In the previous post, we explored the hidden world of procrastination and our frustrating tendency to (irrationally!) delay tasks.
At the other end of this motivation scale, sits the experience of game play. While we may all gravitate towards different games, the act of playing deeply fulfils our desire to engage in satisfying, self-chosen challenges. While we may think that such pursuits belong to the nostalgic whim of childhood, there’s a whole host of reasons why playing games in adulthood can bring unexpected rewards.
With that in mind, this month we’ll be revealing how good games actually address our deep psychological desire for autonomy, competence and relatedness, and how they can lead to surprising cognitive, emotional, social and motivational outcomes.
And, if you’re not a game player but want to know how you can use some of the psychological techniques to enhance your life, we’ll also take a look at how we can implement the strategies and tools of the best game designers to expand joy and enchantment to other, duller parts of our existence!
So what kind of games are we talking about?
In her fantastic book Reality is broken (2008), game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal quotes the philosopher Bernard Suits to explain that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” which, as Jesse Schell (2008) adds, is “approached with a playful attitude”.
This should sound familiar enough, as it’s these same gaming dynamics that play out whether we’re in a virtual environment (with a VR headset), at the dining room table with friends, or at the theatre experiencing an interactive performance. Jane has given some brilliant keynotes on the power of games, and if you’d like to know more on the subject you can check out the resources below:
- TED talk
- List of games she has created
- SuperBetter her new book on the power of games to change our everyday lives
Games address our essential desires…
Groh (2012) explains the joy of gaming by referring to the psychological theory of self determination by Deci and Ryan (2000). According to this theory, humans strongly desire three experiences that motivate them to engage deeply with a task:
- First among them is the wish to be meaningfully related to others. Games can address this desire by providing a meaningful story, including interaction with fictional figures or other players, inventing social superstructures or by allowing for cooperation with other players.
- The second desire is one for competence, the feeling of being capable to succeed in a given task. Well-chosen goals, which challenge the player while remaining solvable and clear and meaningful feedback on the progress towards the goal help to fulfill this desire. A game that pushes your boundaries further enables you to experience flow, the state of optimal experience in which you potentially lose track of your surroundings and time because you are deeply engaged in your current activity (McGonigal on Csikszentmihalyi).
- The last desire is one for autonomy, the desire to be in control of one’s own life. Games allow for this if they are voluntary and if individuals feel they are in control of their choice to play.
They can enable positive outcomes beyond fun itself…
Most popular research on video games has stressed negative outcomes such as addiction, depression, and an inclination to act violently. While acknowledging the importance of this research, Granic, Lobel and Engels published a review of the literature (2014) to draw attention to the benefits of playing video games, particularly in light of a shift towards increasingly complex, diverse, realistic and social games.
They highlight benefits in four essential areas of human experience. On a cognitive level, video games have been associated with improved problem solving skills (Prensky 2012), enhanced creativity (Jackson et al 2012) and, particularly true for shooter games, the potential to improve spatial skills with relatively little training (Uttal et al 2013).
In addition to previously mentioned motivational and emotional benefits of video games, games that encourage cooperation and helping enable players to gather prosocial skills and affect helping behaviours at least on the short term (Ewoldson 2012).
…Even in unexpected areas of life
In light of the varied benefits of gaming, how can you use these insights in non-gaming contexts, e.g. to make dull activities more enjoyable, engage customers or motivate employees? Deterding (2011) coined such use of (video) game elements in non-gaming systems that improve user experience and engagement as gamification.
Gamification aims to make boring tasks more interesting by adding unnecessary obstacles to make them more challenging, by providing structure and help to increase the feeling of competence, by giving timely and valuable feedback on the path towards a goal or by making tasks more social.
Unfortunately, as Amy Yo Kim (2015) phrases it, gamification “has become synonymous with the practice of using game mechanics to manipulate behaviour”. In her opinion, rather than focusing on game mechanics early in the design process, making a game should first begin with crafting, testing and improving a compelling experience “that moves the customer towards meaningful mastery (…) that make your customers better than before by building their skills, knowledge and relationships in ways they care about.”
One use of gamification principles that lives up to these standards is Chore Wars, an online game that transforms dreaded housework into a friendly competition over experience points with your housemates. For a scientific overview of gamification, have a look at Groh’s article (2012).
If you are interested in an application-oriented overview of the mechanics of gamification, have a look at this this article by Marczewski (2013). For more specific examples of different game mechanics, check out this article by the same author.