The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression.
Brain Sutton-Smith, Psychologist of Play
Setting out on the Oregon Trail, pioneers risked their lives for the prospect of a better life out West.
Driving a covered wagon on a five month trek with limited resources, across unknown territory, they faced enormous challenges. Tens of thousands didn’t survive the journey.
Diseases like cholera, smallpox, measles ravaged wagon trains. Axles broke from the rocky terrain and overloaded wagons. Oxen suffered broken hooves and often died of thirst. River crossings were one of the most dangerous events: many pioneers drown or were badly injured. It was anything but a game.
The classic video game Oregon Trail is a simulation of this experience. Over and over again you can try different strategies to successfully lead your party safely to the Pacific Coast.
Have you ever gotten lost in a game on your phone during the work day?
Has your teenager ever spent hours and hours playing video games instead of doing homework?
These scenarios are far from rare. They are the norm. So, why do so many people gravitate towards games?
According to a recent report by Statista, there are over 2.6 Billion active gamers around the world. In the US, kids spend an average of 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21. This love of games isn’t a modern day phenomenon: there is evidence of humans playing the board game mancala as far back as 8000 years ago (Bromiley, 1979).
There is universal agreement on the importance of eating, sleeping and sex to survival. But we don’t often hear about gaming as a human need. The drive to play games is the same one that makes humans want to work, to learn, to solve things.
Playing games is important to human survival.
We are here because all of our direct ancestors were good at surviving. That meant using their imagination to think of all the potential threats to their safety, working with others to gather resources and allocate them, building fires, erecting shelters, tracking game, inventing tools, curing ailments. They became experts on their environment. Their survival relied on their ability to learn new things, imagine potential threats, innovate through uncertainty, and contribute to the prosperity of their tribes.
The reason we sometimes prefer video games to “real” work is that they hijack the machinery in your mind that evolved to keep you engaged throughout an important project or task.
Not all projects are worthy of your attention and energy, so we are drawn towards projects with certain key features: projects that give us an opportunity to increase our independence, social standing, and connection with others, while giving us a sense of belonging and purpose. On the flipside, we quickly lose interest in projects that appear deadended or pointless.
So, how does our brain signal to us that the task we’re working on is meaningful and important? - through the elusive emotional experiences of fun and flow. When we play video games, we are trying to satisfy a deep-seated need for meaningful work.
Video games are good at fulfilling this need because they are optimized for making us feel productive. They aren’t (directly) increasing your chances of survival but they’re better than most jobs at making your brain believe they do.
That’s because the average office job isn’t providing signals to your brain that you’re doing something worthwhile (even if you are).
Listed below are the defining features of games (from Dr. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken). These are also features that help you identify meaningful tasks.
An ultimate goal that is achievable and that you can easily track your progress towards
A clear set of rules that everyone is bought into
Immediate feedback meaning you are rewarded for timely and good decision making, and can effectively learn from mistakes
Voluntary participation - it’s your choice to play
In addition to this, games are often collaborative and/or competitive. Competition exists either in the form of other players, virtual rivals, or yourself (e.g. beating your previous high score).
Video games have been shown to boost creativity, memory, attention, collaboration, problem solving, and multitasking just to name a few - but these games hold the keys to engagement in real work. Gamification is already a popular tool for increasing engagement. According to a recent TalentLMS survey, 83% of those who receive gamified training feel motivated, while 61% of those who receive non-gamified training feel bored and unproductive.
Work can and should be fun, and video games can teach us a thing or two about how to achieve that. The pioneers on the Oregon Trail weren’t having much fun, but imagine the high they got when they successfully forded the river or got a good deal on a new axle. They worked together, cultivated their skills, learned a new environment, and worked hard to achieve a goal.
Meaningful work is a human need because to contribute was to survive.
This series will cover lessons we can learn about humans, by studying video games. Stay tuned to level up your own work experience by learning more about why the brain loves to game.