The basic premise of McGonigal’s book is that we can address social problems through the mechanisms of gaming because gaming offers strong psychological advantages in generating happiness and a sense of meaning in our lives. The first part of this book offers a number of interesting concepts for us to address. I’ll just point to a few:
- unnecessary obstacles
- intrinsic reward
- flexible optimism
- prosocial emotions
- vicarious pride (naches)
I am going to write about two of these: one that relates to my life and one that presumably connects to yours. The first has to do with fiero and naches. As McGonigal says “Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.” Naches is a similar feeling of pride but one that you feel when someone who have supported or mentored succeeds. I spend the Memorial Day weekend driving my 13 year-old son back and forth to Pennsylvania for a soccer tournament. As it turns out, they won the tournament when he scored an overtime goal. It’s a moment familiar to fans and athletes at all levels, a moment when we all expressed ourselves exactly as McGonigal describes. There are very few times when we get the opportunity to have the kind of experience my son had. Whatever accomplishments I’ve had in my life, I’ve never had a moment quite like that, mostly because regular life rarely offers such definitive moments of victory. However I did experience naches in that moment, and that is a more common experience for me as a teacher. Naches helps make teaching a meaningful and rewarding profession. Maybe you have had such an experience at some point. McGonigal’s argument is that we need to capitalize on this psychological advantage and structure our lives with gaming principles that will help us to encounter it more often. I wonder if you have any ideas as to how that can happen.
The other point I want to discuss is related to the principle of intrinsic rewards. McGonigal writes:
One well-known study conducted at the University of Rochester, published in 2009, neatly upturns one of the most common assumptions about how happiness works. Researchers tracked 150 recent college graduates for two years, monitoring their goals and reported happiness levels. They compared the rates at which the graduates achieved both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, with self-reported levels of well-being and life satisfaction. The researchers’ unequivocal conclusion: “The attainment of extrinsic, or ‘American Dream,’ goals—money, fame, and being considered physically attractive by others—does not contribute to happiness at all.” In fact, they reported, far from creating well-being, achieving extrinsic rewards “actually does contribute to some ill-being.” If we let our desire for more and more extrinsic rewards monopolize our time and attention, it prevents us from engaging in autotelic activities that would actually increase our happiness.
On the other hand, in the same study the University of Rochester researchers found that individuals who focused on intrinsically rewarding activity, working hard to develop their personal strengths and build social relationships, for example, were measurably happier over the entire two-year period completely regardless of external life circumstances like salary or social status.
In your intros, many of you indicated that you are headed toward graduation. I wonder what you make of this study. While I think there’s an important point here, I want to complicate this slightly. There are some “extrinsic” or material goals that are clearly necessary for happiness. If you are continually worried about having enough money to make ends meet then that is obviously going to be an issue. And many Americans (to say nothing of people around the world) find themselves in that situation. On the other hand, as The Beatles famously sang, “money can’t buy me love.”
The concept of autotelic activities is a little tricky to define. McGonigal tries to differentiate gaming as an intrinsically rewarding activity from extrinsic rewarding activities such as drug use and consumerism. I don’t see it as that simple. I think gaming can become the kind of “external shortcut” to happiness that McGonigal warns against. However, I do think there can be a difference between the more superficial pleasure of the gaming experience and a deeper happiness that might come from achieving goals one finds meaningful within a game. Maybe it seems foolish or even delusion to experience gaming achievements as meaningful, but perhaps, for gamers who see themselves working meaningless dead-end jobs, gameplay offers a sense of purpose otherwise absent in their lives.
All of you will be graduating fairly soon, so I wonder what you make of the Rochester study and McGonigal’s adoption of the principle of intrinsic rewards to argue for the benefits of gaming.