Turning Life into a Video Game Makes People Happier

Life not going the way you want it to? Try making it into a video game.

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Happiness is an essential feeling for any human being. Think about it, who doesn’t want to feel happy? We all know how it feels. We get it in small doses and sometimes in big chunks. It is a warm and fuzzy feeling in our stomachs. It is a peace of mind, a relief from our daily stresses. Happiness is what drives most of the decisions we make both short-term and long-term. If you’re reading this, video games probably make you happy and that’s why you are here on this website.

Think about the average office workplace. A nine-to-five, with the only motivation keeping you going is the thought of putting bread on the table. People who feel like their lives have slipped past them, or they are just watching it go by on the sidelines. They may feel that they don’t have much to live for anymore, that they are just living without any aspirations.

Here in the United States, depression is one of the most common mental disorders affecting adults, teenagers, and senior citizens every day. Sitting in a bland workplace doing work they do not care about, or being stuck in an elderly home is not helping anyone feel any better.

People over the age of 12 with depression, according to the CDC from the years of 2009-2012. As you can see, there is a lot.

On the other hand, gamers are some of the happier people on our planet Earth. Why is that? Well, a whole lot of things that are covered in hundred page studies that are way more in-depth than I have any right to go into, but I can try and outline a few here.

First off, being really into a video game places the player in a state of “flow”, professionally defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”. Basically, you know that feeling you get when you have been playing a game for what seems like an hour and you look at the clock, and it has somehow been three? That was you experiencing flow. This is a state of mind that people chase all the time, often abusing drugs to help achieve that, leading to addiction. In a way, video games can be that drug.

Gamers are constantly being exposed to flow. Almost any time they spend an amount of time playing a game they enjoy, it will be experienced. Achieving that state of mind frequently has a directly positive effect on overall happiness. However, there is a reason we can’t be in a state of flow all of the time. If we were, humans would get nothing done. We would be hyper focused on whatever it is we are doing all of the time, and not take care of ourselves or ignore our other priorities – also known as addiction. That is why finding a balance between the things we enjoy and our other priorities are essential to happiness.

This chart showcases when exactly flow can be experienced.

Aside from flow, gamers are also happier because they are constantly being rewarded. The happiness chemical, dopamine, gets released by our brain after we complete a challenge, directly improving our mood. Whether gaining an achievement, leveling up, beating your friends, or getting that new armor piece, being rewarded for our efforts feels good. Being visually rewarded is an even better feeling. Getting a paycheck is a real mood-booster. Seeing and holding that amount of money in your hands relieves stress, and you know that your hard work paid off. Getting that same amount of money handed to you in cash feels even better and surprisingly more so. You aren’t just holding a slip with a number on it; you are holding all of that sweet cash that you know you deserve.

Video games are the same way. One of the reasons you will see a rank/level of some sort in pretty much any video game nowadays is because developers know that seeing yourself progress puts gamers in a happier state than just simply being told they are. It is a classic case of show don’t tell.

So, gamers are happier overall due to being visually rewarded, as well as constantly achieving a state of flow. People who don’t have access to either of these benefits are generally not very happy, and can fall into heavy depression. So here’s an idea, why don’t we take those design choices that make video games so dopamine-inducing, and throw them into our everyday lives?

The act of doing just that is called “gamification”. A great example of this would be a boss giving out incentives (achievements) such as a free lunch or an extended break if the worker gets a certain amount of work done. Or how about challenging all of the workers (trying to beat your friends) to think of a new way to organize the office (a boss battle)? Whoever does so gets a small pay bonus. By literally turning these everyday tasks into a game, the worker now has the incentive to do a good job and they are more likely to engage in a flow-state, as they are much more engaged in what they are doing.

Gamification can be applied in a ridiculous number of ways.

There are areas of work where gamification is applied, such as in advertising. But, sadly, because of the way video games can be looked down on, some people are quick to dismiss gamifying their everyday lives. Imagine thinking of a brilliant way to reorganize the office, and just being told “good, you did your job”. While technically true, being shut down like that is a sure-fire way to ruin any desire to go above and beyond again.

Jane McGonigal, game developer, past TED talker, and author of the brilliant book, Reality is Broken, has proven that gamifying everyday tasks really works. In her book, she talks about her apps and games she has developed based on helping other people and how well they worked, and you know what helping people does? It helps people feel happier, both the helper and the person being helped.

One of her apps, Cruel 2 B Kind revolves around committing an act of kindness (a weapon) to someone in a public space (assassinating them). The trick is that that “someone” is an assigned person who is also playing the game. While attempting to find that someone you may end up assassinating the wrong person. In fact, according to the book, players end up assassinating five times more bystanders than they do players. Since assassinating is really an act of kindness, everybody wins. The player gets a positive boost from being nice, and the bystander’s day (hopefully) was improved a little bit.

Colorado Tech’s poster presenting Jane McGonigal.

Jane has countless other apps, and they can be found here on her site, or in her book which I highly recommend.

It is a shame to hear about people living their lives feeling meaningless or that they are just watching it go by from the sidelines. Adding design choices from video games such as achievements or reward factors is a great way to help. People continuously shit on video games and act like nothing can be learned from them, while in reality, understanding them for what they are and what they can do is beneficial in all aspects of life. Want to improve an aspect of your life? Try gamifying it and see what happens.

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Max Moeller Editor
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