Life is a game - play it!

Thinking about life as a game to be happy and successful

Photo by Geeky Shots on Unsplash


Success in real life, success with games

Tobi Lütke, Elon Musk, Brenda Romero, Larry Page, Kobe Bryant, Vin Diesel — all very successful in their own fields — play video games. 
Particularly, Tobi Lütke is a strong advocate of playing games in interviews and on Twitter:

I firmly believe that I learned more about building businesses from playing Starcraft than I’ve learned from business books — Tobi Lütke (@tobi) April 1, 2018

Following his take on video games and the discussions around mankind living in a simulation — also fuelled by people like Elon Musk — I was thinking about the impact of games on our happiness, motivation and success to achieve our goals.

A look into my gaming past

As a kid, I used to get lost in Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog or Gianna Sisters. Some games we would play jointly with my good primary school friend and my little sister. We would cheer each other on or help each other out when one of us would get stuck at some point. Sometimes both, my friend and my sister, had to leave the room, so I could beat Bowser in tricky endgame scenarios without any distraction.
Later, The Day of the Tentacle, Zak McKracken, Monkey Island or also The Sims could get me hooked for hours. Especially, those point-and-click adventures were extremely fascinating to me, as there were so many riddles to solve and things to combine in creative ways. If I couldn’t solve it right away, I would come back to it over and over again. I’d try new things and come up with unconventional ideas until that extremely rewarding moment happened when I found the solution. 

Transferring energy, motivation and problem-solving from games to real-life

Today, I spend zero time to play computer games. However, I’m wondering how I could get the energy, excitement and motivation to solve problem after problem in a game into today’s life?

One of the first steps to better understand this is to ask: What does playing (computer)games do to us? Why are they so engaging? And how can this be transferred to our everyday reality?

I ended up with the work of Jane McGonigal and Tom Chatfield. Jane McGonigal is a game designer while Tom Chatfield is an author and tech philosopher — and they’re both looking at exactly that. 

What does playing (computer) games do to us?

Jane McGonigal thinks about what players are becoming virtuous at by playing games. She knows an average gamer of World of Warcraft spends 22 hours a week playing. This is a lot of time. What are they learning during play?

  1. Extreme self-motivation in the form of urgent optimism: she defines urgent optimism as “the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers believe that an epic win is possible, and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now.”
  2. Building bonds, trust and cooperation: collaboration is one of the factors of many games. Gamers have to work together to achieve missions. So as they play together they build bonds. They trust and cooperate — and gradually also become better at it. As a result they can learn to build stronger social relationships.
  3. Blissful productivity: this is about an understanding that human beings are usually happier when they do meaningful work compared to just hanging out and doing nothing. Gamers put in a lot of hours, they work hard to achieve their mission.
  4. Epic meaning: gamers love to become part of huge stories that impact the virtual planet. They look at the biggest possible picture. And, they believe they have an individual impact on the virtual world and can change it.

Jane McGonigal strongly believes that making the real world work more like a game will help us to solve humankind’s issues. If we would look at our reality’s problems as we look at games we could transfer the above into actual work on real obstacles. 

But how could that be done? I think, now’s the point in time to look at our second question:

What makes games so engaging?

  1. Collecting visible experience: games have a way to measure your progress and show it visually. Each and every tiny progression is detected, saved and visible to you and others.
  2. Being on the verge of an (epic) win: your mission matches your current experience level. It’s just right at the verge of what you’re capable of. You can do it but you need to make an effort to achieve it.
  3. Lots of different tasks: games usually give you a range of tasks, so they don’t become boring. There is multiple aims for the short and the long-term. This way, you get to choose what you want to solve when.
  4. Effort rewards: even if you don’t make it, you get credit for trying. 
  5. Instant feedback: games give you rapid, frequent and clear feedback. You either win or lose. This helps you to learn and gradually improve until you win.
  6. Unexpected rewards: these are the ones that really motivate you. Yes, a known reward might be exciting but those you don’t know will give you an extra dopamine hit. Dopamine is an indicator for learning and engagement. So, a well-placed unexpected reward will switch you on!
  7. Enhanced attention: games make us alert and they demand problem-solving. Both need attention and heightened attention means engagement.
  8. Collaboration is the norm: in games like World of Warcraft, there are millions of players who are ready to help and work together to achieve an epic mission together. Doing something as a team with your peers is exciting and extremely rewarding. 
  9. Trust is a given: characters and other players in the game world are trusting you with world-saving missions off the bat. This is giving you confidence and makes you more likely to be successful. As the trust is given to you unconditionally, you want to pay it back.

So, how to go about transferring this to our everyday reality?

I believe, most of us are capable of urgent optimism. We can imagine success and then go after it. The virtual world and the real world are actually not so different. It’s the way you think about each. This brings you to working on your mindset and getting fully behind the belief you have a reasonable hope of success.

  1. But first things first. As, you are about to make your life more like a game, you might want to think about your own epic life story: What is the “biggest life” you could live? What kind of impact would you like to have? Imagine a world in which you are starting out to go onto your very own journey to achieve this.
  2. Now, what experience do you bring with you? What superpowers do you have? In which areas do you need to learn and grow? How can you go about it? Think of a way to capture and visualise your experience level.
  3. Write down all the different missions, split them into smaller tasks. What’s the first step? In what order do you tackle your tasks to complete the mission? Which tasks could be done in parallel?
  4. How will you reward yourself for trying? What’s the reward for succeeding on a task level? How do you celebrate big wins? Prepare yourself for success, make your rewards ready, mix them up, forget about them. You might also involve others in your reward system for the extra surprise.
  5. Set up a feedback system by either going out with your work or sharing your accomplishments. This can be direct with someone who’s interested in your journey’s success or through sharing online with peers. There’s a lot of opportunity to receive instant feedback to learn and grow. 
  6. Tackle bigger issues when you are most alert, awake and rested. Find a good rhythm for yourself to get enough sleep, eat healthy and exercise. This will help you to find and use those windows of enhanced attention.
  7. Who will support you on your missions? Do you know who your peers are? Where is the group of people that has similar goals as yours? Who can you collaborate with within your epic life story? How do you help others with achieving what they set out to do within their journey? Go out and share about yourself to find collaborators. Be active with your tasks and connect through working on them.
  8. Practice trust in yourself and trust in others. Only if we trust, we feel save to share with others and show all of us. This includes the full spectrum of our personality, our thoughts and ideas which in turn might help resolve issues — our own as well as those of the world around us.

It’s time to get your epic life’s controllers ready and play!

Happy to connect and exchange thoughts about the topic at carolin

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