So why would a reasonably sensible aging person like the writer suddenly start to play computer games? I tried them out after watching grandchildren play them and after reading Jane McGonigal’s more recent book, SuperBetter – just to see what it felt like. Many of things she talks about in Reality is Broken rang true. I feel as though I am engaged in a productive sequence and improving as I go. It’s nice to find success at the beginning – but pretty soon there is an increasing challenge. I confess to going on line a couple of times to get help at certain levels – another benefit is that there can be collaboration – real or virtual. Things get harder to solve the longer I am at it and I need the help.
Compared to work – paid or volunteer – there is real satisfaction in playing. The goal is clear. There are actionable steps to carry out. In life, getting things started in the right way is often a mystery, but game developers sequences things properly. Even when I am up against a brick wall, I still think I can scale it and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t fall for buying extra turns regularly offered when I fail but come close to success – because they come at a cost – usually a small amount for a single player though I can also spend several dollars. But small amounts for millions of players add up to huge profits for the game company. I sometimes wonder if success after a certain number of failures at a given level are built in – say that success is automatic after 43 failures, for instance – just to make sure that I don’t drop out before becoming really addicted. There are also free rewards constantly offered to keep me onside.
The real difference between the game and real life is a surprising one – failure in the game is actually fun. Getting it wrong in school brings a reprimand or a failing grade. Getting the wrong note while practising the piano hurts both the ears and the ego.. But failing in a game has little negative feeling in comparison – in fact, failing becomes a way of life in the game. It’s designed right into it. Sometimes the graphics make you laugh when you fail. Success is nice too though and it is recognized. In the game illustrated above you hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when you get a level right.
So what keeps us going? McGonigal cites Martin Seligman’s notion of flexible optimism and also talks about “emotional stamina” – a concept developed by Raph Koster. As an aside, its nice to know what liberal arts degrees lead to in the 21st century – Koster’s majors were creative writing and poetry leading to his becoming a game designer and theorist. He says its not the not monetary rewards of real world achievement that we enjoy in a game. It’s learning. When we succeed – even after a period of considerable failure – the immediate euphoria fades rather quickly and we even find the game boring.
McGonigal also notes that Seligman’s idea of flexible optimism relates to the notion that a feeling of constant optimism almost becomes manic – followed by depression. By combining success and failure in a game we attain the benefits of both. It’s a virtuous circle that allows us to remain realistic but open to new adventures and possibility.