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Reality is Broken

It is games that give us something to do when there is nothing to do. We thus call games “pastimes” and regard them as trifling fillers of the interstices of our lives. But they are much more important than that. They are clues to the future. And their serious cultivation now is perhaps our only salvation.


—BERNARD SUITS, philosopher1

INTRODUCTION

Reality Is Broken

Anyone who sees a hurricane coming should warn others. I see a hurricane coming. Over the next generation or two, ever larger numbers of people, hundreds of millions, will become immersed in virtual worlds and online games. While we are playing, things we used to do on the outside, in “reality,” won’t be happening anymore, or won’t be happening in the same way. You can’t pull millions of person-hours out of a society without creating an atmospheric-level event. If it happens in a generation, I think the twenty-first century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused by cars, radios, and TV, combined.... The exodus of these people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup. EDWARD CASTRONOVA, 
Exodus to the Virtual World1

Gamers have had enough of reality.

They are abandoning it in droves—a few hours here, an entire weekend there, sometimes every spare minute of every day for stretches at a time—in favor of simulated environments and online games. Maybe you are one of these gamers. If not, then you definitely know some of them.

Who are they? They are the nine-to-fivers who come home and apply all of the smarts and talents that are underutilized at work to plan and coordinate complex raids and quests in massively multiplayer online games like Final Fantasy XI and the Lineage worlds. They’re the music lovers who have invested hundreds of dollars on plastic Rock Band and Guitar Hero instruments and spent night after night rehearsing, in order to become virtuosos of video game performance.

They’re the World of Warcraft fans who are so intent on mastering the challenges of their favorite game that, collectively, they’ve written a quarter of a million wiki articles on the WoWWikicreating the single largest wiki after Wikipedia. They’re the Brain Age and Mario Kart players who take handheld game consoles everywhere they go, sneaking in short puzzles, races, and minigames as often as possible, and as a result nearly eliminating mental downtime from their lives.

They’re the United States troops stationed overseas who dedicate so many hours a week to burnishing their Halo 3 in-game service record that earning virtual combat medals is widely known as the most popular activity for off-duty soldiers. They’re the young adults in China who have spent so much play money, or “QQ coins,” on magical swords and other powerful game objects that the People’s Bank of China intervened to prevent the devaluation of the yuan, China’s real-world currency.2

Most of all, they’re the kids and teenagers worldwide who would rather spend hours in front of just about any computer game or video game than do anything else.

These gamers aren’t rejecting reality entirely. They have jobs, goals, schoolwork, families, commitments, and real lives that they care about. But as they devote more and more of their free time to game worlds, the real world increasingly feels like it’s missing something.

Gamers want to know: Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favorite games.

The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy.

And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community:

Reality, compared to games, is broken.

In fact, it is more than a perception. It’s a phenomenon. Economist Edward Castronova calls it a “mass exodus” to game spaces, and you can see it already happening in the numbers. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are opting out of reality for larger and larger chunks of time. In the United States alone, there are 183 million active gamers (individuals who, in surveys, report that they play computer or video games “regularly”—on average, thirteen hours a week).3 Globally, the online gamer community—including console, PC, and mobile phone gaming—counts more than 4 million gamers in the Middle East, 10 million in Russia, 105 million in India, 10 million in Vietnam, 10 million in Mexico, 13 million in Central and South America, 15 million in Australia, 17 million in South Korea, 100 million in Europe, and 200 million in China.4

Although a typical gamer plays for just an hour or two a day, there are now more than 6 million people in China who spend at least twenty-two hours a week gaming, the equivalent of a part-time job.5 More than 10 million “hard-core” gamers in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany spend at least twenty hours a week playing.6 And at the leading edge of this growth curve, more than 5 million “extreme” gamers in the United States play on average forty-five hours a week.7

With all of this play, we have turned digital games—for our computers, for our mobile phones, and for our home entertainment systems—into what is expected to be a $68 billion industry annually by the year 2012.8 And we are creating a massive virtual silo of cognitive effort, emotional energy, and collective attention lavished on game worlds instead of on the real world.

The ever-skyrocketing amounts of time and money spent on games are being observed with alarm by some—concerned parents, teachers, and politicians—and eagerness by others—the many technology industries that expect to profit greatly from the game boom. Meanwhile, they are met with bewilderment and disdain by more than a few nongamers, who still make up nearly half of the U.S. population, although their numbers are rapidly decreasing. Many of them deem gaming a clear waste of time.

As we make these value judgments, hold moral debates over the addictive quality of games, and simultaneously rush to achieve massive industry expansion, a vital point is being missed. The fact that so many people of all ages, all over the world, are choosing to spend so much time in game worlds is a sign of something important, a truth that we urgently need to recognize.

The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

And unless something dramatic happens to reverse the resulting exodus, we’re fast on our way to becoming a society in which a substantial portion of our population devotes its greatest efforts to playing games, creates its best memories in game environments, and experiences its biggest successes in game worlds.

Maybe this sounds hard to believe. To a nongamer, this forecast might seem surreal, or like science fiction. Are huge swaths of civilization really disappearing into game worlds? Are we really rushing headlong into a future where the majority of us use games to satisfy many of our most important needs?

If so, it will not be the first time that such a mass exodus from reality to games has occurred. Indeed, the very first written history of human gameplay, Herodotus’ Histories, the ancient Greek account of the Persian Wars—dating back more than three thousand years—describes a nearly identical scenario. While the oldest known game is the ancient counting game Mancala—evidence shows it was played during Egypt’s age of empires, or the fifteenth to the eleventh centuries BC—it was not until Herodotus that anyone thought to record the origins or cultural functions of these games. And from his ancient text, we can learn a great deal about what’s happening today—and what’s almost certainly coming next.

It’s a bit counterintuitive to think about the future in terms of the past. But as a research director at the Institute for the Future—a nonprofit think tank in Palo Alto, California, and the world’s oldest future-forecasting organization—I’ve learned an important trick: to develop foresight, you need to practice hindsight. Technologies, cultures, and climates may change, but our basic human needs and desires—to survive, to care for our families, and to lead happy, purposeful lives—remain the same. So at IFTF we like to say, “To understand the future, you have to look back at least twice as far as you’re looking ahead.” Fortunately, when it comes to games, we can look even farther back than that. Games have been a fundamental part of human civilization for thousands of years.

In the opening book of The Histories, Herodotus writes:When Atys was king of Lydia in Asia Minor some three thousand years ago, a great scarcity threatened his realm. For a while people accepted their lot without complaining, in the hope that times of plenty would return. But when things failed to get better, the Lydians devised a strange remedy for their problem. The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food . . . and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years, and along the way they invented the dice, knuckle-bones, the ball, and all the games which are common.9

What do ancient dice made from sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future of computer and video games? More than you might expect.

Herodotus invented history as we know it, and he has described the goal of history as uncovering moral problems and moral truths in the concrete data of experience. Whether Herodotus’ story of an eighteen-year famine survived through gameplay is true or, as some modern historians believe, apocryphal, its moral truths reveal something important about the essence of games.

We often think of immersive gameplay as “escapist,” a kind of passive retreat from reality. But through the lens of Herodotus’ history, we can see how games could be a purposeful escape, a thoughtful and active escape, and most importantly an extremely helpful escape. For the Lydians, playing together as a nearly full-time activity would have been a behavior highly adaptive to difficult conditions. Games made life bearable. Games gave a starving population a feeling of power in a powerless situation, a sense of structure in a chaotic environment. Games gave them a better way to live when their circumstances were otherwise completely unsupportive and uninhabitable.

Make no mistake: we are no different from the ancient Lydians. Today, many of us are suffering from a vast and primal hunger. But it is not a hunger for food—it is a hunger for more and better engagement from the world around us.

Like the ancient Lydians, many gamers have already figured out how to use the immersive power of play to distract themselves from their hunger: a hunger for more satisfying work, for a stronger sense of community, and for a more engaging and meaningful life.

Collectively, the planet is now spending more than 3 billion hours a week gaming.

We are starving, and our games are feeding us.

AND SO, in 2011, we find ourselves at a major tipping point.

We can stay on the same course. We can keep feeding our appetites with games. And we can watch the game industry continue to create bigger, better, and more immersive virtual worlds that provide increasingly compelling alternatives to reality.

If we stay this course, we will almost certainly see the exodus from reality continue. Indeed, we are already well on our way to a world in which many of us, like the ancient Lydians, spend half our time gaming. Given all the problems in the world, would it really be so bad to pass the coming decades as the Lydians did?

Or we could try to reverse course. We could try to block gamers’ exit from reality—perhaps by culturally shaming them into spending more time in reality, or by trying to keep video games out of the hands of kids, or, as some U.S. politicians have already proposed, by heavily taxing them so that gaming becomes an unaffordable lifestyle.10

To be honest, none of those options sounds like a future I’d want to live in.

Why would we want to waste the power of games on escapist entertainment?

Why would we want to waste the power of games by trying to squelch the phenomenon altogether?

Perhaps we should consider a third idea. Instead of teetering on the tipping point between games and reality, what if we threw ourselves off the scale and tried something else entirely?

What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?

Imagine a near future in which most of the real world works more like a game. But is it even possible to create this future? Would it be a reality we would be happier to live in? Would it make the world a better place?

When I consider this potential future, it’s not just a hypothetical idea. I’ve already posed it as a very real challenge to the one community who can truly help launch this transformation: the people who make games for a living. I’m one of them—I’ve been designing games professionally for the past decade. And I’ve come to believe that people who know how to make games need to start focusing on the task of making real life better for as many people as possible.

I haven’t always been so sure of this mission. It has taken a good ten years of research and a series of increasingly ambitious game projects to get to this point.

Back in 2001, I started my career by working on the fringes of the game-design industry, at tiny start-up companies and experimental design labs. More often than not, I was working for free, designing puzzles and missions for low-budget computer and mobile phone games. I was happy when they were played by a few hundred people, or—when I was really lucky—a few thousand. I studied those players as closely as possible. I watched them while they played, and I interviewed them afterward. I was just starting to learn what gives games their power.

During those early years, I was also a “starving” graduate student—earning a PhD in performance studies from the University of California at Berkeley. I was the first in my department to study computer and video games, and I had to make it up as I went along, bringing together different findings from psychology, cognitive science, sociology, economics, political science, and performance theory in order to try to figure out exactly what makes a good game work. I was particularly interested in how games could change the way we think and act in everyday life—a question that, back then, few, if any, researchers were looking at.

Eventually, as a result of my research, I published several academic papers (and eventually a five-hundred-page dissertation) proposing how we could leverage the power of games to reinvent everything from government, health care, and education to traditional media, marketing, and entrepreneurship—even world peace. And increasingly, I found myself called on to help large companies and organizations adopt game design as an innovation strategy—from the World Bank, the American Heart Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Defense to McDonald’s, Intel, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the International Olympic Committee. You’ll read about many of the games I created with these organizations in this book—and for the first time, I’ll be sharing my design motivations and strategies.

The inspiration for this book came in the spring of 2008, when I was invited to deliver the annual “rant” at the Game Developers Conference, the most important industry gathering of the year. The rant is supposed to be a wake-up call, a demand to shake up the industry. It’s always one of the most popular sessions at the conference. That year, the room was packed to standing-room capacity with more than a thousand of the world’s leading game designers and developers. And in my rant, they heard the same argument you’re reading here: that reality is broken, and we need to start making games to fix it.

When I finished, the applause and cheers took what seemed like forever to die down. I had been nervous that my rant would be rejected by my peers. Instead, it seemed to strike a chord with the industry. I started to get e-mails every single day from people who had heard about the rant or read the transcript online and wanted to help. Some were just starting out in the industry and had no idea how to go about doing it. Others were industry leaders who genuinely wanted to change the direction of games for good. Seemingly overnight, start-up companies were founded, capital was raised, and today there are hundreds of games in development that aspire to change reality for the better. I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for this turn of events, of course. I was just lucky enough to be one of the first people to see it happening, and one of the strongest voices cheering it on.

In 2009, I was invited back to the Game Developers Conference to give a keynote address about what game developers needed to do over the next decade to reinvent reality as we know it. This time, I wasn’t surprised to discover that some of the most popular sessions at the conference were about “games for personal and social change,” “positive impact games,” “social reality games,” “serious games,” and “leveraging the play of the planet.” Everywhere I turned, I saw evidence that this movement to harness the power of games for good had already started to happen. Suddenly, my personal mission to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize in the next twenty-five years didn’t seem so far-fetched.

When I look at the remarkable world-changing work game developers are starting to do, I see an opportunity to reinvent the ancient history of games for the twenty-first century.

Some twenty-five hundred years ago, Herodotus looked back and saw the early games played by the Greeks as an explicit attempt to alleviate suffering. Today, I look forward and I see a future in which games once again are explicitly designed to improve quality of life, to prevent suffering, and to create real, widespread happiness.

When Herodotus looked back, he saw games that were large-scale systems, designed to organize masses of people and make an entire civilization more resilient. I look forward to a future in which massively multiplayer games are once again designed in order to reorganize society in better ways, and to get seemingly miraculous things done.

Herodotus saw games as a surprising, inventive, and effective way to intervene in a social crisis. I, too, see games as potential solutions to our most pressing shared problems. He saw that games could tap into our strongest survival instincts. I see games that once again will confer evolutionary advantage on those who play them.

Herodotus tells us that in the past games were created as a virtual solution to unbearable hunger. And, yes, I see a future in which games continue to satisfy our hunger to be challenged and rewarded, to be creative and successful, to be social and part of something larger than ourselves. But I also see a future in which the games we play stoke our appetite for engagement, pushing and enabling us to make stronger connections—and bigger contributions—to the world around us.

The modern history of computer and video games is the story of game designers ascending to very powerful positions in society, effectively enthralling the hearts and minds—and directing the energies and attention—of increasingly large masses of people. Game designers today are extremely adept wielders of that power, no doubt more adept than any game designers in all of human history. They have been honing their craft and refining their tactics for thirty years now. And so it is that more and more people are being drawn to the power of computer and video games—and finding themselves engaged by them for longer and longer periods of time, for greater and greater stretches of their lives.

Amazingly, some people have no interest in understanding why this is happening or figuring out what we could do with it. They will never pick up a book about games, because they’re already certain they know exactly what games are good for—wasting time, tuning out, and losing out on real life.

The people who continue to write off games will be at a major disadvantage in the coming years. Those who deem them unworthy of their time and attention won’t know how to leverage the power of games in their communities, in their businesses, in their own lives. They will be less prepared to shape the future. And therefore they will miss some of the most promising opportunities we have to solve problems, create new experiences, and fix what’s wrong with reality.

Fortunately, the gap between gamers and nongamers is growing smaller all the time. In the United States, the biggest gaming market in the world, the majority of us are already gamers. Some recent relevant statistics from the Entertainment Software Association’s annual study of game players—the largest and most widely respected market research report of its kind:• 69 percent of all heads of household play computer and video games.• 97 percent of youth play computer and video games.• 40 percent of all gamers are women.• One out of four gamers is over the age of fifty.• The average game player is thirty-five years old and has been playing for twelve years.• Most gamers expect to continue playing games for the rest of their lives.11

Meanwhile, the scientific journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking reported in 2009 that 61 percent of surveyed CEOs, CFOs, and other senior executives say they take daily game breaks at work.12

These numbers demonstrate how quickly a gaming culture can take hold. And trends from every continent—from Austria, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates to Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa—show that gamer markets are emerging rapidly with similarly diverse demographics. Over the next decade, these new markets will increasingly resemble, if not completely catch up to, those in leading gamer countries like South Korea, the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom today.

As games journalist Rob Fahey famously pronounced in 2008: “It’s inevitable: soon we will all be gamers.”13

We have to start taking this growing gamer majority seriously. We are living in a world full of games and gamers. And so we need to decide now what kinds of games we should make together and how we will play them together. We need a plan for determining how games will impact our real societies and our real lives. We need a framework for making these decisions and for shaping these plans. This book, I hope, could serve as that framework. It’s written for gamers and for everyone who will one day become a gamer—in other words, for virtually every person on this planet. It’s an opportunity to understand now how games work, why humans are so drawn to them, and what they can do for us in our real lives.

If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time. You have been building up a wealth of virtual experience that, as the first half of this book will show you, can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what make you happiest. As you’ll see, you have also developed world-changing ways of thinking, organizing, and acting. And, as this book reveals, there are already plenty of opportunities for you to start using them for real-world good.

If you don’t have a lot of personal experience with games yet, then this book will help you jump-start your engagement with the most important medium of the twenty-first century. By the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll be deeply familiar with the most important games you can play today—and be able to imagine the kinds of important games we will make and play in the years to come.

If you’re not already a gamer, it’s entirely possible that you still might not become the kind of person to spend hours in front of a video game. But by reading this book, you will better understand the people who do. And even if you would never play computer or video games, let alone make one, you can benefit enormously from learning exactly how good games work—and how they can be used to fix real-world problems.

Game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work. They know how to facilitate cooperation and collaboration at previously unimaginable scales. And they are continuously innovating new ways to motivate players to stick with harder challenges, for longer, and in much bigger groups. These crucial twenty-first-century skills can help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the world around us.

Game design isn’t just a technological craft. It’s a twenty-first-century way of thinking and leading. And gameplay isn’t just a pastime. It’s a twenty-first-century way of working together to accomplish real change.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry once wrote:As for the future, your task is not to see it, but to enable it.

Games, in the twenty-first century, will be a primary platform for enabling the future.


 
SO LET ME describe the particular future that I want to create.

Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality. I want gaming to be something that everybody does, because they understand that games can be a real solution to problems and a real source of happiness. I want games to be something everybody learns how to design and develop, because they understand that games are a real platform for change and getting things done. And I want families, schools, companies, industries, cities, countries, and the whole world to come together to play them, because we’re finally making games that tackle real dilemmas and improve real lives.

If we take everything game developers have learned about optimizing human experience and organizing collaborative communities and apply it to real life, I foresee games that make us wake up in the morning and feel thrilled to start our day. I foresee games that reduce our stress at work and dramatically increase our career satisfaction. I foresee games that fix our educational systems. I foresee games that treat depression, obesity, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. I foresee games that help the elderly feel engaged and socially connected. I foresee games that raise rates of democratic participation. I foresee games that tackle global-scale problems like climate change and poverty. In short, I foresee games that augment our most essential human capabilities—to be happy, resilient, creative—and empower us to change the world in meaningful ways. Indeed, as you’ll see in the pages ahead, such games are already coming into existence.

The future I’ve described here seems both desirable and plausible to me. But in order to create this future, several things need to happen.

We will have to overcome the lingering cultural bias against games, so that nearly half the world is not cut off from the power of games.

We need to build hybrid industries and unconventional partnerships, so that game researchers and game designers and game developers can work with engineers and architects and policy makers and executives of all kinds to harness the power of games.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we all need to develop our core game competencies so we can take an active role in changing our lives and enabling the future.

This book is designed to do just that. It will build up your ability to enjoy life more, to solve tougher problems, and to lead others in world-changing efforts.

In Part I: Why Games Make Us Happy, you’ll go inside the minds of top game designers and game researchers. You’ll find out exactly which emotions the most successful games are carefully engineered to provoke—and how these feelings can spill over, in positive and surprising ways, into our real lives and relationships.

In Part II: Reinventing Reality, you’ll discover the world of alternate reality games. It’s the rapidly growing field of new software, services, and experiences meant to make us as happy and successful in our real lives as we are when we’re playing our favorite video games. If you’ve never heard of ARGs before, you may be shocked to discover how many people are already making and playing them. Hundreds of start-up companies and independent designers have devoted themselves to applying leading-edge game design and technologies to improving our everyday lives. And millions of gamers have already discovered the benefits of ARGs firsthand. In this section, you’ll find out how ARGs are already starting to raise our quality of life at home and at school, in our neighborhoods and our workplaces.

Finally, in Part III: How Very Big Games Can Change the World, you’ll get a glimpse of the future. You’ll discover ten games designed to help ordinary people achieve the world’s most urgent goals: curing cancer, stopping climate change, spreading peace, ending poverty. You’ll find out how new participation platforms and collaboration environments are making it possible for anyone to help invent a better future, just by playing a game.

Ultimately, the people who understand the power and potential of games to both make us happy and change reality will be the people who invent our future. By the time you finish reading this book, you will be an expert on how good games work. With that knowledge, you’ll make better choices about which games to play and when. More importantly, you’ll be ready to start inventing your own new games. You’ll be prepared to create powerful, alternate realities for yourself and for your family; for your school, your business, your neighborhood, or any other community you care about; for your favorite cause, for an entire industry, or for an entirely new movement.

We can play any games we want. We can create any future we can imagine.

Let the games begin.

PART ONE

Why Games Make Us Happy

One way or another, if human evolution is to go on, we shall have to learn to enjoy life more thoroughly.


—MIHÁLY CSÍKSZENTMIHÁLYI1

CHAPTER ONE

What Exactly Is a Game?

Almost all of us are biased against games today—even gamers. We can’t help it. This bias is part of our culture, part of our language, and it’s even woven into the way we use the words “game” and “player” in everyday conversation.

Consider the popular expression “gaming the system.” If I say that you’re gaming the system, what I mean is that you’re exploiting it for your own personal gain. Sure, you’re technically following the rules, but you’re playing in ways you’re not meant to play. Generally speaking, we don’t admire this kind of behavior. Yet paradoxically, we often give people this advice: “You’d better start playing the game.” What we mean is, just do whatever it takes to get ahead. When we talk about “playing the game” in this way, we’re really talking about potentially abandoning our own morals and ethics in favor of someone else’s rules.

Meanwhile, we frequently use the term “player” to describe someone who manipulates others to get what they want. We don’t really trust players. We have to be on our guard around people who play games—and that’s why we might warn someone, “Don’t play games with me.” We don’t like to feel that someone is using strategy against us, or manipulating us for their personal amusement. We don’t like to be played with. And when we say, “This isn’t a game!,” what we mean is that someone is behaving recklessly or not taking a situation seriously. This admonishment implies that games encourage and train people to act in ways that aren’t appropriate for real life.

When you start to pay attention, you realize how collectively suspicious we are of games. Just by looking at the language we use, you can see we’re wary of how games encourage us to act and who we are liable to become if we play them.

But these metaphors don’t accurately reflect what it really means to play a well-designed game. They’re just a reflection of our worst fears about games. And it turns out that what we’re really afraid of isn’t games; we’re afraid of losing track of where the game ends and where reality begins.

If we’re going to fix reality with games, we have to overcome this fear. We need to focus on how real games actually work, and how we act and interact when we’re playing the same game together.

Let’s start with a really good definition of game.

The Four Defining Traits of a Game

Games today come in more forms, platforms, and genres than at any other time in human history.

We have single-player, multiplayer, and massively multiplayer games. We have games you can play on your personal computer, your console, your handheld device, and your mobile phone—not to mention the games we still play on fields or on courts, with cards or on boards.

We can choose from among five-second minigames, ten-minute casual games, eight-hour action games, and role-playing games that go on endlessly twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. We can play story-based games, and games with no story. We can play games with and without scores. We can play games that challenge mostly our brains or mostly our bodies—and infinitely various combinations of the two.

And yet somehow, even with all these varieties, when we’re playing a game, we just know it. There’s something essentially unique about the way games structure experience.

When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

The goal is the specific outcome that players will work to achieve. It focuses their attention and continually orients their participation throughout the game. The goal provides players with a sense of purpose.

The rules place limitations on how players can achieve the goal. By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces. They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.

The feedback system tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar. Or, in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the players’ knowledge of an objective outcome: “The game is over when . . .” Real-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.

Finally, voluntary participation requires that everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goal, the rules, and the feedback. Knowingness establishes common ground for multiple people to play together. And the freedom to enter or leave a game at will ensures that intentionally stressful and challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable activity.

This definition may surprise you for what it lacks: interactivity, graphics, narrative, rewards, competition, virtual environments, or the idea of “winning”—all traits we often think of when it comes to games today. True, these are common features of many games, but they are not defining features. What defines a game are the goal, the rules, the feedback system, and voluntary participation. Everything else is an effort to reinforce and enhance these four core elements. A compelling story makes the goal more enticing. Complex scoring metrics make the feedback systems more motivating. Achievements and levels multiply the opportunities for experiencing success. Multiplayer and massively multiplayer experiences can make the prolonged play more unpredictable or more pleasurable. Immersive graphics, sounds, and 3D environments increase our ability to pay sustained attention to the work we’re doing in the game. And algorithms that increase the game’s difficulty as you play are just ways of redefining the goal and introducing more challenging rules.

Bernard Suits, the late, great philosopher, sums it all up in what I consider the single most convincing and useful definition of a game ever devised:Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.1

That definition, in a nutshell, explains everything that is motivating and rewarding and fun about playing games. And it brings us to our first fix for reality:FIX # 1 : UNNECESSARY OBSTACLES

Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.

To see how these four traits are essential to every game, let’s put them to a quick test. Can these four criteria effectively describe what’s so compelling about games as diverse as, say, golf, Scrabble, and Tetris?

Let’s take golf to start. As a golfer, you have a clear goal: to get a ball in a series of very small holes, with fewer tries than anyone else. If you weren’t playing a game, you’d achieve this goal the most efficient way possible: you’d walk right up to each hole and drop the ball in with your hand. What makes golf a game is that you willingly agree to stand really far away from each hole and swing at the ball with a club. Golf is engaging exactly because you, along with all the other players, have agreed to make the work more challenging than it has any reasonable right to be.

Add to that challenge a reliable feedback system—you have both the objective measurement of whether or not the ball makes it into the hole, plus the tally of how many strokes you’ve made—and you have a system that not only allows you to know when and if you’ve achieved the goal, but also holds out the hope of potentially achieving the goal in increasingly satisfying ways: in fewer strokes, or against more players.

Golf is, in fact, Bernard Suits’ favorite, quintessential example of a game—it really is an elegant explanation of exactly how and why we get so thoroughly engaged when we play. But what about a game where the unnecessary obstacles are more subtle?

In Scrabble, your goal is to spell out long and interesting words with lettered tiles. You have a lot of freedom: you can spell any word found in the dictionary. In normal life, we have a name for this kind of activity: it’s called typing. Scrabble turns typing into a game by restricting your freedom in several important ways. To start, you have only seven letters to work with at a time. You don’t get to choose which keys, or letters, you can use. You also have to base your words on the words that other players have already created. And there’s a finite number of times each letter can be used. Without these arbitrary limitations, I think we can all agree that spelling words with lettered tiles wouldn’t be much of a game. Freedom to work in the most logical and efficient way possible is the very opposite of gameplay. But add a set of obstacles and a feedback system—in this case, points—that shows you exactly how well you’re spelling long and complicated words in the face of these obstacles? You get a system of completely unnecessary work that has enthralled more than 150 million people in 121 countries over the past seventy years.

Both golf and Scrabble have a clear win condition, but the ability to win is not a necessary defining trait of games. Tetris, often dubbed “the greatest computer game of all time,” is a perfect example of a game you cannot win.2

When you play a traditional 2D game of Tetris, your goal is to stack falling puzzle pieces, leaving as few gaps as possible in between them. The pieces fall faster and faster, and the game simply gets harder and harder. It never ends. Instead, it simply waits for you to fail. If you play Tetris, you are guaranteed to lose.3

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very fun. What’s so compelling about working harder and harder until you lose? But in fact, Tetris is one of the most beloved computer games ever created—and the term “addictive” has probably been applied to Tetris more than to any single-player game ever designed. What makes Tetris so addictive, despite the impossibility of winning, is the intensity of the feedback it provides.

As you successfully lock in Tetris puzzle pieces, you get three kinds of feedback: visual—you can see row after row of pieces disappearing with a satisfying poof; quantitative—a prominently displayed score constantly ticks upward; and qualitative—you experience a steady increase in how challenging the game feels.

This variety and intensity of feedback is the most important difference between digital and nondigital games. In computer and video games, the interactive loop is satisfyingly tight. There seems to be no gap between your actions and the game’s responses. You can literally see in the animations and count on the scoreboard your impact on the game world. You can also feel how extraordinarily attentive the game system is to your performance. It only gets harder when you’re playing well, creating a perfect balance between hard challenge and achievability.

In other words, in a good computer or video game you’re always playing on the very edge of your skill level, always on the brink of falling off. When you do fall off, you feel the urge to climb back on. That’s because there is virtually nothing as engaging as this state of working at the very limits of your ability—or what both game designers and psychologists call “flow.”4 When you are in a state of flow, you want to stay there: both quitting and winning are equally unsatisfying outcomes.

The popularity of an unwinnable game like Tetris completely upends the stereotype that gamers are highly competitive people who care more about winning than anything else. Competition and winning are not defining traits of games—nor are they defining interests of the people who love to play them. Many gamers would rather keep playing than win—thereby ending the game. In high-feedback games, the state of being intensely engaged may ultimately be more pleasurable than even the satisfaction of winning.

The philosopher James P. Carse once wrote that there are two kinds of games: finite games, which we play to win, and infinite games, which we play in order to keep playing as long as possible.5 In the world of computer and video games, Tetris is an excellent example of an infinite game. We play Tetris for the simple purpose of continuing to play a good game.


 
LET’S TEST OUR proposed definition for a game with one final example, a significantly more complex video game: the single-player action/puzzle game Portal.

When Portal begins, you find yourself in a small, clinical-looking room with no obvious way out. There is very little in this 3D environment to interact with: a radio, a desk, and what appears to be a sleeping pod. You can shuffle around the tiny room and peer out the glass windows, but that’s about it. There’s nothing obvious to do: no enemies to fight, no treasure to pick up, no falling objects to avoid.

Screenshot from the first room of Portal.

(Valve Corporation, 2007)

With so few clues for how to proceed, your goal at the start of the game is simply to figure out what your goals are. You might reasonably guess that your first goal is to get out of the sealed room, but you can’t really be sure. It would seem that the main obstacle you face is that you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re going to have to learn how to advance in this world on your own.

Well, not completely on your own. If you poke around the room enough, you might think to pick up a clipboard lying on the desk. This movement triggers an artificial intelligence system to wake up and start speaking to you. The AI informs you that you are about to undertake a series of laboratory tests. The AI does not tell you what you are being tested on. Again, it’s up to you, the player, to figure it out.

What you eventually discover as you continue to play is that Portal is a game about escaping from rooms that operate according to rules you are unaware of. You learn that each room is a puzzle, increasingly booby-trapped, and the game requires you to understand more and more complex physics in order to get out. If you don’t teach yourself the physics of each new room—that is, if you don’t learn the rules of the game—you’ll be stuck there forever, listening to the AI system repeat herself.

Many, if not most, computer and video games today are structured this way. Players begin each game by tackling the obstacle of not knowing what to do and not knowing how to play. This kind of ambiguous play is markedly different from historical, predigital games. Traditionally, we have needed instructions in order to play a game. But now we’re often invited to learn as we go. We explore the game space, and the computer code effectively constrains and guides us. We learn how to play by carefully observing what the game allows us to do and how it responds to our input. As a result, most gamers never read game manuals. In fact, it’s a truism in the game industry that a well-designed game should be playable immediately, with no instruction whatsoever.

A game like Portal turns our definition of a game on its head, but doesn’t destroy it. The four core elements of goals, rules, feedback, and voluntary participation remain the same—they just play out in a different order. It used to be that we were spoon-fed the goal and the rules, and we would then seek feedback on our progress. But increasingly, the feedback systems are what we learn first. They guide us toward the goal and help us decode the rules. And that’s as powerful a motivation to play as any: discovering exactly what is possible in this brand-new virtual world.


 
I THINK it’s fair to say that Suits’ definition, and going forward our definition, holds up remarkably well against these diverse examples. Any well-designed game—digital or not—is an invitation to tackle an unnecessary obstacle.

When we understand games in this light, the dark metaphors we use for talking about games are revealed to be the irrational fears they really are. Gamers don’t want to game the system. Gamers want to play the game. They want to explore and learn and improve. They’re volunteering for unnecessary hard work—and they genuinely care about the outcome of their effort.

If the goal is truly compelling, and if the feedback is motivating enough, we will keep wrestling with the game’s limitations—creatively, sincerely, and enthusiastically—for a very long time. We will play until we utterly exhaust our own abilities, or until we exhaust the challenge. And we will take the game seriously because there is nothing trivial about playing a good game. The game matters.

This is what it means to act like a gamer, or to be a truly gameful person. This is who we become when we play a good game.

But this definition leads us to a perplexing question. Why on earth are so many people volunteering to tackle such completely unnecessary obstacles? Why are we collectively spending 3 billion hours a week working at the very limits of our ability, for no obvious external reward? In other words: Why do unnecessary obstacles make us happy?

When it comes understanding how games really work, the answer to this question is as crucial as the four defining traits.

How Games Provoke Positive Emotion

Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.

We don’t normally think of games as hard work. After all, we play games, and we’ve been taught to think of play as the very opposite of work. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as Brian Sutton-Smith, a leading psychologist of play, once said, “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”6

When we’re depressed, according to the clinical definition, we suffer from two things: a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity. If we were to reverse these two traits, we’d get something like this: an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity. There’s no clinical psychological term that describes this positive condition. But it’s a perfect description of the emotional state of gameplay. A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.

When we’re playing a good game—when we’re tackling unnecessary obstacles—we are actively moving ourselves toward the positive end of the emotional spectrum. We are intensely engaged, and this puts us in precisely the right frame of mind and physical condition to generate all kinds of positive emotions and experiences. All of the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness—our attention systems, our reward center, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory centers—are fully activated by gameplay.

This extreme emotional activation is the primary reason why today’s most successful computer and video games are so addictive and mood-boosting. When we’re in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts, to make social connections, and to build personal strengths. We are actively conditioning our minds and bodies to be happier.

If only hard work in the real world had the same effect. In our real lives, hard work is too often something we do because we have to do it—to make a living, to get ahead, to meet someone else’s expectations, or simply because someone else gave us a job to do. We resent that kind of work. It stresses us out. It takes time away from our friends and family. It comes with too much criticism. We’re afraid of failing. We often don’t get to see the direct impact of our efforts, so we rarely feel satisfied.

Or, worse, our real-world work isn’t hard enough. We’re bored out of our minds. We feel completely underutilized. We feel unappreciated. We are wasting our lives.

When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person. It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end. Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way. It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us optimistic, and doesn’t invigorate us.

What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work. We could offer them challenging, customizable missions and tasks, to do alone or with friends and family, whenever and wherever. We could provide them with vivid, real-time reports of the progress they’re making and a clear view of the impact they’re having on the world around them.

That’s exactly what the game industry is doing today. It’s fulfilling our need for better hard work—and helping us choose for ourselves the right work at the right time. So you can forget the old aphorism “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” All good gameplay is hard work. It’s hard work that we enjoy and choose for ourselves. And when we do hard work that we care about, we are priming our minds for happiness.

The right hard work takes different forms at different times for different people. To meet these individual needs, games have been offering us increasingly diverse kinds of work for decades now.

There’s high-stakes work, which is what many people think of first when it comes to video games. It’s fast and action oriented, and it thrills us with the possibility not only of success but also of spectacular failure. Whether we’re driving hairpin turns at top speeds in a racing video game like the Gran Turismo series or battling zombies in a first-person shooter game like Left 4 Dead, it’s the risk of crashing, burning, or having our brains sucked out that makes us feel more alive.

But there’s also busywork, which is completely predictable and monotonous. Busywork generally gets a bad rap in our real lives, but when we choose it for ourselves, it actually helps us feel quite contented and productive. When we’re swapping multicolored jewels in a casual game like Bejeweled or harvesting virtual crops in a social game like FarmVille, we’re happy just to keep our hands and mind occupied with focused activity that produces a clear result.

There’s mental work, which revs up our cognitive faculties. It can be rapid-fire and condensed, like the thirty-second math problems in Nintendo’s Brain Age games. Or it can be drawn-out and complex, like the simulated ten-thousand-year conquest campaigns in the real-time strategy game Age of Empires. Either way, we feel a rush of accomplishment when we put our brains to good use.

And then there’s physical work, which makes our hearts beat faster, our lungs pump harder, our glands sweat like crazy. If the work is hard enough, we’ll flood our brains with endorphins, the feel-good chemical. But more importantly, whether we’re throwing punches in Wii Boxing or jumping around to Dance Dance Revolution, we just enjoy the process of getting ourselves completely worn out.

There’s discovery work, which is all about the pleasure of actively investigating unfamiliar objects and spaces. Discovery work helps us feel confident, powerful, and motivated. When we’re exploring mysterious 3D environments, like a vast city hidden in the sea in the role-playing shooter game BioShock, or when we’re interacting with strange characters, like the fashionable undead teenagers who populate Tokyo in the handheld battle game The World Ends with You, we relish the chance to be curious about anything and everything.

Increasingly in computer and video games today there’s teamwork, which emphasizes collaboration, cooperation, and contributions to a larger group. When we carve out special duties for ourselves in a complex mission like the twenty-five-player team raids in World of Warcraft, or when we’re defending our friends’ lives in a four-player cooperative game of the comic adventure Castle Crashers, we take great satisfaction in knowing we have a unique and important role to play in a much bigger effort.

Finally, there’s creative work. When we do creative work, we get to make meaningful decisions and feel proud of something we’ve made. Creative work can take the form of designing our homes and families in the Sims games, or uploading video karaoke performances of ourselves to the SingStar network, or building and managing an online franchise in the Madden NFL games. For every creative effort we make, we feel more capable than when we started.


 
HIGH-STAKES WORK, busywork, mental work, physical work, discovery work, teamwork, and creative work—with all this hard work going on in our favorite games, I’m reminded of something the playwright Noël Coward once said: “Work is more fun than fun.”

Sure, this sounds mildly absurd. Work more fun than fun? But when it comes to games, this is measurably and demonstrably true, thanks to a psychology research method known as “experience sampling.”

Psychologists use the experience sampling method, or ESM, to find out how we really feel during different parts of our day. Subjects are interrupted at random intervals with a pager or by text message and asked to report two pieces of information: what they’re doing and how they feel.7 One of the most common findings of ESM research is that what we think is “fun” is actually mildly depressing.

Virtually every activity that we would describe as a “relaxing” kind of fun—watching television, eating chocolate, window-shopping, or just chilling out—doesn’t make us feel better. In fact, we consistently report feeling worse afterward than when we started “having fun”: less motivated, less confident, and less engaged overall.8 But how can so many of us be so wrong about what’s fun? Shouldn’t we have a better intuitive sense of what actually makes us feel better?

We certainly have a strong intuitive sense of what makes us feel bad, and negative stress and anxiety are usually at the top of the list. ESM researchers believe that when we consciously seek out relaxing fun, we’re usually trying to reverse these negative feelings. When we seek out passive entertainment and low-engagement activities, we’re using them as a counterbalance to how stimulated and overwhelmed we feel.

But by trying to have easy fun, we actually often wind up moving ourselves too far in the opposite direction. We go from stress and anxiety straight to boredom and depression. We’d be much better off avoiding easy fun and seeking out hard fun, or hard work that we enjoy, instead.

Hard fun is what happens when we experience positive stress, or eustress (a combination of the Greek eu, for “well-being,” and stress). From a physiological and a neurological standpoint, eustress is virtually identical to negative stress: we produce adrenaline, our reward circuitry is activated, and blood flow increases to the attention control centers of the brain. What’s fundamentally different is our frame of mind.

When we’re afraid of failure or danger, or when the pressure is coming from an external source, extreme neurochemical activation doesn’t make us happy. It makes us angry and combative, or it makes us want to escape and shut down emotionally. It can also trigger avoidance behaviors, like eating, smoking, or taking drugs.9

But during eustress, we aren’t experiencing fear or pessimism. We’ve generated the stressful situation on purpose, so we’re confident and optimistic. When we choose our hard work, we enjoy the stimulation and activation. It makes us want to dive in, join together, and get things done. And this optimistic invigoration is way more mood-boosting than relaxing. As long as we feel capable of meeting the challenge, we report being highly motivated, extremely interested, and positively engaged by stressful situations. And these are the key emotional states that correspond with overall well-being and life satisfaction.

Hard fun leaves us feeling measurably better than when we started. So it’s no surprise, then, that one of the activities for which ESM subjects report the highest levels of interest and positive moods both during and afterward is when they’re playing games—including sports, card games, board games, and computer and video games.10 The research proves what gamers already know: within the limits of our own endurance, we would rather work hard than be entertained. Perhaps that’s why gamers spend less time watching television than anyone else on the planet.11

As Harvard professor and happiness expert Tal Ben-Shahar puts it, “We’re much happier enlivening time rather than killing time.”12


 
THERE’S ONE MORE important emotional benefit to hard fun: it’s called “fiero,” and it’s possibly the most primal emotional rush we can experience.

Fiero is the Italian word for “pride,” and it’s been adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English.13 Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.

The fact that virtually all humans physically express fiero in the same way is a sure sign that it’s related to some of our most primal emotions. Our brains and bodies must have evolved to experience fiero early on the human timeline—and, in fact, neuroscientists consider it part of our “caveman wiring.” Fiero, according to researchers at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford, is the emotion that first created a desire to leave the cave and conquer the world.14 It’s a craving for challenges that we can overcome, battles we can win, and dangers we can vanquish.

Scientists have recently documented that fiero is one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience. It involves three different structures of the reward circuitry of the brain, including the mesocorticolimbic center, which is most typically associated with reward and addiction. Fiero is a rush unlike any other rush, and the more challenging the obstacle we overcome, the more intense the fiero.


 
A GOOD GAME is a unique way of structuring experience and provoking positive emotion. It is an extremely powerful tool for inspiring participation and motivating hard work. And when this tool is deployed on top of a network, it can inspire and motivate tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people at a time.

Anything else you think you know about games, forget it for now. All the good that comes out of games—every single way that games can make us happier in our everyday lives and help us change the world—stems from their ability to organize us around a voluntary obstacle.

Understanding that this is how games really work can help us stop worrying about how people might game our systems, and inspire us to start giving them real, well-designed games to play instead. If we actively surround ourselves with people playing the same game that we are, then we can stop being so wary of “players” playing their own game. When we know what it really means to play a good game, we can stop reminding each other: This isn’t a game. We can start actively encouraging people instead: This could be a game.

CHAPTER TWO

The Rise of the Happiness Engineers

I’m not the first person to notice that reality is broken compared with games, especially when it comes to giving us good, hard work. In fact, the science of happiness was first born thirty-five years ago, when an American psychologist by the name of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi observed the very same thing. In 1975, Csíkszentmihályi published a groundbreaking scientific study called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. The focus of the study was a specific kind of happiness that Csíkszentmihályi named flow: “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning.”1 He spent seven years researching this kind of intense, joyous engagement: when and where do we experience it most, and how can we create more of it?

Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced cheek-SENT-me-high) found a depressing lack of flow in everyday life, but an overwhelming abundance of it in games and gamelike activities. His favorite examples of flow-inducing activities were chess, basketball, rock climbing, and partner dancing: all challenging endeavors with a clear goal, well-established rules for action, and the potential for increased difficulty and improvement over time. Most importantly, flow activities were done for pure enjoyment rather than for status, money, or obligation.

During this kind of highly structured, self-motivated hard work, Csíkszentmihályi wrote, we regularly achieve the greatest form of happiness available to human beings: intense, optimistic engagement with the world around us. We feel fully alive, full of potential and purpose—in other words, we are completely activated as human beings.

Of course, it’s possible to achieve this kind of extreme activation outside of games. But Csíkszentmihályi’s research showed that flow was most reliably and most efficiently produced by the specific combination of self-chosen goals, personally optimized obstacles, and continuous feedback that make up the essential structure of gameplay. “Games are an obvious source of flow,” he wrote, “and play is the flow experience par excellence.”2

But if games are the most consistent and efficient source of joyous engagement in our lives, he wondered, then why did real life so infrequently resemble a game? Csíkszentmihályi argued that the failure of schools, offices, factories, and other everyday environments to provide flow was a serious moral issue, one of the most urgent problems facing humanity. Why should we needlessly spend the majority of our lives in boredom and anxiety, when games point to a clear and better alternative? “If we continue to ignore what makes us happy,” he wrote, “we shall actively help perpetuate the dehumanizing forces which are gaining momentum day by day.”

The solution seemed obvious to Csíkszentmihályi: create more happiness by structuring real work like game work. Games teach us how to create opportunities for freely chosen, challenging work that keeps us at the limits of our abilities, and those lessons can be transferred to real life. Our most pressing problems—depression, helplessness, social alienation, and the sense that nothing we do truly matters—could be effectively addressed by integrating more gameful work into our everyday lives.3 It wouldn’t be easy, he admitted. But if we failed to at least try to create more flow, we risked losing entire generations to depression and despair.

He ended his groundbreaking study by warning of two populations in greatest need of more gameful work: “Alienated children in the suburbs and bored housewives in the homes need to experience flow. If they cannot get it, they will find substitutes in the form of escape.” This statement was eerily prophetic: today it is precisely these two demographic groups—suburban kids and women who are at home during the day—who spend the most time escaping into computer and video games.4 Clearly, we haven’t done enough to increase everyday flow.

Csíkszentmihályi was right about the need to reinvent reality to work more like a game. He was just too early. In 1975, the rest of the field of modern psychology was still largely focused on understanding mental illness and negative emotions, not optimal human experience. There wasn’t enough critical momentum among his peers to pick up the problem of everyday happiness. Meanwhile, the tools we had in 1975 for inventing and sharing new games with mass audiences were still in their infancy. Pong, the first commercial video game, was just three years old. The Atari home console was still two years away from being released. And only one major research book had been published on the psychology of gameplay: a 1971 book titled, appropriately, The Study of Games.5

Today, however, we are in a very different position. Since Csíkszentmihályi’s breakthrough study, two crucial things have happened, making it suddenly much more practical to improve quality of life with games: the rise of positive psychology and the explosion of the computer and video game industry.

Positive psychology is the relatively new field of science that studies “human flourishing,” or how we achieve different kinds of happiness. For just over a decade now, positive-psychology researchers have been accumulating a formidable body of knowledge about how our brains and bodies work to help us achieve well-being and life satisfaction.

Meanwhile, the commercial game industry is putting all that knowledge to use. Game developers today understand that games become hits and make money in direct proportion to how much satisfaction they provide and how much positive emotion they provoke—in other words, how happy they make their players. As a result, game designers have been taught to relentlessly pursue happiness outcomes, including flow—and they’ve innovated a wide range of other happiness strategies along the way.

Happiness, of course, hasn’t always been the explicit goal of the game industry, and not all game developers today share it. Plenty of game developers today still think more about fun and amusement than well-being and life satisfaction. But since the rise of positive psychology, the creative leaders of the industry have increasingly focused on the emotional and psychological impact of their games. More and more, the directors and designers of major game studios are drawing directly on research findings from positive psychology to make better games. The game industry has even produced a number of scientific research labs expressly devoted to investigating the neurobiology of gameplay emotions.

On the whole, a shift is clearly happening. As one journalist put it, the Microsoft game-testing lab “looks more like a psychological research institute than a game studio.”6 This is no accident. Game designers and developers are actively transforming what once was an intuitive art of optimizing human experience into an applied science. And as a result, they are becoming the most talented and powerful happiness engineers on the planet.

Today, these two historical trends—the science of happiness and the emotional evolution of the game industry—are intersecting. Thanks to positive psychologists, we know better than ever what kinds of experiences and activities really make us happy. And thanks to game developers, we have more and more powerful, and increasingly mobile, systems for providing intense, optimistic engagement and the emotional rewards we crave most.

That gives us our second fix for reality:FIX # 2 : EMOTIONAL ACTIVATION

Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy.

We are finally perfectly poised to harness the potential of games to make us happy and improve our everyday quality of life.

Let’s take a look at how we got here.


 
IN 1983, a jazz pianist and sociologist named David Sudnow published a video game memoir, the first of its kind. It was a 161-page chronicle of his efforts to master one of the original home video games: the Atari ping-pong-style game Breakout.

Sudnow wasn’t your stereotypical teen hanging out in an arcade. He was a forty-three-year-old professor with a successful side career in music and a full life by any objective measure. No one would have predicted that playing a video game would become more satisfying work for him than doing research or making music—least of all Sudnow himself. But to his great surprise, that’s exactly what happened. For three months, Sudnow played Breakout as if it were his full-time job: “Fifty hours, a good five hours a day for ten days, in the afternoon, the evening, at three o’clock in the morning.”

What was so captivating about Breakout? It was basically single-player Pong: you’d rotate a joystick knob to move a flat paddle along the bottom of the screen and wait for a falling ball to hit the paddle. Move the paddle, wait for the ball; move the paddle, wait for the ball. Your goal was to aim the ball using the paddle to knock bricks out of a wall at the top of the screen.

At first, this work was easy: your paddle was big, the ball fell slowly, and there were plenty of bricks to hit. But as you knocked out more and more bricks, the ball fell faster and bounced off the wall more erratically, and your paddle shrank to half its original size. It became increasingly difficult to keep the ball in play, and it took better and better aim to guide the ball toward the few remaining bricks. Once you missed five balls, the game was over.

As primitive a video game as it was, it nevertheless made for a perfect little voluntary workload. It had everything you’d want from an unnecessary obstacle: a clear goal (destroy a prison wall), arbitrary restrictions (use only a paddle and five balls), and instant feedback, both visual and audio (the bricks disappeared from the screen one at a time, always with a satisfying beep). The computer algorithms continuously adjusted the difficulty level to keep you playing at the very edge of your own abilities.

As Sudnow put it, “Here’s all the motivation you’d ever want . . . and the prize seemed to be just holding on.”7 The game completely sustained his attention, even when he wasn’t in front of the Atari console. “When I wasn’t at the TV, I was practicing the sequence in my imagination, walking down the street, sitting in a café twirling a salt shaker, looking up during dinner in a Japanese restaurant at a bamboo and rice paper trellis with Breakout-like rectangles on the ceiling . . . just waiting to get back to the game.”8

The better he got at the game, the more he wanted to play, and the more he played, the better he got. Sudnow was so taken aback by the intensity of this continuous feedback loop, he felt compelled to write an entire book to understand it. It’s an extended, poetic meditation on the emotions of game-play. He says almost everything we need to know about the emotional power of early video games in just these two famous sentences:This was a whole different business, nothing like I’d ever known, like night and day.... Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.9

What Sudnow describes is the extreme neurochemical activation that happens in our brains and bodies when we start to play a good computer or video game. He was intensely focused, highly motivated, creatively charged, and working at the very limits of his abilities. Immersion was almost instant. Flow was fast and virtually guaranteed.

From zero to peak experience in thirty seconds flat—no wonder video games caught on. Never before in human history could this kind of optimal, emotional activation be accessed so cheaply, so reliably, so quickly.

In the past, the deepest experiences of flow had required years of practice to achieve, or extraordinary settings. When Csíkszentmihályi first wrote about it, he was studying expert players of chess, or basketball, or rock climbing, or partner dancing. Flow was typically the result of years, if not decades, of learning the structure of an activity and strengthening the required skills and abilities. Otherwise, it required being immersed in a truly spectacular and unusual context, like dancing in the crowded streets during carnival or skiing down an exceptionally challenging mountainside.

Flow wasn’t supposed to come easy. But, as Sudnow and millions of other early gamers discovered, video games made it possible to experience flow almost immediately. Video games took the traditional properties of potentially flow-inducing activities—a goal, obstacles, increasing challenge, and voluntary participation—and then used a combination of direct physical input (the joystick), flexible difficulty adjustment (the computer algorithms), and instant visual feedback (the video graphics) to tighten the feedback loop of games dramatically. And this faster, tighter feedback loop allowed for more reliable hits of the emotional reward fiero: each microlevel of difficulty you survived prompted a split-second emotional high.

The result was a much faster cycle of learning and reward, and ultimately a sense of perfect and powerful control over a “microworld” on the screen. As Sudnow described, “The joystick-button box feels like a genuine implement of action. Bam, bam, bam, got you . . . Please don’t miss, come on, do it, get that brick, easy does it, no surprises, now stay cool, don’t panic, take it in stride, get it now. Get that closure. Video-game action. You know when you’ve got it like you know your first drunk.”10

It was this fast, reliable fix of flow and fiero that kept Sudnow and all the earliest gamers coming back for more. It’s no exaggeration to say that for many gamers, it probably felt like they had been waiting their whole lives for something like this: a seemingly free and endless supply of invigorating activity and every reason in the world to feel optimistic about their own abilities.

Then and now, faster, more reliable flow and fiero separates computer and video games from all the games that came before them. And that’s what makes Sudnow’s memoir of playing Breakout such an important historical artifact. He was the first to express what was so new and emotionally riveting about digital games, before the spectacular graphics, before the epic stories, and before the massively multiplayer worlds. Back then, all the emotional power of video games stemmed from the fact that they were interesting obstacles with better feedback and more adaptive challenges. As a result, they excelled at one thing and pretty much one thing only: provoking so much flow and fiero, they were nearly impossible to stop playing.

In fact, that was the whole point of these early video games: to keep playing as long as possible. One of the original and best-known Atari slogans was “Discover how far you can go.” It was a constant battle just to stay in the game, but that was also the primary satisfaction of playing. Flow and fiero are the original rewards of video gameplay, and by playing against the tireless machine, we could endlessly produce them for ourselves.

Well, almost endlessly.

After three months, Sudnow finally exhausted his seemingly infinite source of flow. He played a perfect game of Breakout, destroying all the walls with just one ball. It was one of the biggest fiero moments of his life. But on that day, when he earned the highest possible score, his Breakout obsession ended. He had gone as far as flow and fiero could take him.

Fortunately for gamers, that’s not the end of the story.

Flow, as positive psychologists have documented, is only one part of the overall happiness picture. It was the first kind of happiness these psychologists studied, but the science has progressed significantly since then. As Corey Lee M. Keyes, a psychology professor at Emory University, explains, “Flow is considered part of the science of happiness but not all.... It is more of a temporal state than a trait or condition of human functioning. While there are studies on how to prolong it, flow is not seen as something that people can live within all the time.”11

Flow is exhilarating in the moment. It makes us feel energized. A major flow experience can improve our mood for hours, or even days, afterward. But because it’s such a state of extreme engagement, it eventually uses up our physical and mental resources.

We can’t sustain flow indefinitely—as much as we might want to. That’s why, according to Keyes, human flourishing requires a more “continuous” approach to well-being. It can’t just be all flow, all the time. We have to find ways to enjoy the world and relish life even when we’re not operating at our peak human potential.

This is true in games as well as in life.

David Sudnow, it turns out, was so exhausted by the three months he spent suspended in nearly continuous Breakout flow that he subsequently stayed far away from video games for quite some time.

Too much flow can lead to happiness burnout. Meanwhile, too much fiero can lead to addiction—a word that Sudnow never once used in his memoir but which nevertheless inescapably leaps to mind. Fiero taps into some of our most primal hardwiring, and our emotional response can be extreme.

Recently, Allan Reiss, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, led a team of researchers in a study of the neurochemistry of fiero in gamers. His laboratory captured MRIs of gamers’ brains while they were playing particularly challenging video games. The researchers observed exceptionally intense activation of the addiction circuitry of the brain when gamers experienced moments of triumph. And as a result, the researchers identified fiero as the most likely underlying cause of why some gamers feel “addicted” to their favorite games.12

Gamer addiction is a subject the industry takes seriously—it’s a frequent topic at industry conferences and on game developer forums: what causes gamer addiction, and how can you help your players avoid it? This might at first seem surprising: doesn’t the industry want gamers to spend more time (and money) playing games, not less? And it’s true: more gaming by more people is the primary goal of the industry. But the industry wants to create lifelong gamers: people who can balance their favorite games with full and active lives. And so we have what is perhaps the central dilemma of the game industry over the past thirty years: how to enable gamers to play more without diminishing their real lives. The industry knows that gamers crave flow and fiero—and the more game developers give it to them, the more time and money gamers will spend on their favorite games. But beyond a certain playing threshold—for most gamers, it seems to be somewhere around twenty hours a week—they start to wonder if they’re perhaps missing out on real life.

Technology journalist Clive Thompson has a name for this phenomenon: gamer regret.13 And he’ll be the first to admit that he suffers from it as much as any other gamer. Thompson recalls checking his personal statistics one day—many games keep track of how many hours you’ve spent playing—and was shocked to see that he had clocked in thirty-six hours playing a single game in one week—as he described it, “a missing-time experience so vast one would normally require a UFO abduction to achieve it.” He found himself vacillating between pride in what he’d accomplished in the virtual game environment and wondering if all that hard work had really been worth it.

As Thompson writes: “The dirty secret of gamers is that we wrestle with this dilemma all the time. We’re often gripped by . . . a sudden, horrifying sense of emptiness when we muse on all the other things we could have done with our game time.” He admits: “The elation I feel when I finish a game is always slightly tinged with a worrisome sense of hollowness. Wouldn’t I have been better off doing something that was difficult and challenging and productive?”

This internal conflict plays out in discussion forums all over Web. The twin questions “How much time do you spend playing games?” and “How much time is too much?” are ubiquitous in the gaming community.

As a partial solution to gamer regret, many of the most addictive online games have implemented a “fatigue system.” These systems are most commonly used in online games in South Korea and China, where the rates of online gaming for young men can average up to forty hours a week.14 After three hours of consecutive online play, gamers receive 50 percent fewer rewards (and half the fiero) for accomplishing the same amount of work. After five hours, it becomes impossible to earn any rewards. In the United States, a softer touch is more commonly employed: World of Warcraft players, for example, accumulate “resting bonuses” for every hour they spend not playing the game. When they log back in, their avatar can earn up to double rewards until it’s time to rest again.

But these measures are a stopgap at best. Trying to stop people from playing their favorite games will never work; motivated gamers hungry for flow and fiero will find a way around the restrictions and limitations. What’s needed instead is for games to go beyond flow and fiero, which make us happy in the moment, to provide a more lasting kind of emotional reward. We need games that make us happier even when we’re not playing. Only then will we find the right balance between playing our favorite games and making the most of our real lives.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in the computer and video game market today. Games are increasingly teaching us the four secrets of how to make our own happiness—and they’re giving us the power to make it anytime, anywhere.

The Four Secrets to Making Our Own Happiness

Many different competing theories of happiness have emerged from the field of positive psychology, but if there’s one thing virtually all positive psychologists agree on, it’s this: there are many ways to be happy, but we cannot find happiness. No object, no event, no outcome or life circumstance can deliver real happiness to us. We have to make our own happiness—by working hard at activities that provide their own reward.15

When we try to find happiness outside of ourselves, we’re focused on what positive psychologists call “extrinsic” rewards—money, material goods, status, or praise. When we get what we want, we feel good. Unfortunately, the pleasures of found happiness don’t last very long. We build up a tolerance for our favorite things and start to want more. It takes bigger and better rewards just to trigger the same level of satisfaction and pleasure. The more we try to “find” happiness, the harder it gets. Positive psychologists call this process “hedonic adaptation,” and it’s one of the biggest hindrances to long-term life satisfaction. 16 The more we consume, acquire, and elevate our status, the harder it is to stay happy. Whether it’s money, grades, promotions, popularity, attention, or just plain material things we want, scientists agree: seeking out external rewards is a sure path to sabotaging our own happiness.

On the other hand, when we set out to make our own happiness, we’re focused on activity that generates intrinsic rewards—the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us. We’re not looking for praise or payouts. The very act of what we’re doing, the enjoyment of being fully engaged, is enough.

The scientific term for this kind of self-motivated, self-rewarding activity is autotelic (from the Greek words for “self,” auto, and “goal,” telos).17 We do autotelic work because it engages us completely, and because intense engagement is the most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state we can experience.

As long as we are regularly immersed in self-rewarding hard work, we will be happy more often than not—no matter what else is going on in our lives. This is one of the earliest hypotheses of positive psychology, and a fairly radical idea. It contradicts what so many of us have been taught to believe—that we need life to be a certain way in order for us to be happy, and that the easier life is the happier we are. But the relationship between hard work, intrinsic reward, and lasting happiness has been verified and confirmed through hundreds of studies and experiments.

One well-known study conducted at the University of Rochester, published in 2009, neatly upturns one of the most common assumptions about how happiness works. Researchers tracked 150 recent college graduates for two years, monitoring their goals and reported happiness levels. They compared the rates at which the graduates achieved both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, with self-reported levels of well-being and life satisfaction. The researchers’ unequivocal conclusion: “The attainment of extrinsic, or ‘American Dream,’ goals—money, fame, and being considered physically attractive by others—does not contribute to happiness at all.” In fact, they reported, far from creating well-being, achieving extrinsic rewards “actually does contribute to some ill-being.” If we let our desire for more and more extrinsic rewards monopolize our time and attention, it prevents us from engaging in autotelic activities that would actually increase our happiness.

On the other hand, in the same study the University of Rochester researchers found that individuals who focused on intrinsically rewarding activity, working hard to develop their personal strengths and build social relationships, for example, were measurably happier over the entire two-year period completely regardless of external life circumstances like salary or social status.

This research confirms what dozens of other major studies have found: happiness derived from intrinsic reward is incredibly resilient. Every time we engage in autotelic activities, the very opposite of hedonic adaptation occurs. We wean ourselves off consumption and acquisition as sources of pleasure and develop our hedonic resilience. As research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading expert on intrinsic reward, explains: “One of the chief reasons for the durability of happiness activities is that . . . they are hard won. You’ve devoted time and effort.... You have made these practices happen, and you have the ability to make them happen again. This sense of capability and responsibility is a powerful boost in and of itself.” In other words, we become better able to protect and strengthen our quality of life, regardless of external circumstances. We rely less and less on unreliable and short-lived external rewards and take control of our own happiness. “When the source of positive emotion is yourself . . . , it can continue to yield pleasure and make you happy. When the source of positive emotion is yourself, it is renewable.”18

The prevailing positive-psychology theory that we are the one and only source of our own happiness isn’t just a metaphor. It’s a biological fact. Our brains and bodies produce neurochemicals and physiological sensations that we experience, in different quantities and combinations, as pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction, ecstasy, contentment, love, and every other kind of happiness. And positive psychologists have shown that we don’t need to wait for life to trigger these chemicals and sensations for us. We can trigger them ourselves through scientifically measurable autotelic activities.

In fact, from a neurological and physiological point of view, “intrinsic reward” is really just another way of describing the emotional payoffs we get by stimulating our internal happiness systems.

By undertaking a difficult challenge, such as trying to finish a task in a shorter time than usual, we can produce in our own bodies a rush of adrenaline, the excitement hormone that makes us feel confident, energetic, and highly motivated.19

By accomplishing something that is very hard for us, like solving a puzzle or finishing a race, our brains release a potent cocktail of norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. These three neurochemicals in combination make us feel satisfied, proud, and highly aroused.20

When we make someone else laugh or smile, our brain is flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. If we laugh or smile, too, the effect is even more pronounced.21

Every time we coordinate or synchronize our physical movements with others, such as in dance or sports, we release oxytocin into our bloodstream, a neurochemical that makes us feel blissed out and ecstatic.22

When we seek out what we might describe as “powerful” and “moving” stories, media, or live performances, we’re actually triggering our vagus nerve, which makes us feel emotionally “choked up” in our chests and throats, or we’re firing up our nervous system’s pilomotor reflex, which gives us pleasurable chills and goose bumps.23

And if we provoke our curiosity by exposing ourselves to ambiguous visual stimulus, like a wrapped present or a door that is just barely ajar, we experience a rush of “interest” biochemicals also known as “internal opiates.” These include endorphins, which make us feel powerful and in control, and beta-endorphin, a “well-being” neurotransmitter that is eighty times more powerful than morphine.

Few of us set out intentionally to trigger these systems. We don’t think of happiness as a process of tapping strategically into our neurochemistry. We just know what feels good and meaningful and satisfying, and that’s the kind of activity we’ll do for its own sake.

Of course, we’ve also developed many external shortcuts to triggering our hardwired happiness systems: addictive drugs and alcohol, rich but unhealthy food, and chronic shopping, to name a few. But none of these methods are sustainable or effective in the long term. As scientists have shown, hedonic adaptation to extrinsic reward will cause our shortcut happiness behaviors to spiral out of control until they no longer work or we can no longer afford them, or even until they kill us.

Fortunately, we don’t have to fight this losing battle. As long as we’re focused on intrinsic and not extrinsic reward, we never run out of the raw materials for making our own happiness. We’re hardwired with neurochemical systems to make all the happiness we need. We just have to work hard at things that activate us and immerse ourselves in challenging activities we enjoy for their own sake.

Writer and self-described happiness explorer Elizabeth Gilbert puts it best: “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort.... You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.”24 We have the biological capability to create our own happiness through hard work. And the harder we work to experience intrinsic rewards, the stronger our internal happiness-making capabilities become.


 
SO WHICH INTRINSIC rewards, exactly, are most essential to our happiness? There’s no definitive list, but a few key ideas and examples appear over and over again in the scientific literature. My analysis of significant positive-psychology findings from the past decade suggests that intrinsic rewards fall into four major categories.25

First and foremost, we crave satisfying work, every single day. The exact nature of this “satisfying work” is different from person to person, but for everyone it means being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts. 
Second, we crave the experience, or at least the hope, of being successful. We want to feel powerful in our own lives and show off to others what we’re good at. We want to be optimistic about our own chances for success, to aspire to something, and to feel like we’re getting better over time. 
Third, we crave social connection. Humans are extremely social creatures, and even the most introverted among us derive a large percentage of our happiness from spending time with the people we care about. We want to share experiences and build bonds, and we most often accomplish that by doing things that matter together. 
Fourth, and finally, we crave meaning, or the chance to be a part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curiosity, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales. And most importantly, we want to belong to and contribute to something that has lasting significance beyond our own individual lives.

These four kinds of intrinsic rewards are the foundation for optimal human experience. They’re the most powerful motivations we have other than our basic survival needs (food, safety, and sex). And what these rewards all have in common is that they’re all ways of engaging deeply with the world around us—with our environment, with other people, and with causes and projects bigger than ourselves.


 
IF INTRINSIC REWARD is so much more satisfying and effective in boosting our happiness than extrinsic reward, then shouldn’t we all naturally spend most of our time tackling unnecessary obstacles and engaging in autotelic activity?

Unfortunately, as Sonja Lyubomirsky eloquently explains: “We have been conditioned to believe that the wrong things will make us lastingly happy.”26 We’ve been sold the American dream. And increasingly, it’s not just Americans who are giving up real happiness in favor of the pursuit of wealth, fame, and beauty. Thanks to the globalization of consumer and popular culture, everyone on the planet is being sold the same dream of extrinsic reward. This is especially true in emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil, where more and more people are being ushered onto the global hedonic treadmill, encouraged to consume more and to compete for limited natural resources as a way to increase their quality of life.

But there is cause for hope. One group is opting out of this soul-deadening, planet-exhausting hedonic grind, and in larger and larger numbers: hard-core gamers.

Games, after all, are the quintessential autotelic activity. We only ever play because we want to. Games don’t fuel our appetite for extrinsic reward: they don’t pay us, they don’t advance our careers, and they don’t help us accumulate luxury goods. Instead, games enrich us with intrinsic rewards. They actively engage us in satisfying work that we have the chance to be successful at. They give us a highly structured way to spend time and build bonds with people we like. And if we play a game long enough, with a big enough network of players, we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves—part of an epic story, an important project, or a global community.

Good games help us experience the four things we crave most—and they do it safely, cheaply, and reliably.

Good games are productive. They’re producing a higher quality of life.

When we realize that this reorientation toward intrinsic reward is what’s really behind the 3 billion hours a week we spend gaming globally, the mass exodus to game worlds is neither surprising nor particularly alarming. Instead, it’s overwhelming confirmation of what positive psychologists have found in their scientific research: self-motivated, self-rewarding activity really does make us happier. More importantly, it’s evidence that gamers aren’t escaping their real lives by playing games.

They’re actively making their real lives more rewarding.

CHAPTER THREE

More Satisfying Work

Playing World of Warcraft is such a satisfying job, gamers have collectively spent 5.93 million years doing it.

It sounds impossible, but it’s true: if you add up all the hours that gamers across the globe have spent playing World of Warcraft since the massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game (RPG) first launched in 2004, you get a grand total of just over 50 billion collective hours—or 5.93 million years.1

To put that number in perspective: 5.93 million years ago is almost exactly the moment in history that our earliest human ancestors first stood upright.2 By that measure, we’ve spent as much time playing World of Warcra ft as we’ve spent evolving as a species.

No other computer game has ever made so much money keeping so many players occupied for so long. Each WoW player spends on average between seventeen and twenty-two hours per week in the virtual world, more time than any other computer game attracts.3 And the number of subscribers has steadily grown from 250,000 in January 2004 to more than 11.5 million in January 2010, making it the single largest paying game community in the world. (Like many MMORPGs, WoW requires players to pay a monthly fee—on average, fifteen dollars—in order to access the virtual world.) WoW developer Activision Blizzard currently reaps an estimated $5 million every single day in global subscription fees alone.4

What accounts for World of Warcraft’s unprecedented success? More than anything else, it’s the feeling of “blissful productivity” that the game provokes.5

Blissful productivity is the sense of being deeply immersed in work that produces immediate and obvious results. The clearer the results, and the faster we achieve them, the more blissfully productive we feel. And no game gives us a better sense of getting work done than WoW.

Your primary job in World of Warcraft is self-improvement—a kind of work nearly all of us find naturally compelling. You have an avatar, and your job is to make that avatar better, stronger, and richer in as many different ways as possible: more experience, more abilities, stronger armor, more skills, more talent, and a bigger reputation.

Each of these improvable traits is displayed in your avatar profile, alongside a point value. You improve yourself by earning more points, which requires managing a constant work flow of quests, battles, and professional training. The more points you earn, the higher your level, and the higher your level, the more challenging work you unlock. This process is called “leveling up.” The more challenging the work, the more motivated you are to do it, and the more points you earn . . . It’s a virtuous circle of productivity. As Edward Castronova, who is a leading researcher of virtual worlds, puts it, “There is zero unemployment in World of Warcraft.”6 The WoW work flow is famously designed so that there is always something to do, always different ways to improve your avatar.

Some of the work is thrilling and high-stakes: it involves battling powerful opponents you’re just barely strong enough to fight. Some of the work is exploratory: you’re figuring out how to navigate around the many different regions of the kingdom, discovering new creatures and investigating strange environments. Some of the work is busywork: you study a virtual profession, like leatherworking or blacksmithing, and you collect and combine raw materials to help you ply your trade.

A lot of the work is teamwork: you can join forces with other players to take on quests that none of you is strong enough to survive alone, and you can go on raids that can only be completed by five, ten, or even twenty-five players working together. This kind of collaboration often involves strategic work before you take on the challenge. You have to figure out what role everyone will play in the raid, and you may have to rehearse and coordinate your actions many times to get it right.

Between the high-stakes work, the exploratory work, the busywork, the teamwork, and the strategic work, the hours of work definitely add up. There’s so much to do, the typical WoW player puts in as many hours weekly as a part-time job. All in all, it takes the average WoW player a total of five hundred hours of gameplay to develop his or her avatar to the game’s current maximum level, which is where many players say the fun really starts.7 Now that’s a labor of love.

So how exactly does a game convince a player to spend five hundred hours playing it just to get to the “fun” part?

For some players, it’s the promise of ultimate challenge that makes the incredible workload worth it. At the highest levels of the game, you get to experience the extreme adrenaline rush of what players call the “endgame.” Players who crave high-stakes work and extreme mental activation level up as fast as they can to reach the endgame, because that’s where the most challenging opponents and the hardest work—in other words, the most invigorating, confidence-building gameplay—is available.

But there are plenty of online games that allow you to risk your virtual life and battle challenging opponents in adrenaline-producing environments—and you get to do it from the very start of the game. If that were the main reward for playing a game like World of Warcraft, the requirement of spending five hundred hours leveling up would be a bug, not a feature. The process of leveling up is easily as important, if not more important, than the endgame. As one player explains, “If all I wanted to do was run around and kill stuff, I could play Counter-Strike . . . and that game’s free.”8 The players of WoW, and the many other subscription-based massively multiplayer online games like it, are paying for a particular privilege. They’re paying for the privilege of higher in-game productivity.

Consider many fans’ reactions when it was revealed that a highly anticipated new MMO, Age of Conan, would take just two hundred fifty hours of gameplay on average to reach the highest level. Bloggers described this as a “paltry” and “positively anemic” amount of work, and professional game critics worried that fans would reject an MMO that required “so little effort” to achieve the highest level.9

In real life, if someone gave you a task that normally took five hundred hours of work to finish, and then gave you a way to complete it in half that, you would probably be pretty pleased. But in game life, where the whole point for so many players is to get their hands on as much satisfying work as possible, two hundred fifty hours of work is a disappointment. For these dedicated MMO players, the possibility of reaching the highest level is simply justification for what they really love most: getting better.

No wonder Nick Yee, a leading researcher of MMOs and the first person to receive a PhD for studying WoW, has argued that the MMOs are really massively multiplayer work environments disguised as games. As Yee observes, “Computers were made to work for us, but video games have come to demand that we work for them.” This is true—but, of course, we are really the ones who are asking to have more work. We want to be given more work—or rather, we want to be given more satisfying work.

This brings us to our next fix for reality:FIX # 3 : MORE SATISFYING WORK

Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work.

Satisfying work always starts with two things: a clear goal and actionable next steps toward achieving that goal. Having a clear goal motivates us to act: we know what we’re supposed to do. And actionable next steps ensure that we can make progress toward the goal immediately.

What if we have a clear goal, but we aren’t sure how to go about achieving it? Then it’s not work—it’s a problem. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having interesting problems to solve; it can be quite engaging. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to satisfaction. In the absence of actionable steps, our motivation to solve a problem might not be enough to make real progress. Well-designed work, on the other hand, leaves no doubt that progress will be made. There is a guarantee of productivity built in, and that’s what makes it so appealing.

WoW offers a guarantee of productivity with every quest you undertake. The world is populated by thousands of characters who are willing to give you special assignments—each one presented on an individual scroll that lists a clear goal, and why it matters, followed by actionable steps: where to go, step-by-step instructions for what to do when you get there, and a concrete measure of proof you’re expected to gather to demonstrate your success. For example, here is an annotated version of a typical WoW quest:QUEST: A Worthy Weapon

Bring the Blade of Drak’Mar to Jaelyne Evensong at the Argent Tournament Grounds. (This is your goal.)  
Of all the times to have such rotten luck! My tournament blade has gone missing and I need it for a match this afternoon. (And this is why your goal matters.) 
One of the bards tells me that travelers used to present winter hyacinths to a lonely maiden in return for gifts. Those hyacinths grow only on the ice flowing from the Ironwall Dam, on Crystalsong Forest’s northwestern border with Icecrown. (This is where to go.) 
Gather the flowers and take them to Drak’Mar Lake in northeastern Dragonblight, near its border with Zul’Drak and Grizzly Hills. (These are your step-by-step instructions.) 
Return to Jaelyne Evensong in Icecrown and deliver the Blade. (This is your proof of completion.)

When you’re on a WoW quest, there’s never any doubt about what you’re supposed to do, or where or how. It’s not a game that emphasizes puzzle solving or trial-and-error investigation. You simply have to get the job done, and then you will collect your rewards.

Why do we crave this kind of guaranteed productivity? In The How of Happiness , Sonja Lyubomirsky writes that the fastest way to improve someone’s everyday quality of life is to “bestow on a person a specific goal, something to do and to look forward.”10 When a clear goal is attached to a specific task, she explains, it gives us an energizing push, a sense of purpose.

That’s why receiving more quests every time we complete one in World of Warcraft is more of a reward than the experience points and the gold we’ve earned. Each quest is another clear goal with actionable steps.

The real payoff for our work in WoW is to be rewarded with more opportunities for work. The design of the work flow is key here: the game constantly challenging you to try something just a little bit more difficult than what you’ve just accomplished. These microincreases in challenge are just big enough to keep sparking your interest and motivation—but never big enough to create anxiety or the sense of an ability gap. As one longtime World of Warcraft player explains, “When accepting a quest, you rarely have to question if you can complete it; you just need to figure out when you can fit it into your jam-packed hero schedule.”11 This endless series of goals and actionable steps is exactly what makes World of Warcraft so invigorating.


 
MOTIVATION AND REASONABLY assured progress: this is the start of satisfying work. But to be truly satisfied, we have to be able to finish our work as clearly as we started it. To finish work in a satisfying way, we must be able to see the results of our efforts as directly, immediately, and vividly as possible.

Visible results are satisfying because they mirror back to us a positive sense of our own capabilities. When we can see what we’ve accomplished, we build our sense of self-worth. As Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, argues, “The most important resource-building human trait is productivity at work.”12 The key here is resource building: we like productive work because it makes us feel that we are developing our personal resources.

The famous heads-up display of World of Warcraft, which shows us our improvement in real time, is all about making our own resource building more visible. It constantly flashes positive feedback at players: +1 stamina, +1 intellect, +1 strength. We can count our own internal resources by these points, watching as we become more and more resourceful with every effort we make: able to inflict or sustain more damage, or able to cast more powerful spells.

We can also see the self-improving results of our game work just by looking at our avatar, which visibly bears more impressive armors, weapons, and jewels over time. And many players install a game modification that can show them a complete history of every quest they’ve completed—the ultimate, tangible record of work well done.

And it’s not just self-improvement. At the highest levels of the game, during the most collaborative game missions, the raids, collective improvement is the focus. Players may join what are called “guilds,” or long-term alliances with other players, to complete the most difficult raids. One popular WoW guide explains, “Raiding is about building and maintaining a team, a close-knit group of players who progress together.”13 As the guild’s raid statistics and achievement statistics measurably improve, the satisfaction of resource building is amplified by celebrating it with so many others.

But perhaps the most compelling form of feedback we get from working in the World of Warcraft isn’t strictly about us. It’s a visual effect called phasing, which is designed to vividly show us our impact on the world around us.

This is how phasing works: When I play an MMO on my computer, most of the game content isn’t on my hard drive. It’s on a remote server that’s processing the game experiences for me and thousands of other players at the same time. For the most part, if I’m in one part of the game world on my computer, and you’re in the same part of the game world on your computer, and we’re both playing on the same server, we see exactly the same world. The game server sends us exactly the same visual data about who’s there, what they’re doing, and what the environment looks like.

But in phasing, the server compares the game histories of different players in the environment and shows each player a different version of the world depending on what they’ve accomplished. When you complete a heroic quest or a high-level raid, your virtual world literally changes—you see different things from someone who hasn’t finished the quest or raid. As one WoW FAQ explains: “Did you help a faction conquer an area? When you next return they’ll have a camp set up with vendors and other services, and all the bad guys are gone! The same area now serves a different purpose reflecting your earlier work.”14

It’s a very powerful special effect. We’re not only improving our characters; we’re improving the whole world. As one player writes in an enthusiastic review of the phasing content, “Whether this is achieved though technical wizardry or just straight-up magic is unclear. Its integration is seamless, and it’s incredibly satisfying. You feel like your actions are having a significant impact on the world around you.”15

That is, after all, one of things we crave most in life. In his study The Pleasures of Sorrow and Work, Alain de Botton argues that work is “meaningful only when it proceeds briskly in the hands of a restricted number of actors and therefore where particular workers can make an imaginative connection between what they have done with their working days and their impact upon others.”16 In other words, we have to both be close enough to the action and see the results directly and quickly enough for work to satisfy our craving to make an impact. When we don’t have visible results that we can clearly link to our own efforts, it is impossible to take real satisfaction in our work. Unfortunately, for many of us this is true of our everyday work lives.

In Shop Class as Soul Craft, author and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford reflects on the psychological differences between manual labor and everyday office work. As he observes:Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is opaque and responsibility diffuse, the experience of individual agency can be elusive.... Is there a more “real” alternative?17

While it may not be the solution Crawford is referring to, games like World of Warcraft are just that: a more “real” alternative to the insubstantiality of so much everyday work. Although we think of computer games as virtual experiences, they do give us real agency: the opportunity to do something that feels concrete because it produces measurable results, and the power to act directly on the virtual world. And, of course, gamers are working with their hands, even if what they’re manipulating is digital data and virtual objects. Until and unless the real work world changes for the better, games like WoW will fulfill a fundamental human need: the need to feel productive.

That’s what it takes for work to satisfy us: it must present us with clear, immediately actionable goals as well as direct, vivid feedback. World of Warcraft does all of this brilliantly, and it does so continuously. As a result, every single day, gamers worldwide spend a collective 30 million hours working in World of Warcraft. With its thousands of potential quests, its ever-elusive endgame, and a server that generates more obstacles and opponents for you every time you log on, it is without a doubt one of the most satisfying work systems ever engineered. Even people who love their real jobs can be seduced by the blissful productivity it provokes in us—myself included.

The first time I sat down to play the game, my friend Brian cheerfully warned me that “World of Warcraft is the single most powerful IV drip of productivity ever created.”

He wasn’t kidding. That weekend, I spent twenty-four hours playing WoW—which was about twenty-three more hours than I’d intended.

What can I say? There was a lot of world-saving work to do.

Every time I completed a quest, I racked up experience points and gold. But more important than the points or treasure, from the moment I entered the online Kingdom of Azeroth, I was rich with goals. Every quest came with clear, urgent instructions—where to go, what to do, and why the fate of the kingdom hung in the balance of my getting it done as soon as possible.

When Monday morning came around, I resisted the idea of going back to “real” work. I knew this wasn’t rational. But some part of me wanted to keep earning experience points, stacking up treasure, collecting my plus-ones, and checking off world-saving quests from my to-do list.

“Playing WoW just feels way more productive,” I remember telling my husband.

I did go back to real work, of course. But it took me a while to shake the feeling that I’d rather be leveling up. Part of me felt like I was accomplishing more in the Kingdom of Azeroth than I was in my real life. And that’s exactly the IV drip of productivity that World of Warcraft is so good at providing. It delivers a stream of work and reward as reliably as a morphine drip line.

When we play WoW, we get blissed out by our own productivity—and it doesn’t matter that the work isn’t real. The emotional rewards are real—and for gamers, that’s what matters.


 
WORLD OF WARCRAFT is an example of extreme-scale satisfying work. Players commit to this work environment for extraordinary periods of time.

But there are also microexamples of games that generate the rewarding sense of capability and productivity. They’re called “casual games,” and they provide satisfying work in very quick bursts of productive play: as short as a few minutes to an hour. When interspersed with everyday work, they can be surprisingly boosting to everyday life satisfaction.

“Casual games” is an industry term for games that tend to be easy to learn, quick to play, and require far less computer memory and processing power than other computer and video games. (They’re often played online in Web browsers, or on mobile phones.)

These games require less of a commitment than most video games: a casual game player might play his or her favorite game for just fifteen minutes a day, a few times a week.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a gamer, you’ve probably played some casual games—including the versions of solitaire and Minesweeper that come preinstalled on so many computers. Other iconic casual games include Bejeweled , in which the goal is to rearrange brightly colored gems into sets of three; Diner Dash, a simulation of being a waitress; and one of my own personal favorites, Peggle, which requires you to aim and shoot balls to knock out pegs from a kind of psychedelic pachinko board.

Most casual games are single-player, allowing gamers to sneak in a few minutes of play for themselves whenever they need it most. And one of the places we seem to need the boost of gaming most is, perhaps not surprisingly, at the office.

A recent major survey of high-level executives, including chief executive officers, chief financial officers, and presidents, revealed that 70 percent of them regularly play casual computer games while working. That’s right: the vast majority of senior executives report taking daily computer game breaks that last on average between fifteen minutes and one hour.

How do these executives explain their tendency to play while working? Most of them say they turn to games to feel “less stressed out.” This makes perfect sense—casual games are undoubtedly more effective than more passive ways of decreasing stress at work, like browsing the Web. By tackling an unnecessary obstacle in the middle of the workday, these executives are triggering a sense of self-motivation. They’re shifting their mental awareness from the externally applied pressures of real work, or negative stress, to the internally generated pressure of game work, or positive stress. The executives reported feeling “more confident, more energetic, and more mentally focused” after playing a quick computer game—all hallmarks of eustress.

But even more interestingly, more than half of these gameful executives say they play during work in order “to feel more productive.”18 Now this is a statement that sounds crazy on the face of it—playing games to feel more productive at work? But this speaks to how much we all crave simple, hands-on work that feels genuinely productive. We turn to games to help us alleviate the frustrating sense that, in our real work, we’re often not making any progress or impact.

As de Botton writes: “Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfaction of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions.”19 In casual games, there is no greater purpose to our actions—we are simply enjoying our ability to make something happen.


 
WHETHER IT’S A SHORT, simple burst of video game productivity or entering into sprawling worlds designed to engage us in endless campaigns of satisfying activity, playing games can give us a taste of that elusive sense of individual agency and impact in a world where the work we do may be challenging, but our efforts often seem fruitless.

The best-designed game work feels more productive because it feels more real: the feedback comes stronger and faster, and the impact is more visible and vivid. And for many of us who aren’t gratified enough by our day-to-day jobs or don’t feel like our work is having a direct impact, gameful work is a real source of reward and satisfaction.

On the other hand, as gratifying as it is to rack up achievements and get the job done, it can be equally energizing—but in a very different way—to fail, fail, fail. This brings us to our next intrinsic reward, which is a kind of counterbalance to the experience of satisfying work. It’s the hope—but not necessarily the achievement—of success.

DMU Timestamp: January 18, 2013 04:18