Parents have always known what positive psychology (the study of what makes us happy) now reinforces: short term “extrinsic” rewards might make us joyful in the moment but they don’t lead to happiness. Happiness wells up from a sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment; from a feeling of power, heroic purpose and community; from bursts of exhilarating and creative accomplishment and the heart expanding thrill of success and team victory. Happiness is born when we work hard and overcome great obstacles toward a destiny and purpose worthy of our greatest attributes.
But when you talk to most kids, they’ll tell you the place they feel that sense of being alive and focused is when they are playing video games. Jane McGonigal in her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World asks “where in the real world is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart expanding thrill of success and team victory?”
These feelings are experienced constantly in our children’s favorite games, and only occasionally in the real world. Reality does not appear to be designed to make us happy. Reality, compared to games, is broken. My daughter, now 25 and a case worker, described a recent evening while she played online with friends now scattered around the globe. They meet up on an X-Box game every Wednesday night and fight off zombies or sneak around the streets ofFlorencesearching for Pieces of Eden. A moment came when she did some brilliant gamer move scoring double points and leveling up in some epic way. She described her distant friends screaming their atta-girls over her head set, and her near friends jumping from the coach and giving her high fives. The next day she did some brilliant case worker move preventing a client from being made homeless and making it possible for a woman at her wits end to experience hope. She described her coworkers as nodding and smiling and this bizarre sense in being let down by their lack of enthusiasm.
Video games can teach us as parents (friends, spouses, teachers and bosses) how to structure experiences to keep our kids engaged. Classic game rewards (a clear sense of purpose, making an obvious impact, continuous progress, enjoying a good chance of success, and fiero moments) can be used to increase happiness, and when we increase another’s, we increase our own. Try playing Chore Wars for a few weeks and see if your kids stealthily try to win the chance to clean the toilet!
Sonja Lyubomirsky writes in The How of Happiness that the fastest way to helping another person improve is to bestow on a person a specific goal, something to do and something to look forward to, celebrate each success, then work toward new goals just big enough to motivate and not so big they overwhelm. It is well-designed self-rewarding hard work that brings the most happiness. Adding a sense of play with the structure of game play can make real life more rewarding.
But games can do so much more. Video games teach problem solving. They teach collaboration. Video games even teach resilience. Guitar hero has one of the best epic fail scenes ever. You are booed offstage by an animated crowd while your avatar pouts and skulks around the stage and all the band members shake their fists and scowl at each other. You’re entertained, laughing at yourself and are taught to view your progress not as a failure, but as a partial success, having survived 1/3 or 1/2 way through the song this time.
I’m not advocating limitless play. Even game makers recognize the addictive nature of their products, the dopamine rush each time the player levels up or scores a progressive win. Some write their software so that you win less and less as the time you have spent in the game increases. In an age where addictive video games, shopping, gambling and pornography are just a click away, video games offer repeated teachable moments on: how to self-monitor, cope with cravings, develop the emotional intelligence to delay immediate gratification, and accomplish important personal goals and objectives first or alongside any game play.
Nor am I denying nature deficit disorder, the condition described by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. For Louv, the more high-tech we become, the more nature we need. Nature has restorative powers. It can boost acuity and creativity, promote health and wellness; build and inspire sustainable growth in business, community and the economy.
Ian, my 14 year old, is a scout and fortunate enough to experience at least one week a year surrounded by trees with no cell reception nor electronics. Yet he is also part of the global community of game playing teens, 10,000 hours each before they leave for college (as much time as they spent in a classroom). He is becoming, for Jane McGonigal, part of a game empowered generation ready to rebuild reality as a collaborator with other planet crafters, looking to translate their skills into real world arenas that give them a sense of epic win with something that matters, the chance to stick to a problem, get up after failure and try again.