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.