decide for yourself what needs doing. You need to look within and consider what you actually capable of (and what you want to be capable of, and the distance between the two).
There are actually very few people who have any interest in deciding what happens in the world. It’s too difficult a mental task; most people want to be told what to do. Those who do want to call the shots thus end up with a lot of power.
My dad, who has worked his whole life on peace and justice issues, likes to pose the question “Who do you serve?” It’s a big question, and the answer isn’t always obvious. If you work for a publicly held corporation, you serve the financial interest of the shareholders. It doesn’t matter what you do within that corporation — you’re still serving the shareholders. If you work for a privately held company, you’re serving the owners and clients of that company. If you work for a nonprofit, who you serve depends on the mission of the nonprofit. The people you serve have their own agenda, and by default that becomes your quest.
One thing I do is design and implement databases as a freelance programmer, so in that part of my life my “quest” is constantly changing. When I was creating an application for Bonita House I was ultimately serving people recovering from psychiatric and substance use disorders. I recently completed a project for BART and was thus serving Bay Area commuters. In both cases I was sitting at my desk writing code, but my purpose changed. I think about who I’m ultimately serving when I work — it gives me the motivation I need to work through difficult problems and create an easy-to-use application. I was once offered a lucrative project from Chevron but turned it down. I didn’t want to work for those assholes.
As an entrepreneur, writer, and music maker, I make up my own quests. It’s difficult, and I sometimes feel lost. Making money is part of running a business, and entertaining your audience is part of writing and composing/producing, but there’s always more to it than that. Ideally, I want to inspire people, to have a positive influence on culture, and hopefully create and/or publish great works. It’s a tall order — in many ways the job outmatches my current set of skills.
3) Build Your Own Levels, Grant Your Own Rewards
In a well-designed game, the task at hand is usually slightly challenging (in more deviously designed games, the task at hand is often fiendishly difficult). In real life, it’s harder to find that sweet spot where you’re working at something that challenges you, but doesn’t feel discouragingly hard.
A game also offers regular rewards, directly correlated with “good play,” at perfect intervals. Real life offers random rewards at random intervals, that may or may not be correlated with our behavior. We may do great work for a company for ten years and then get laid off. We might lovingly raise a child and receive sullen teenage contempt as a prize. We might be a selfish prick and then win the lottery. We might abstain from all red meat and butter and still get a heart attack, or we might smoke a pack a day and live to be a hundred and ten. Success, health, wealth — they all have a lot to do with our choices. But they also have a lot to do with forces beyond our control.
We do generally see positive real-life results for “good” behavior, but exceptions are numerous. The exception occur because 1) what we think is good for us may not in fact be good for us, and 2) greater forces have a more powerful influence on our lives than our own behavior. Let’s say you eat only organic food for ten years. Then, Earth is hit by a giant asteroid. At that point, will your organic food eating have any positive effect on your health? No — you’ll be dead. We’ll all be dead. Okay, rewind — the asteroid misses Earth by a few hundred miles. Unfortunately, it turns out an all-natural herbal pesticide used on the organic food you’ve been eating for ten years is highly carcinogenic. Sorry we didn’t find out earlier!
My point is not that life is random, or that we shouldn’t try to improve our lives. My point is that accepting the consensus view of reality, or following other people’s rules, can lead to ruin just as easily as deliberately reckless behavior (Example 1: saving money in North Korea, Example 2: obeying orders in Nazi Germany, Example 3: following the Standard American Diet). This is why we need to think for ourselves and chart our own course through life, based on independent critical thought and careful examination of source data. We need to design our own levels.
We also need to set up our own, intrinsic reward structure if we want to stay true to our highest, most ambitious dreams. The world is not going to reward us at all for being halfway there, but we need to stay motivated nonetheless. We need to set our own benchmarks and reward ourselves appropriately when we reach our own goals.
I knew that I had “leveled up” as a writer when I completed my first draft of my first novel. I know I’ll have leveled up again when I hand someone a manuscript and get it back with a short list of mostly positive comments (as opposed to encouraging words and a long list of suggestions that demand a massive rewrite). For me that’s a better goal, for the moment, than getting an agent or getting published. I think putting lots of energy into trying to get published would distract me from what I really need to do, which is become a better writer.
How do we know if we’re on the right path? Even if we haven’t yet had wild success, we can pick up on more subtle cues. Does a course of action make you feel good? Are you getting positive feedback from the people whose opinions you value? Do you believe in what you’re doing with a fierce, unshakable conviction? Those are all good signs.
At times I have drifted through life in a fog, not thinking clearly about where my inertia was taking me. Maybe on some level I believed that my fate, or my best path, would find me. I have a much colder view of life now; if you don’t set your own agenda, your agenda will be set by those who are more ambitious than you, by those who have more foresight than you, by those who think more creatively than you, and by those who are more cunning than you. Decide what game you’re in and set your own rules, or you’ll end up a pawn in another person’s game.
You can’t completely control your own destiny (unless you can control asteroids, earthquakes, global warming, and the global economy), but if you don’t even attempt to set your own agenda then 100% of your efforts, your willpower, your money, and your skills will be put into service by others. If you’re fortunate, the people controlling you will be benevolent. If not, you’ll be just another cog in some evil empire.
Spending large amounts of time in an artificial world, controlling an avatar or playing God, can either numb us out or expand our sense of real life possibility. Spending vast amounts of time in game worlds might indicate that our real lives aren’t sufficiently motivating or stimulating. Maybe we don’t have a clear purpose (choose quest). Maybe the work we do is too easy and we’re bored, or maybe our goals are too ambitious and pie-in-the-sky (select appropriate difficulty setting and/or dungeon level). Maybe the role we play in life has drifted too far away from who we really are, and we need to reconcile the two (choose new character class).
Of course, sometimes a game is just a game.