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A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games

Strategies and goals


I’m not particularly interested in playing video or computer games, and you may well not be either, but taking a close look at them can provide us with some surprisingly useful information about how we motivate ourselves. And although in most cases, video games don’t motivate players to do anything particularly constructive, the lessons we take from them can be applied to virtually any kind of goal.

To get an idea of why we would care about video or computer games, think about the times you’ve seen someone who was very involved in one. They may play for hours at a time, postponing food and drink and bathroom breaks, accomplishing difficult tasks despite regular failures and setbacks, disregarding most of the world around them in favor of singleminded attention to a goal. A hard-core gamer might do this every day they can, week after week. Even children with ADD and ADHD seem to be able to focus intently on video games, according to research.

When this kind of attention is directed at video games, it’s a little disturbing. Having fun is great, but being obsessed with a video game is probably not the healthiest way to live. The interesting part comes when we imagine this same amount of focus and perserverance applied to some other task, like practicing the violin, studying algebra, building a house, or examining a patient in a health clinic. In fact, the description of someone who’s absorbed in a video game sounds an awful lot like the description of someone experiencing flow. Are there lessons we can learn from video game playing to understand better how to focus on other, more useful tasks?

Sorry, that’s a dumb question. You’ve probably read the title of this post, so you already know the answer is “yes.” I hope you’ll accept my apology for wasting your time with that kind of rhetorical silliness: I know you’re busy. Let me cut to the chase.

What is it about video games that engages attention and brings out so much focus and determination? It’s a combination of factors, each of which can be applied to self-motivation. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the video game is external to the person playing it, because there is no real carrot or stick. The forces driving a determined gamer all occur within their mind: they are the exact mental triggers that can potentially make any activity compelling.

Challenging, but Not Overwhelming
Video games strive to be hard enough that the player always has to focus attention in order to survive or succeed, but easy enough that eventually almost anyone who keeps trying can become skillful. The initial difficulty makes the later accomplishment much more gratifying, and ensures that the player can’t turn attention away from the game without sacrificing success.

When we want to accomplish something in our own lives, it can be helpful to array the job in front of us so that we have to dive in and work hard. This means creating goals that are difficult to achieve. Instead of having a goal of “cleaning the house,” you can have the goal of “making the kitchen spotless in 45 minutes.” If your kitchen would normally take you an hour and fifteen minutes to clean well, this is a difficult goal. You’d have to focus hard and work at top efficiency, ignoring distractions. When the kitchen is clean, level 1 has been cleared, so to speak. Whether or not you managed to complete the job in 45 minutes barely matters once the kitchen is actually clean. Then on to level 2 …

The Next Thing Needs to Be Done Right Away
In most good electronic games, there’s always another monster lurking, another disaster that needs to be averted, another question to answer. You can’t complete one thing and then relax: you complete one thing and immediately turn your attention to the thing after it, because your only other choice is failure.

In the same way, if you’re working on starting a home business, the most productive way to go about it is to know exactly what you need to achieve–probably in the form of a to do list–and to go about methodically completing one thing after the other. You write the business plan. As soon as that’s done, you immediately start on the financial projections, and then launch directly into the marketing plan, and so forth. The easiest way to keep these tasks going is to not just to keep a task list, but to make sure that the next task to do is already at the top of your list . This takes active management of the list to handle the changing situation. If you have a reliable queue of things to do, you can concentrate on one at a time and work through them without having to hesitate or lose momentum due to not knowing what to do next. If you finish a task and the next one isn’t already identified, make prioritizing your tasks itself the next thing you do.

Always Knowing the Stakes
In life, bad choices often don’t make any immediately noticeable impact. If you decide not to work on your novel today, or to ignore the argument you had with your significant other instead of considering how you could work it out together, everything may seem fine for now–but the long term effects could be a book that doesn’t get finished (or takes much longer than you wanted it to) or a relationship that becomes painful and frustrating.

In video games, by contrast, bad choices usually bring immediate trouble. If you don’t send your peasants out into the fields, your city starves and production grinds to a halt. If you don’t bother to keep an eye out for traps, you could suddenly end up impaled on something. These kinds of results tend to be very motivating: you put out your peasants or do regular scans of the area automatically to avoid trouble and prevail in the game. Creating automatic behavior is the power of a good feedback loop.

We can apply this motivating factor to our lives by reminding ourselves of the real consequences of our actions. If you have the choice of either filing your papers at the end of the work day or letting them pile up, you can focus on how enjoyable it will be coming in the next morning to a clean desk. If we want to avoid buying a bag of potato chips, you can imagine what you’ll look like the next time you put on a bathing suit if you are carrying on a love affair with Pringles. To motivate yourself to do something, think about the pleasing results. To motivate yourself not to do something, think about the unpleasant results.

Engineering Our Own Motivation
Developers of electronic games put enormous effort into designing game play, making a game as appealing and involving as possible. A relatively small amount of planning in our own lives can allow us to accomplish the same thing with our goals.

Photo by Shelms.



  1. Walter  •  Aug 26, 2009 @10:22 pm

    I thought once that games were nothing more. Then I get addicted to the world of Warcraft and I it was very engaging. I have discovered my weakness and my abilities. And I have learn more about psychology of other people. 🙂

  2. Luc  •  Aug 27, 2009 @8:45 am

    Thanks for commenting, Walter. I imagine World of Warcraft must be one of the most successful games of all time at getting and keeping people involved. I think it can be taken to an unhealthy level if a person were to play it without moderation, but it’s intriguing to hear about the things you’re getting out of playing the game itself. What kinds of things keep you interested and coming back to play more?

  3. Ankush Thakur  •  Feb 27, 2012 @12:30 pm

    I have no idea what makes me keep coming back. What I do know is that if I don’t restrict myself, I can easily get wasted playing video games! However, I tend to enjoy games with a rich imaginative setting. Some of my favorites are Prince of Persia, God of War, Halo, etc., although I also liked Max Payne, which does not have a fantastical setting. I hate sports and military games, which I see as a complete waste of time! 😛
    I want to play Assassin’s Creed, Arkham City, World of Warcraft, Crysis, etc. 🙂

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