Life is Not a Game (But Maybe It Should Be)

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Why is it so easy to get caught up in a video game, even a complex, difficult and sometimes frustrating game, but it’s harder to study or work in “real life?” Understanding the deep dividing line between games and our “serious work” has a lot to teach us about our minds and maybe even a way to bring some of the game-world excitement into our cubicles.

Here’s an exchange that I don’t believe has ever happened and probably never will:

Teen 1: Hey, we’re having a video game marathon at my house this Saturday. We’re going to stare continuously at a screen for hours and hours. Are you in?

Teen 2: Nah, ever since I got my ADHD diagnosis, I know I can’t concentrate for very long. I think I’ll stay home.

To the vexation of parents around the world, kids that struggle with an hour of homework can effortlessly dissolve into a weekend in front of the PlayStation or XBox. It would be easy for parents to explain away this phenomenon by saying that kids just don’t care about school, and in some cases and to some degree, they’d be right. However, I know better because not so many years ago, I was one of those kids, and gaming was infinitely easier than studying even when I cared deeply about doing well in school. I couldn’t explain to them then what made the difference, but now psychologists are studying “gamification” or exactly what makes an experience engaging in the way that games are engaging. Their results could help us all do more of what we know we should be doing.

Why We Play

Video game designers depend on player engagement and enjoyment to keep games flying off the shelves. In a process not unlike natural selection, some games have captured our attention above all the rest. What do these games have that make them so compelling?

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Perhaps the most obvious and important feature of games that makes them engaging is clear and immediate feedback. High-resolution, near-photo-realistic graphics may look flashy, but they’re universally criticised by gamers if they don’t effortlessly convey to the player what’s going on this very instant in the game. Sounds and even vibrations in the controller open new channels into a gamer’s mind. When the design is right, the player immediately understands the consequences of their actions and can adjust to get a different result. How different this is from taking a test and waiting until the next week to get it back, or working for months on a project at work with little or no feedback. Without clear and consistent feedback, no wonder we’re demotivated by our classes and our jobs.

Games also offer us a way to take risks unacceptable in real life. While the content may be about danger, the actual risk of loss in modern games is very low. Originally, games gave you three “lives” and when they were gone, it was back to the very beginning for the player. These kinds of setbacks were demotivating and so have lost their place in modern gaming. With most modern games, you’re never more than a few minutes of game play away from a save point where you can consolidate your progress. With little or nothing to lose, it’s easier to trying something new or to try for harder goals.

When Roger Ebert famously wrote that “video games can never be art” the outcry against his statement was overwhelming. Indeed, storytelling has become one of the strongest draws to modern games. The massively popular Halo game franchise boasts a long cast of characters brought to life not only through the games themselves, but also in a series of novelizations. Weaving a story through a game compels players to play on to see what happens next.

And finally, almost as soon as there were home gaming consoles, there was the “pause” button. Having the power to control the pace and schedule of an experience is a fantastic advantage. Gamers quickly become accustomed to being able to skip nearly effortlessly to any point in a game, to jump over cinematic cut scenes, and to pick up and put down their game whenever they desire.

Meanwhile, Back in Reality…

My point is not to say that everything in life needs to be as fun and engaging as a game. Rather, that we have choices of how to structure our schools and our workplaces to make important work easier or harder. Remembering how important feedback is to the gaming experience, could we not make more regular feedback a part of our work and school life? When we realize that high-risk situations work against creativity and challenging ourselves to go father, would it make sense to reevaluate the high-stakes testing in our schools? Knowing that narrative flow fosters engagement, what are we to make of a disjointed school day or a job riddled with interruptions and requiring high levels of multi-tasking? If being able to control the pace of an experience is important, why do we walk students lock-step through their lessons when self-paced alternatives like the Kahn Academy exist? In the long run, harnessing the engaging properties of games may become a serious productivity driver.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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