Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Work, Games and self-esteem

Often people look at work as a synonym of necessary punishment, while they look at games as something fun, desirable and totally different. 

But in fact, work and games have a common psychological goal. Psychologically they provide the same end in different forms.

Consider what one gets out of games (like computer games): Primarily, it is a sense of accomplishment, of achieving a prize and performing efficiently. Performing well in a game, advancing in a game provides an uplifting feeling of excitement - it is the essence of having a good time playing. Contrast it with failing repeatedly at some task in a game: it is a very frustrating experience. Nobody would want to play a game in which success is impossible. 

One might ask: Well, if the purpose of games is to provide a sense of accomplishment, why not make them super easy so that anyone can do it effortlessly? The reason is that such setting would not provide a sense of accomplishment. If a game is too easy it becomes boring and cannot provide that uplifting feeling of efficiency. Babies may find interest in a sorting bucket game, but for an adult such a game is utterly boring. If forced to play one would experience such a game as "work".
The feeling of efficiency cannot be faked by making a game too easy. A game, to be good, must provide the means of genuinely earning the feeling of accomplishment by providing a decent challenge. 

The essence of the uplifting feeling is self-esteem: the recognition that one is performing well, that one is good: good for succeeding at things, achieving one's goals and gaining values. 

Another important part of games is the reward. Successful action provides rewards like coins, life points, neat items, new quests, score bonus etc'. 

One might ask, if games are about rewards, why aren't games designed to give rewards without effort? Like, say, design 'Diablo' so that the player gets the best weapons and armor right away, and the player is so powerful that just by showing up all the enemies in a scene drop dead. The reason is that no one would buy such a game. Effort and challenge are good, they are a necessary ingredient in gaining self esteem and a sense of efficacy. 

Games involve training and effort. Games have and need to have the option of failure. These are usually the elements that are looked down upon in work. A work is said to be unpleasant because it requires effort, because it does not come easy and because it has the option of failure. But these all are, in fact, essential elements of any game. 

Work, apart from being a necessity for living, has the exact elements as in a game. One is constantly after some goals and the goals and the achievement of those goals brings about a reward and a feeling of accomplishment. 
If a job is too difficult for one's ability, or it provides nothing but obstacles and no rewards it becomes like a game in which it is impossible to succeed and equally frustrating. If a job is well adjusted to one's ability and provides immediate rewards for successful actions it becomes closer to the feeling of a game. 

As evidence, notice that people who are disappointed or stuck in their work, often find themselves drawn to games, sometimes to the point of addiction or replacing work time.
The reason is that games provide a replacement for a feeling of efficacy that is normally attained at work. 

So what are the differences between game and work? 

  1. The main difference is: A game is designed to provide short-term satisfaction (immediate gratification) for successful actions, by allowing to get the required skill in a short amount of time.

    A good game always keeps the required level of skill within short-term limits. The difficulty of a game progresses gradually, always allowing the player to achieve success within a relatively short amount of time.

    A game is designed to always reward for successful actions, and provide the rewards immediately, without a need to wait for the end of the month, year or 7 years of med-school.  

    This is unlike work, in which training can take years and may seem unsuccessful for long periods of time. The learning curve may not be well adjusted to one's ability but very steep at times. The reward does not immediately fall from the sky like coins or score points, but requires waiting. 

    Imagine a perfect school in which the material is taught gradually and allows students to practice and see the results of what they've learned immediately. In this school, a student is sitting in class with a sense of complete control over the material. The previous stage is perfectly clear, the student knows he has perfect control over it since he succeeded at a task practicing that knowledge; he is awaiting the next bit of information because he is eager to add it to his growing stack of skills. 

    What is this school? It is the learning process as designed in every video game with multiple layers of skill. 
    But if such a school existed in real professions (to the degree it is possible): it would have produced the exact feeling of playing a game: a feeling of confidence and accomplishment. 

    In short: Work involves long-term (rewards and training) and games are short-term. The disadvantage is the need of persistence and patience, but the advantage is that a career provides a lifetime of accomplishments. 

  2. Work can provide a deeper, stronger sense of accomplishment than a game. 
    Being a great surgeon is more satisfying than being great at Packman, for example, because the skill encompasses the surgeon's intelligence more fully, thus providing a deeper sense of efficacy and self-esteem. 

  3. In a game one's rewards have meaning only in the context of the game. In real life one can take pride in knowing that one's accomplishments support one's actual life. The wealth and services one produces have meaning in the real world, not in an imaginary one.

    It is this last fact that makes work an irreplaceable psychological value (irreplaceable by games). Self esteem in essence is the recognition that one is fit to live, to succeed in supporting one's life. A game can only simulate that in an imaginary world: But to have that recognition, productive work is the only option of getting and maintaining self-esteem. 

  4. Games are a more limited environment than reality is. A game has a plan for the player, in reality one makes one's own plan. It requires that one takes the driver's seat, not the passenger's seat (while in a game it is somewhere in between). 

  5. Other differences are that games have an additional artistic element and personalization element. 

Games are an end in themselves: People don't play a game to make a living, but for the fun of playing it. The conclusion is; that if people could experience work as they experience a game (as something that gives them that uplifting feeling of efficacy), they would work not just to support their life, but for the psychological value of self esteem

This is how work should ideally be experienced: As means for that uplifting feeling of self-esteem. Productive work is the only way to achieve that value, to fulfill that inherit psychological need. 
To accomplish that, a career needs to be chosen like a game is designed: To match one's abilities and potential, to allow progress in one's chosen field within relatively short amount of time, all the time. A career, like a game, must always grow and develop. Stagnating on one level of skill with no challenges cannot provide a sense of efficacy. 

Rewards and success are fuel for action: both in games and in work. 
Unlike a game, a career has long-term goals and long-term rewards. It therefore requires reminding oneself, during periods of effort without reward, that the reward is attainable further in the future. In other words: being persistent. 
Moving from games to an actual career involves mastering two things: 1. Long-term vision and 2. Independent decision making. 

Games cannot replace the role a job has in sustaining man's self-esteem, but they are a great way to experience a world in which progress is easy and fast, rewards can be attained immediately and one's achievement are quickly stacking up. 
If you ever excelled at a game, it is a good feeling to remember - so you can aim at getting that same feeling from a career of your choosing.