I’ve had video games on the brain for about a week now, ever since I watched this YouTube video by John Sonmez of simpleprogrammer.com. In the thought-provoking video, John answers a submitted question about why grinding is easier in video games than in real life. By grinding, the question asker means working hard to level up and achieve goals and complete tasks in video games. Briefly, the answer John proposes is that video games provide players with instant gratification, thereby keeping players regularly rewarded and motivated to continue. In life, on the other hand, working hard is not immediately followed by rewards. Life’s hard work is rewarded after a delay, and often after significant delays, so it is harder to remain motivated while chasing down real life goals than when killing monsters in video games to level up.
The video got me excited, because I hadn’t thought about immediate and delayed gratification in the context of video games versus real life before. The issue is relevant today, as research is beginning to show that there is a large number of young men who are choosing to live in their parents’ or grandparents’ basements to pursue video game, rather than real world, accomplishments. Thanks in part to technological improvements in gaming creating a better-than-ever virtual experience, it appears that some young men are choosing video games over jobs in increasing numbers, and are happier with their virtual lives than their real ones.
Let’s back up a few years to circa 1990. I was six years old and desperately in need of a Nintendo Entertainment System (the original one). By that time the NES had been out for a few years (it was released in the U.S. in 1985), so most of my friends had it, and I was quite envious of their ability to play Duck Hunt and the original Super Mario Bros. whenever they wanted. After being out for 5 years, the Nintendo was going for about $100, a reasonable price for my parents to pay, I thought, for literally the only thing I wanted at that point in my life.
I begged and pleaded with my parents for the console. I never got it. We couldn’t afford it, and, frankly, my parents thought it was stupid. I wasn’t too pleased with the way this turned out, what with me sans console and all, and I’d spend much of my childhood trying to sneak in as much gaming time with my friends as I could, which, in the end, wasn’t all that much time. And, adding to my frustration, the games and consoles only got better. Super Nintendo came out, then Nintendo 64, and so on. I didn’t get Super Nintendo, but I did get to own the Nintendo 64 for an entire month before we returned it. That was my present for my 13th birthday: getting to play N64 for a month. I haven’t owned a console since.
When I was a kid, I loved video games. They fascinated me. Probably because I was a regular kid. But my parents didn’t want me playing them, and when I expressed interest in writing code and developing games, that wasn’t met with encouragement, to say the least. My family believed that video games rotted the brain, and would set me back.
When I got older and was in high school and college, I would get myself some PC games here and there, but I never got a console. I played a bit of the PC games, but none held my interest for very long, and I never became a gamer like some of my friends. I just didn’t have the patience to spend hours mastering a game at that point my life. My interests had changed.
Fast forward to now, and I occasionally try to play video games to relax. I try to use them as a tool to de-stress and get my mind off work. But they just don’t do it for me. They don’t hold my attention, and they seem to increase my stress rather than reduce it. Some of my friends, on the other hand, enjoy spending hours in front of their PCs or consoles playing games, and it makes them happy and relaxes them in a way that isn’t accessible to me when I play.
So what’s going on? Why can’t I enjoy the instant gratification found in video games the way others can? Do I have an advantage because I don’t enjoy video games? And, more broadly, is there something wrong with playing video games?
I think part of what’s going on is that when my parents didn’t get me any consoles when I was a kid, both because we didn’t have the money and because they thought it wasn’t good for me, I found other ways to entertain myself. I learned other ways to feel accomplishment. I read books, played chess, played card games, and actually played outside, too. Sounds boring, yeah?
In hindsight I wouldn’t say that I’m glad I didn’t have the access to games that my friends did, but I think my fun activities growing up shaped what I currently enjoy. Reading was my go-to way to escape, and now, when I read, it’s one of the main ways I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I get a lot of joy just out of finishing a book. Why don’t I get the same joy out of finishing a level of a video game? I think it’s because I grew up with books, and without games, so that’s how I learned to have fun.
I think an aspect of gaming that keeps people playing and makes games more enjoyable than real life is the easy access games give to the feeling of progress. We have a need to feel that we are progressing, completing tasks, and accomplishing goals. It’s much easier to do that in a game than in real life. Similarly, it’s easier to finish a book than to knock out complex projects at work, but for some reason, books seem more real for me, and more productive. And they’re just short of a level of enthrallment that would keep me from going to work to read instead.
I actually would like to enjoy video games more, but I think I’m past the point in my life where I could learn to love them. I would rather read and write, and learn to do new things.
I think in my case in particular, not having access to video games forced me to do better in school, and in part contributed to some of my academic success, and later, to success in my career. I don’t think games are necessarily bad; there are some that require complex strategy and problem-solving, and some very smart people I know play both strategy games and mindless shooting games. It has to come down to balance.
If you’re spending most of your time in virtual reality, you probably need to put down the controller and go outside, and if you’re not working because you’d rather play games, then when you come back from your walk, start working on your resume.
If your career is suffering due to a video game habit, I think a potential solution is to approach career development as a game, while being mindful that the gratification in life is simply on a different schedule than in video games. You don’t get to level up after just an hour. But all the work you’re doing to advance your career or to learn new skills counts. It all adds up and builds, and the rewards of learning in and of itself, and of financial freedom (which can be reaped from learning) are at least as gratifying as the video games.
And this discussion can extend beyond video games and into media consumption generally, which can occur in healthy amounts, and can also be taken to extremes. Consumption should be balanced by creation, in a ratio that only you can appropriately determine. You may find that when you balance your consumption of media with creation, the joy you get from creating is as rewarding, or more rewarding, than playing games or watching TV or even reading books.
If you love playing video games, maybe you’ll love creating video games, or marketing them, or reviewing them, even more!
The image above is from this episode of South Park, which is recommended viewing.