Playing Games Is Hard Work: An Excerpt From Reality Is Broken

By Jane McGonigal

[In this excerpt from noted game researcher and developer Jane McGonigal's new book Reality is Broken, games are broken down into several different types of satisfying work, suggesting many ways to engage players.]

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.”

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 not only with the possibility 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 an online role-playing 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 rapidfire 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, it's undoubtedly true. Games inspired us to tackle tough challenges with optimism, energy and resilience. When we play a good game, we become the hardest working versions of ourselves. Which brings us to our first fix for reality:

Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles

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

To discover the other 14 fixes for reality, read Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal (Penguin Press).

From REALITY IS BROKEN by Jane McGonigal. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Jane McGonigal, 2011.

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