Can Games Teach Us How To Live?

The more I study gamification and serious gaming, the more this notion grabs hold of me: games can teach us how to live. I don’t just mean that they can teach us specific tasks or help us develop certain qualities and characteristics, but also that how we are while we play games, how we think and act, provides a model for how we could best lead our lives. Games can bring out our best qualities. In this article I want to explore the idea that this means that we should live our lives as were it a game.

This idea is not new. Innumerable life coaches, guru’s, therapists, philosophers, writers and artists have said it before me: life is just a game. Life is just a ride. We should be playful. Lighten up. Play by the rules. Know the rules. Etcetera. Now I want to take it a step further to see if what we know about how games work can be transferred to real life.

Two interesting areas come to mind. First the concept of overjustification, about which I’ve written ealier as being the Catch-22 of gamification. I will briefly repeat myself in the next paragraphs. Second I want to discuss Gordon Calleja’s player involvement model, which describes six dimensions of player involvement, to see whether it translates to real life as well.

The overjustification effect is a well-known psychological mechanism which occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. In gamification, this is a real killer, as I explained in an earlier article. Also in many real life situations overjustification presents real problems. In education for example there is a lot of rewarding going on. The whole grading system can be seen (and is often experienced as) a system of doling out rewards (nice ones and lousy ones…).

Sort of like my German teacher…

Take me, for example: I always loved reading and learning languages. I was pretty good at explaining German texts and I got good grades, which boosted my confidence and made me anticipate the next text. I actually looked forward to reading German texts! Another bonus was, that these good grades had to be given to me by my German teacher, with whom I didn’t get along for the five long years. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside knowing that she sat at home, grinding her teeth while seeing another example of my fine work.

Now after high school this stopped. No more assignments, no more grades (good or bad), no more dispicable teachers, no more warm and fuzzy feelings surrounding German texts. I hardly ever picked up a German book again. The external rewards had taken the place of my intrinsic motivation to learn, to master a new language. And I think a lot of people can come up whith such examples from their own educational years. Education’s grading systems resemble gaming mechanics like points and levels quite closely.

When I look at how society stimulates, punishes, rewards, persuades, obliges and forbids us… it looks remarkably like a game! A great example and maybe the most fundamental one is money. Money is an external reward. It is supposed to be nothing more than a legal tender of an intrinsicly motivated piece of value, with a practical value of not having to carry around all your cattle while trading. However, our collective attention has in many cases shifted almost entirely to the reward, in stead of the value. It is quite striking to me how well this analogy works. See what people do, to themselves and to others, in order to earn money.

Consider how many people are performing tasks for some external reward that they would not even consider if all that mattered was their intrinsic motivation. Of course, you might argue that the motivation behind them doing the dirty work (so to speak) is the intrinsic drive to survive, to eat, to take care, etcetera. And you would be right. But consider the fact that so many of us in the Western world struggle with meaning in our lives, i.e. with intrinsic value. Grinding away at your job, day in day out, without deriving real pleasure or satisfaction from it, is really hard to endure in the long run even if you get a good paycheck and get to on nice holidays. Don’t take my word for it, look at how many seemingly succesful people are actually depressed and desperate. Millons of us. From this perspective, depression can be seen as the absence of intrinsic motivation and the reason it has declined or disappeared is money: through overjustification the reward has taken the place of the value.

This theory of money eating away at our values, actually sheds new light on the way we have organized society and it might well be that using this game perspective more extensively will give us even more insight into how and why things work as they do in real life. What we would need to look at the world as a game systematically, is a model. Luckily, one such model fits our needs quite well. It is Gordon Calleja’s Player Involvement Model. This model describes six dimensions of player involvement while playng games. He chooses to abandon the widely-used term immersion and uses incorporation as substitute. The reason he gives is firstly that the former term has been used for such a variety of phenomena and in such diverse field, that its meaning is obscured. But the two terms are also quite distinctly different in their implications. Where immersion implies a player who is more or less lost in the designed world of the game, incorporation implies that the game lives inside the player. Both can be true and I do think both happen during gameplay, but to my mind, incorporation seems more desirable and meaningful than immersion.

So Calleja’s Player Involvement Model describes the following six dimensions of involvement:

  1. Kinesthetic: deals with control and movement;
  2. Spatial: deals with exploration and learning of the (game’s) spatial domain;
  3. Shared: deals with collaboration, co-presence and competition with other agents within the spatial domain (other players or game-characters/agents);
  4. Narrative: deals with the formation of an ongoing story and/or interaction with the scripted narrative that has been written into the game.
  5. Affective: deals with the affect (suspension of disbelief, attachment) generated during play;
  6. Ludic: deals with the consciously made choices undertaken while trying to achieve goals, either set by the game or by the player.

When you look at the list and conceptually take it away from gaming and bring it into real life, it becomes immediately apparent that we are dealing with a quite fitting and perhaps powerful model of conducting ones own life. If we are able to deal effectively with the first 5 dimensions in order to achieve the goals set in the 6th dimension, chances are we will lead a pretty succesful life that is very much intrinsicly motivated. Of course, dimension number 5 is a tricky one: how far are you willing to go to see your life as a game? How often will you get caught up in your own story and how capable are you in letting that storyline go if it doesn’t work for you anymore?

Seen like this, gamification might actually be a fun and powerful paradigm for self-help. Who knows, I might just turn into the next Dr. Phil – Bring Your Life To The Win State!

I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you might have upon reading this. Please share!

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