Games and the Design of Optimal Human Experience

As a teen, I spent more of my time in game worlds than in the real world.

At home, I spent all my time playing games like The Elder Scrolls: OblivionStar Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect. At school, all my time was spent daydreaming about the games I would play when I got home.

In college, I learned to think of my gaming habit as an addiction. At great personal cost, I managed to wean myself off of games.

In other words, I learned to assume the “default moral position” that many conservative adults have about games. To these people, games are the moral relatives of hookers and heroin: Addictive, life-destroying substances to be avoided at all costs.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about games again. In particular, I’ve been asking the following question: Why are games so fun and engaging?

When I played games, it was easy for me to sit at the computer for ten, twelve, or even sixteen hours a day. I’ve never been able to focus on anything else—reading books, programming, writing, etc.—for nearly that long.

This year, I’ve read a couple books on games, and I’ve come up one possible answer: Games are optimal forms of human experience.

A Theory of Fun

One gem of a book I discovered recently is Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Koster has led the design of massively popular games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. He’s also wildly curious and a voracious reader.

Though the book is intended for game designers, I think it is much more valuable than it first appears. What the book actually offers is a fascinating exploration into human nature, evolutionary theory, and the design of optimal human experience.

For example, a key question in the book is “What is fun?”

Koster argues that fun is the experience of developing mastery. When we acquire new skills and recognize valuable patterns, our brains reward us with a shot of pleasurable sensations:

“One of the subtlest releases of [reward] chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn–therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. … Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.

Teachers are making a mistake when they debate the question “Should learning be fun?” If Koster is right, then learning cannot be anything but fun. This is because, as Koster says, “Fun is just another word for learning.”

The best games are fun because they are optimal learning environments. Feedback loops are short, fast, and tailored your skill level. Challenges grow as you develop new skills. Failures are meaningful: Every time you make a mistake, you get a clue about how you can learn and do a better job.

This leads to an interesting contradiction. Another place in our lives that is supposed to be about “optimal learning” is the school.

If learning has to be fun, then why is school—a place designed for learning—oftentimes so boring?

Boredom, At the Right Time

Boredom, says Koster, is what we feel when our brain decides that there is nothing worth learning:

“Boredom is the opposite [of fun]. When a game stops teaching us, we feel bored. Boredom is the brain casting about for new information. It is the feeling you get when there are no new patterns to absorb. When a book is dull and fails to lead you on to the next chapter, it is failing to exhibit a captivating pattern.”

All games get boring at some point. This is because no game has an infinite amount of things to teach you. Eventually, the game runs out of compelling patterns and you stop playing.

Again, there’s an evolutionary reason for this. It’s wasteful to spend time learning skills you’ve already mastered.

The goal for game designers is not to design a game that is never boring. Rather, they want to design games that are only boring once you’ve exhausted all the fun. This is why Koster defines a good game as “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.”

Schools as Transmission Failures

If a good game is one that teaches you everything it has to teach before the player quits, then you could say that a good school is one that teaches you everything it intends to before the students leave.

School is so boring, says Koster, because it fails to transfer the patterns that it intends to teach:

“One wonders, then, why learning is so damn boring to so many people. It’s almost certainly because the method of transmission is wrong.”

If school is boring, then somebody, somewhere has failed. Maybe it’s the teacher. Maybe it’s the school. Maybe it’s the entire system. Or maybe it’s the student.

This transmission failure can happen in a variety of ways. Here are some of them:

  • The patterns to be learned are too easy, so you get bored. This is a common problem for gifted students that are way ahead of their peers.
  • The patterns to be learned are too hard, so you perceive them as chaos and random noise. You get bored and give up. This can happen when a student is behind, or when a teacher teaches something without providing the proper background knowledge.
  • The patterns don’t feel meaningful. Maybe you don’t feel that learning American history or integral calculus will be very valuable in the future.

To some extent, these problems are unavoidable. All the students in a single classroom will never be on the “same page”; some will be too advanced and others will be too beginner to engage with the schoolwork.

Good games get around this by dynamically adjusting levels to match player skill. Perhaps in the future schools can do the same?

Learning, Good and Bad

Of course, I wouldn’t want a teenager to read this article and drop out of school to play World of Warcraft.

Games might be optimal learning environments, but there’s no guarantee that they’re teaching skills that you actually want or need. In other words, not all learning is good learning.

This is something Koster spends a lot of time emphasizing in his book. Games tend to teach primitive skills: jumping, swinging, timing, fighting, and so on.

Koster writes:

“Many games, particularly those that have evolved into the classic Olympian sports, can be directly traced back to the needs of primitive humans to survive under very difficult conditions. Many things we have fun at doing are in fact training us to be better cavemen. We learn skills that are antiquated. Most folks never need to shoot something with an arrow to eat…”

Again, notice the evolutionary theme here. The skills of running, jumping, and fighting may still be very important for an Australian boomerang-hunter (or a Canadian ice hockey player), but they’re a lot less useful for a writer or computer programmer.

Games also tend to harness our natural tendency to operate in xenophobic packs. Games, says Koster, can reinforce traits like:

  • Blind obedience to leaders and cults
  • Formation of rigid hierarchies of power and status
  • Use of force to solve problems
  • Xenophobia

What this means to me is that school often do a bad job of teaching us things that are (supposedly) good for us while games often do the reverse: They do a good job of teaching us things that are often useless in modern life.

What this also means is that school and games can learn from each other. Perhaps teachers should study games to learn why they’re so compelling, and game designers can think about what schools are trying to teach and find better ways of doing so.

Actually, this is already happening. I’ve used “gamification” many times in the past months to make learning a more enjoyable experience. I’ve used Vim Adventures to learn the ins and outs of the Vim text editor. I’ve used the web app Habitica to help keep track of habits and tasks. I’ve used tools like Codewars and HackerRank to pick up the rudiments of programming.

In all these cases, I’m sure I learned much more than I would have from the traditional, “tiger mother” style of learning, where education is supposed to be full of pain and suffering. That style of education just doesn’t make sense to me.

Beyond Fun: Games as Optimal Human Experience

Games are not just about fun and learning, though.

In Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Dr. Jane McGonigal argues that games are about much more–they’re sources of optimal human experience.

Positive psychology is the study of human well-being, and McGonigal argues that we’ve discovered four categories of intrinsically rewarding human experience:

  • Satisfying work – Activities that are clearly defined, challenging, and provide clear feedback.
  • The experience or promise of success – We want to feel that we are in control of outcomes and that we are getting better over time.
  • Meaningfulness – The feeling of being a part of something bigger. One thinks of the wonderful game worlds of Halo or the Elder Scrolls series.
  • Social connection – Sharing experiences with others and working towards communal goals.

These experiences are what the Greeks called atelic experiences; they have no telos, or end goal. Instead, they’re done for their own sake. Filing taxes is telic, but playing games, it seems, is often atelic.

Interestingly, McGonigal argues that, when it comes to creating these intrinsically rewarding, atelic experiences, games do a much better job than real life:

“Good games help us experience the four things we crave most–and they do it safely, cheaply, and reliably.”

We play games because they provide us with important experiences that reality often fails to:

“When we realize that this reorientation toward intrinsic reward is what’s really behind the 3 billion hours a week we spend gaming globally, the mass exodus to game worlds is neither surprising nor particularly alarming. Instead, it’s overwhelming confirmation of what positive psychologists have found in their scientific research: self-motivated, self-rewarding activity that really does make us happier.

So studying games doesn’t just teach us how to make learning more fun. It can also teach us how to make life feel more worth living.

When a teenager (or adult) escapes from real life to game worlds, we shouldn’t simply call that person “weak” or “a coward.” We should also ask, “What is it about life that made this person run away?”

Ugly cityscapes can cause us “turn inward” to introspection and depression. Likewise, perhaps poor experiences of living can encourage us to turn inward to game worlds, which provide us with the essential, optimal experiences that we cannot get from real life.

I think this is, in part, what I was doing during my childhood when I spent thousands of hours playing video games.

Another thought: Skeptical parents often ask, “Why are video games useful?”. But if games are atelic activities and valuable in themselves, then this may be a category mistake. Games don’t need to be useful if they’re valuable in themselves.

We don’t play games to succeed in the real world; We succeed in the real world so that we can play games.

Back to Reality

Still, most of us don’t have the option to play games all day. We have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed, and obligations to carry out.

The answer, then, is not to run away from life and live in a game world. Rather, McGonigal argues that we should use games to make real-life experiences more valuable. (A whole two-thirds of her book is dedicated to that subject, so check it out if you’re interested.)

Thinking more about games recently has convinced me that studying them can teach us a lot about how to improve everyday experience.

Recently, I’ve realized at least two things:

  • You can use games to accelerate learning. I used to think that games can help you learn because fun things keep you motivated. Now, I realize that games help you learn because to have fun is to learn. If I’m trying to learn something and not having much fun, this is a good sign that I’m doing something wrong.
  • Don’t feel guilty about playing games for fun. After years of hating myself whenever I touched a game, I’ve started to play games again. If games are near-optimal experiences, then why cut them out of my life?

While on vacation in southern Japan, I convinced my wife to play a couple games of Mario Kart with me at a local arcade. She’s always been terrified of driving, but (to my embarrassment) she crushed me 2-to-0 on her first try. Now, she’s not so terrified of driving anymore.

For whatever reason, I think that’s pretty cool.