A few months ago, I talked briefly about escapism in games, when it’s purposeful, and when it’s not. Over the past few weeks, we’ve slowly meandered down this road as to what makes games fulfilling, including how we relate to our avatars and why we tend to like heroes who fail. In this little series finale, we’re going to take a more macro look at video games, away from the characters and gripping stories, to what video games psychologically provide us to make us happy.
We’re going to talk about three main concepts that aid in our experience of happiness: flow, work, and purpose.
One With the Flow
The first of these, flow, is a concept that psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (mee-hi cheek-sent-mee-high) use to describe a state of peak performance of a difficult task. In order to achieve a state of flow, the task must exist within a “sweet spot” of difficulty. On one hand, it requires a certain challenge to your ability level in order to maintain interest (and avoid boredom), yet it must not challenge too much to as to cause frustration.
Flow is usually characterized by the merging of awareness and action, that is, you no longer need to consciously think about what you are doing, but rather your brain and body feel perfectly unified when performing the task. You feel a strong sense of control, as well as heightened concentration on the task, a loss of self-consciousness, and even an altered perception of time. Activities that may result in experiencing flow provide direct and immediate feedback to the person. For a very readable article about flow, you can check out this website talking about happiness.
Most often, athletes and musicians report instances of flow when performing their crafts, sometimes referred to as being “in the zone.” Of course, flow can happen during any activity that requires both mental and physical participation, which includes video games.
While flow may seem like it is a state of euphoria, being in a state of flow is not like feeling extreme happiness or contentment. Rather, flow is the absence of interference from the conscious (i.e., thinking) mind. You are suddenly only acting on perfect, practiced experience, with no interfering thoughts. None, not even “what do I do next?” It all happens naturally.
As Mr. Csikzentmihalyi summarized:
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
And thus we move to our next point:
Where Work is Fun and Play is Hard
If we are in a career that we like, our work responsibilities are generally seen benevolently, even if our responsibilities can be difficult. For example, during the day I am a therapist who works with children with developmental disabilities, and even when I’m working with a “difficult” client, I am enjoying myself (or, if it’s a very bad day, I never resent the challenges that I’m facing.). The key point here is that the challenge is one I agreed to, or that I “signed up for.” On the other hand, I don’t particularly enjoy the paperwork end of my job: I didn’t become a therapist because I love typing up reports, but I have to do it anyway.
When people begin to feel frustrated toward their jobs, it is usually because they think that their talents are being wasted on tasks that are too easy, or are required to complete a time-consuming or difficult task that they did not agree to, like if suddenly my job was 90% report-writing and only 10% actually working with people.
But when we play a video game, we agree to complete a difficult task (or goal) that requires cognitive work (i.e., playing the game), and agree to the arbitrary rules and limitations put on us as we try to complete that goal. Because we have agreed to the challenge we will undertake, the rules we have to follow, and the reward/feedback we will receive, we find the cognitively demanding task of playing a video game to be enjoyable.
If we stop finding the game “fair” (we no longer agree to the rules), or don’t like the feedback we’re getting (not enough rewards in-game or emotional payoff outside of the game), we can stop playing and agree to another challenge. By controlling the challenges we agree to face, we can always feel like we are fulfilling a purpose and operating at our optimum efficiency (and therefore tempting the elusive experience of flow).
Fun With a Purpose
Most obviously, games give us an activity to do that is outside of our experience, but more importantly, that activity has a purpose.
Players want to achieve their in-game goals, and achieving their in-game purpose in something called an extrinsic reward – the game gives you something for your accomplishment, either a level achievement, a score, an in-game item, or a satisfying visual or sound signal that tells you that you did something right.
Perhaps more importantly, achieving these in-game goals also provides us with intrinsic rewards, as well. These rewards come from within us. We feel proud or accomplished or happy or relaxed, and we like feeling those things, so those feelings are the reward for playing the game.
By manipulating the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards we experience, we are given a powerful tool to regulate our mood and emotions. Video games can give us an emotional “fix” when we experience a “negative” mood such as feeling stressed, overwhelmed, sad, or otherwise unfulfilled, as they provide structure/ rules (which our brains like), achievable tasks (which our brains also like), and immediate feedback (again, which our brains like).
Putting the Pieces Together
Let’s face it: reality wasn’t designed to make us happy. Reality doesn’t give immediate positive feedback every time we do something noteworthy (if it gives any feedback at all), it doesn’t clearly outline the rules, give clear navigation points for your goals, and certainly doesn’t play fair. As humans, we have adapted to this type of situation, and are able to find patterns and order in our reality – if you’re a human who can function in the real world, you have experienced this adaptation.
Games, on the other hand, are designed to fulfill our brain’s wants. They give us an opportunity to think creatively about problems and come up with new solutions. We can work at an optimum level of functioning, right at the peak of our abilities where our brains crave to work, and experience the thrill of victory after completing a task. And, let’s face it, there are no real consequences to your actions; in-game, you can reload and try again no matter how badly you mess up, and the real world moves forward no matter how good, bad, or evil you are during a game.
Games fulfill needs that don’t always get fulfilled in real life. Games give us power, purpose, and easy-to-see accomplishments. They offer us community when we may feel alone. They fulfill emotional needs we may leave unaddressed in real life.
In theory, we should try and seek these in-game experiences in real life, as well as in our games. Our experience in games should support our real-life needs, that is, working through a difficult project, seeking out information when we need it, and not being afraid to walk away and come back later are all skills we practice within the safety of our video games.
When they work right, video games can be a great tool for helping us understand and achieve tasks. They can put our brains into a mindset of creative thinking, and we can learn how to reach out when we need more information. They can give us a way to self-regulate and recharge when real life gets a little too real. But what happens when you have too much of a good thing?
Find out next time in the final part of this mini-series!
What was the most profound experience you’ve ever had because of a video game? Has a game ever changed the way you think in real life? Let me now in the comments!
Until next time, thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
PS With the holidays coming up,the second part of this idea – which dabbles in addiction – won’t be up until January. It seems very Scrooge-ish to talk about gaming addiction right around the holidays, so we’re going to take the next few weeks to talk about some happier topics! See you next week!
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