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. 


  1. Nice article. You have very well related work and game with each other and explained how they both are same as long as psychological purpose behind is concerned.

    But, despite everything, the fact remais, which is: Work is work and game is game. Work will always be looked upon as a punishment. And game as an entertainment.

    The main reason for it is game is played with your own will. You "will" to play a game because you know that you are free to quit it anytime. Imagine there's this game with a condition that once you start playing it you can not quit it till 25-30 years. Will you still choose to play it? NO!

    Work is precisely that game! But people are "forced" to play it because for most of them it happens to be the only way of earning, and thereby, surviving.

    On the whole, good insights found in here... :)

  2. But there are people who continue to work and improve their business even though they could settle for doing much less to make a living.

    Look at Starbucks, for example. The owner did not have to expand and improve their business so much, to come up with all the new drinks and think of ways to improve their business. And yet people do it all the time.

    The only reason for this is because they enjoy doing what they do well.

  3. "The only reason for this is because they enjoy doing what they do well." Yeah! They enjoy, BECAUSE they are doing it well. Again consider the game. Suppose the game is fairly tough. But still you are doing well at it. So, as long as you keep winning the stages you will feel more and more motivated to carry on the game. The motivation to quit the game arises when you start struggling. When you fear you will no more be able to continue this winning looking at the diminishing score... And it is precisely this moment which makes "work" a punishment and "game" an entertainment.

    At this moment you quit the game and take up something else of interest. You carry no grudges towards the game. But in the same situation you can not quit work. So, you will then feel forced into it. It builds grudges in your mind about the work. Result: Working is being punished feeling.

    The things is, freedom to quit should be there. Where there's no freedom, it's as punishment.

  4. An obligation by itself is neither good nor bad.
    Raising a child is a huge obligation, with its difficulties and investment, but many people find it more than worthwhile.

    Maintaining one's life is a huge obligation. We can get sick or unhappy sometimes - but it does not make life as a whole into a punishment (and you could say, similarly to work that it is something you can't just "quit" from).

    An obligation by itself is not a punishment, it is what one makes of the obligation and the kind of obligation one chooses that makes it either pleasant or unpleasant.

    A second point is that even in a game one can sometimes encounter an unusually difficult stage that may require more persistence than usual. But that is part of the fun - to overcome challenges. Nobody has to insist on overcoming it, but many do because they find it worthwhile.

    Thinking back to my college assignments... One time I was working on a somewhat big programming project (at least big for me for that duration of time). It had many difficult parts, problems etc', but it is being able to overcome those challenges and create something good that made it a fun experience. Problems are not necessarily a punishment. A lot of how one experiences problems depends on one's approach (and also on the kind of problems one faces, like the degree of their difficulty and their nature - how well they match one's interest).

  5. Haha.. Ifat, yeah obligation by itself is not a punishment. But I think you can not compare obligation to raise a child with an obligation to maintain your life. Because the things you have to do to raise a child are driven by natural instinct. It's natural for one to raise a child shielding it from dangers. Even beasts do it. It's much different from work. The act which is driven by intrinsic natural force never feels like a punishment.

    As against this, to maintain a life the way we live life these days is not driven by natural instinct. This entire life is formed of artificial elements. Most considerations for maintaining life are social. You earn money for eating too, yeah, but imagine how much of what you earn you spend purely on eating. We spend more than 80% of what we earn on the things which not even created by Nature. When some act is not meant to be done by us by Nature, we are bound to find it tiresome in the long run. And when one DOES feel fed up, one should have the freedom to quit.

    That's where games differs from work.

  6. My apology, Darshan. I started writing a reply days ago, but put it on hold. Expect a reply soon within the next few days.

  7. You've bought something new to read - it's an interesting read. To very few game is a source of income and to them it's work and play is the same. For others games although a mental activity creates a sense of recovery from stress.

  8. Tauseef, I think you are missing the point. I was not saying that only to those who are working at game development work and games are the same, I am saying that the psychological value derived from both is the same - self esteem.

    Games provide a relief from stress even though they do present their challenges, could lead to failure and require effort to succeed. The difference from work is that they require less effort and less time to get good and reward instantly.

    Work provides man with a sense of performing well, just like a game does, but it requires more effort over a longer period of time. It can be just as rewarding as a game and more.

  9. Actually, if you read about Donnald Trump's life, you will see that it is like a game to him. He takes every new project as a challenge. The first thing he says in his autobiography is "I don't do it for the money. I have enough of it. I do it because it is fun."

    If you read how he does business, it IS a game to him.

  10. Ifat, are you aware that many people in fact DO make a living from playing games? They are mostly people games companies hire to test games, but many are professional games players that make a living from games tournaments. I realise this is a slight detraction from the point. I was was just curious.

    Also, the simulation software professionals use to teach people relevant skills for a job (e.g. those used for pilots) blur the line in regards to your distinctions as they provide real life skills for a job and are in effect a type of game. How do they fit into your point?

    As for the message of the post, I agree with it. I have found that working with horses gives me such a feeling. So does writing and software development.

    Yes, my career interests are a bit ecliptic :-P

    Also, the feelings you refer to are why I have had big goals since I was ten.

    I think the reason many don't is dual-pronged. Firstly is people's attitude to work, and second is the poor work environment many (though far from all) employees create.

    "Work will always be looked upon as a punishment." Not for me - and many others. As I said I enjoy much of the work I do.

    "They enjoy, BECAUSE they are doing it well." Wrong. Like me they enjoy it because of its nature. So far my efforts have only been for myself or training and have not lead to be making money from them, have not had any success. But yet I enjoy doing them. I love horses, I love writing a story, I love making software.

  11. Sorry about the length of that post. I didn't realise it was going to be so long.

  12. First thing's first... Darshan: I'm sorry for the late reply. Your post just contained so many elements (philosophically) that I did not know how to approach it and what to answer first. So I'll try to get the basics. you said:

    "But I think you can not compare obligation to raise a child with an obligation to maintain your life. Because the things you have to do to raise a child are driven by natural instinct. It's natural for one to raise a child shielding it from dangers. Even beasts do it. It's much different from work. The act which is driven by intrinsic natural force never feels like a punishment."

    First, I don't agree with your view of human beings here since I don't think we are *just* like other animals. We are not driven by instinct, for starters - we are different in that our values are shaped by the ideas we accept. Animals don't have this conceptual ability, they can only go as far as: "Food, yummy, get it!" and we humans have psychology and ideas which are far more complicated than that. As a result, for some people a child is desirable and for others it is not, depending on their ideas, psychology and personal philosophy.

    Then, you said that animals have an instinct to raise youngs but not to maintain their lives, but aren't you forgetting the survival instinct? An animal is naturally driven to look out for itself (get food, shelter etc').

    So I think the essential difference we have is that our view of human nature is different.

  13. To answer Kane. You said:

    "Ifat, are you aware that many people in fact DO make a living from playing games?"

    Yes, I'm not an ignorant savage, I know some people make a living off of testing or building games.

    "Also, the simulation software professionals use to teach people relevant skills for a job (e.g. those used for pilots) blur the line in regards to your distinctions as they provide real life skills for a job and are in effect a type of game. How do they fit into your point?"

    Some jobs can be more like a game than others (Provide immediate reward, require little training etc').

    Quoting me: "They enjoy, BECAUSE they are doing it well."
    Quoting you: "Wrong. Like me they enjoy it because of its nature."

    I never said that doing a job well is the only reason for enjoying it. The nature of the job is very important, just like the nature of a game is important. But even given an activity you like, if one continuously fails at it one looses all motivation to do it and it's no longer fun. The other element is that if you are good at an activity you don't like for its own sake (like, say, solving mathematical equations) you can still get a confidence boost out of it, but it is not enough to make it enjoyable as a career for everyone - only for those for whom this activity encompasses their main talents and interests.

    For example, I have a friend who since childhood has been fascinated with technology. For him being an engineer is great. For me, good engineer or not good engineer - an engineering job is not good enough because my personality is different and I strive to express myself in art.

    If my friend manages to make a decent drawing he will feel good about himself for that time being, but he would not like it as a career, no matter how good he can become technically.

  14. Self esteem is still the core value everyone get from work. Each work has its additional "thing", but the essence of enjoying work is the feeling of doing it well, of succeeding, of being successful.

  15. Our values are shaped by the ideas we accept.

    That does not mean we are completely free of intrinsic natural force. No one can be free of intrinsic natural force. In our case it's only that we give more importance to our desires and drive our life by desires instead of intrinsic natural force unlike other animals. But as for some things like feeling like having sex (basic sex), and taking care of a child (and many more in fact) are certainly due to intrinsic natural force.

    And again, there's a huge difference between "survival instinct", which again, but a natural force, and "maintaining life" the way we do it. Former is natural while latter is for material in nature. Consequently, former is no obligation on the first place (it's very nature!), while latter is an obligation, which is tiresome. Bound to be.

    Sorry if I am irritating you. I quit now :)

    All said, I am in love with your blog, your writing, and the fact that you "think". Keep it up.

  16. We have a nature which we are born with and which is outside our choice, of course, I agree. But part of that nature is that we are conceptual beings and human beings act based on their ideas.
    If we were driven by instinct like animals then all people would grow children and they would want it regardless of their ideas. But reality is that this is not the way it is. Nature does equip us with many things that gear us to that direction (hormonal system and reproduction system and sex-drive) but they all take their specific form within the framework of one's ideas.

    So it seems that our view of human nature is still different.

    Annoying me? No way. I like discussions. I don't soften up my replies; if I disagree or think you are wrong I say it as it is, but it doesn't mean I am annoyed. I greatly appreciate your input and the fact that you say it as it is!

    Another point about what you said is that animals do spend time hunting and building a home - that is the equivalent of work for a human being. So I think your logic fails here because animals do have an instinct for "work", so to speak.

  17. "I never said that doing a job well is the only reason for enjoying it."

    Ifat, sorry, that quote was not yours. I was responding to some one else.

  18. If I got it wrong then I should be the one apologizing, not you. This is no big deal.

    However, seeing how that quote represented my point of view, my reply still stands.

  19. Ifat, just thought you might be interested to know that the "perfect school" you described is more or less a description of a Montessori school, where the children's activity and interaction with materials designed not only to teach but to be enjoyable to use is referred to as "work", although it could just as easily be described by an outside observer as "play." At least in early childhood the two are (or should be) indistinguishable. I think "work" tends to be used to describe the boring, tedious bits of our jobs (which is generally a large part of them), but most people (burger flippers and janitors aside) have a balance of "work" and "play" in their professions, and "work" is what they do to support the part of their job that they love (the "play").

    Just a thought: as a parent, I don't think it's accurate to say that parenting is somehow not "work" because it's "natural". I think your point, Ifat, about people choosing not to have children, or limiting the number of children they do have, is well made. Parenting requires a tremendous amount of thought and effort -- there is little about it that "comes naturally" past the first year of the child's life. Sure, nursing is natural, but potty training? Not so much. Teaching a child to read? Teaching her right from wrong? Helping her find her way in the world? These things don't come easily or "naturally". And for anyone who has ever changed poopy diapers, cleaned up crayon off the wall (for the 50th time), dealt with a toddler's melt-down, etc, this stuff *is* WORK. I mean the hard, boring, frustrating, monotonous type of work. But we parents do it, not because it is "natural", and not solely because we are obligated to, but because parenting is also "play". And the "play" makes the "work" worth it, both short and long term.

  20. Nice comment about parenting.

    I do not accept such separation between work and play, however, as to make "work" mean anything tedious, boring, repetitive, etc'.

    Work certainly requires effort but the effort by itself contains an uplifting feeling, almost unnoticeable when one engages in it, but is there in the background.
    Some parts of work are boring or so difficult as to not feel very uplifting, but this is not enough to make "work" the synonym of boredom and reluctant effort.
    So I would not make a separation between "work" and "play" in a profession the way you did - the tough parts of work (which are definitely not "play") are uplifting, even if more difficult.

    They cannot be counted as "play" because they are not easy, nor immediate but they are not boring or painful either.

    For example, writing many of these blog posts requires tremendous concentration from me. I need to keep all the points in my mind, all the examples, the goal of the article etc'. It is definitely not the same easy going feeling I have playing some computer game, and yet it has a very uplifting feeling in the background - a feeling of being efficient and good at what I do, of making progress. It is *work* not play but it is not tedious or boring.

    The concept of "work" is what needs to be salvaged here... otherwise we are left with "play" as the ideal and "work" as something to avoid.

    The distinction between work and game is (in summary) the long-term vs. the short term in acquiring skill and getting rewarded. This does not mean that one is necessarily enjoyable while the other is emotionally painful.