gaming and happiness

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
  • fiero
  • intrinsic reward
  • flow
  • 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.

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16 thoughts on “gaming and happiness”

  1. I think that the Rochester study is so interesting and will say firsthand that I think it is true. While this doesn’t play a big role in the course, I gave up shopping for this entire year in an effort to save up money for after I graduate. Though I am only about six months in, I already feel happier in that I spend much more time journaling, drawing, reading, and grabbing coffee with friends than always finding a new outfit for whatever is coming up next. This study makes me optimistic for the future because, while money is important, it makes me keep in mind that things really need to be prioritzed.
    As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I do not play video games very much, but i think that there is a real truth to the intrinsic rewards that people experience while playing a game. To me, escaping from reality for a little and achieving something through video games is not so different from walking away refreshed from a diary entry or a new drawing. As with anything, I think that moderation is key, so I believe that the instrinsic rewards one experiences while gaming are healthy as long as they do not become the only way to feel accomplished about oneself.

    1. I really can relate to what you have said about the intrinsic reward from video games, as well as a new diary entry or drawing. I think that you have really targeted how sometimes it is important to just escape reality to try something new or just delve into something that has minimal real world importance but just makes you feel good. While I am not really into playing video games, I can definitely see how just setting aside an hour or so to just take to yourself and play could be a huge stress reliever. It helps to put aside all of the worries that you have day in and day out and release some of that inner anxiety on a video game. For me, personally, I feel a greater accomplishment when I read a really good book, for example, I just finished reading “The Fault In Our Stars,” by John Green. I have been incredibly stressed with sorting out things for graduate school, so to just sit down, relax, and read a good book felt so rewarding and relaxing. The same could easily apply for those who prefer to play video games. To just take some time to play and distract yourself a bit from the stresses of every day life can really help ease some tension.

  2. I was thinking about this book this morning as I played Saints Row 4 instead of doing the readings for another class (Don’t worry, I’ll do them, it just seemed like an apt commentary). Though I enjoyed the game, every time a loading screen came up I was jolted back into reality and the guilt came back and I thought on what I could be doing rather than what I want to do. Then I remembered this study, and how the reason I’m getting a degree is so that I can get a salaried job to keep me alive while I write. Writing is the only thing I want to do, but maintaining a comfortable lifestyle as a novelist is tricky, which is why I’m here. Because of the constant schoolwork, my writing is suffering, and so at the moment I’m not doing anything that I particularly enjoy, except for gaming. I suppose the question at this point is why do I spend my little free time gaming instead of writing? I think this ties into intrinsic rewards but also to the professor’s comments of meaningfulness within a game. Writing a book takes time, and a lot of hard work, which I’m already doing on something I enjoy far less. And even when the book is finished, will there even be satisfaction in it? But with video games, as McGonigal said, I know what’s expected and I know the reward, which provides the happiness shortcut. Also, I think there is a deeper meaning for me in the storytelling of video games. I get to see someone else’s story and learn from it just as I would by reading books, which can benefit my writing. It seems that the Rochester study defines perfectly my situation of being confined in The American Dream and using games as the outlet for my own happiness.

    1. This comment really resonated with me, because that sort of remorse for playing, rather than trying to accomplish something, (you mentioned writing a novel… I managed to fully finish two of them, and have been supposed to be looking for an agent, in addition to working on a third,) that’s the exact sort of feeling I often have when playing. It’s funny, because as I was reading Reality is Broken, I kept finding myself drawing comparisons between writing and gaming. Does writing something that big give one any fiero? After having finished them, I can say yes, it does. Was it as big as when I beat Ninja Gaiden II on Master Ninja? Nope. I danced around like an idiot for an hour straight after the latter. The novel complete was more like a squeaky little mouse going “yeah, I did it!” and then came the rewrites, more depression, more desire to not work on the book, etc etc.

      I’ve always considered my writing to be a hobby I loved that could turn into work. I went off the notion that “if you’re doing what you love, you never work a day in your life.” I loved writing, I loved telling stories. But now, here I am, and I find that Shepard’s story in Mass Effect is… I don’t know, more interesting than mine. You kill all the bad guys, romance whoever, hit the big dramatic ending, and there it is. Playing through it is exhilarating. Ending the novel involves, usually, a wee bit of clever wordplay and a period. That’s it. I’m done.

      I also got very serious with my novel: I paid a reader or two to go through it. I had a high school teacher go over it. I went over it at least seven times myself. I paid $500 to take it to a conference, got in line to be emasculated and told everything I wrote was hogswash, along with the rest of the conference-goers. I came home wondering if I could ever write another word of fiction again. I took the thing from 150k words down to 98k. I loved actually writing the book, sure, but all the rest of that, the whole “getting published” deal, that sure wasn’t contributing to my happiness. There were small victories and huge existential crises. Trying to make money, to get my name in lights or on the NYT best seller list, If anything, it was probably pushing me closer to either becoming an alcoholic or one of those 40+-hr-per-week gamers. Add in working several different jobs that were terribly abusive to my soul, and there was generally not a lot of happiness. I got paid, yes, but I was killing myself for petty cash. Given my experience, I’d have to say food service is generally not a very good place to be. But hey, I could go shoot a bunch of terrorists in some game and bang. I got paid in game for that. I could buy better guns. And then I could kill terrorists better, and more, so that I got even more money. That was rewarding. And all the money I earned didn’t have to be saved up all to be blown in one fell swoop on my junker car that would only wind up dying completely the next week and leaving me with the bill.

      I think the actual work to get money, fame, whatever is not fun. But if you get to a point where you’ve done the work, your debts are paid, and you’ve got money to spare, you’re generally going to be pretty happy, because, I think, the rest of your life’s circumstances will probably be falling into place, once you’ve hit that proverbial point. And at the end of the day, if you don’t have any money, you can’t spend exorbitant amounts of it to acquire games and consoles, which would seem to imply that money can, at the very least, buy you fun.

  3. I am so glad that this article was mentioned in McGonigal’s book. When I was in high school, I took a creative writing class which focused primarily on writing novels. I had always been fascinated with storytelling and so I found this class to be a a great opportunity in which I could fine tune my skill. At the end of the semester, I had two incomplete novels (both over 100 pages) and I was enthused at the possibility of one day getting my work published. I knew deep down inside that I loved to write just like paigewhl. When graduation approached, I was left with the difficult decision of choosing a major ( I know that most people don’t have to choose one until junior year, but I had already entered with 60 college credits and this overachiever was overwhelmed). Ultimately, I chose Biology. I was interested in the development of the female body and I had hope of going to medical school to be an OB/GYN. When I came to UB, The science classes were much harder than I thought they would be and I missed writing. I decided that I would become a double major so that I could have my cake and eat it too. If I could be a writer and still receive the pay that I would had I become a doctor, life would be wonderful. The reality of that is slim to none. We get so caught up in the superficial aspects of life that our visions of happiness fades away. I agree with the Rochester study. Our intrinsic rewards are often tied up with our happiness that gets pushed to the back ground because of our day to day lives. I use writing as my outlet of happiness and as a way to take my mind away from the crazy life of being a Biology major. I hope that I do find a career that will allow me to be happy as well as pay my bills on time!

  4. I absolutely agree with the Rochester study, as well as with the rest of the students who have posted so far. In my case, going into the teaching field is not exactly a dead end job where its not like I am sitting behind a computer screen all day, but instead I am going to be having constant interactions with children. Even so, I can see how gaming would be a type of extrinsic release because after a long day of work and handling children, it can be a nice release to just bury yourself in a game. It is like becoming immersed in an alternate reality so you do not have to think about the here and now. Although I am not much of a gamer, I find that release often times in reading a book or listening to music. If you allow yourself to become completely immersed in it, than it can be just like a game. Bearing that in mind, additionally, there is the common mentality that those who teach definitely do not do it for the money, they do it for the happiness it brings them and because they genuinely love children. So, in relation to your story about your son, Professor Reid, that moment of achievement that your son had in scoring the overtime goal is what I hope to be able to help my future students experience. Particularly when it comes to working with children with special needs, sometimes the smallest achievement can have the most gratifying rewards. Simply being able to read a page from a children’s story when the child struggled to read a sentence several weeks prior could light up that child’s life when they’ve realized that they have accomplished what they thought they could never do. As you had referenced McGonigal’s explanation of Naches, I have seen through some of my observations in schools and in having had watched an abundance of education films many children who have been victorious in something they felt challenged by. In one powerful documentary, called King Gimp, Dan Keplinger, who was a college aged young man with cerebral palsy was told that he could not survive going to college like every other kid his age. Even a professor at Towson University, where he and I both attended, although at different times, had told him to give up. With strong will and determination, Keplinger accomplished the unaccomplishable by successfully graduating Towson. He had that Nache, which McGonigal asserted, where he was so proud of himself and it showed that he could put his mind to something and accomplish it.

  5. How happiness works is such a complicated term to attach to one study. To monitor ones goals would be quite difficult in the sense, understanding that goals often change, much like tasks in a video game change with “leveling up.” I know from experience that goals will often change due to unexpected life occurrences, as in a game your mission or task could change due to the outcomes of a previous situations.
    The concepts mentioned by McGonigal are interesting to say the least, my experience with gaming does prove that there can be an intrinsic reward when you defeat an opponent as well as fiero. The other side of the gaming coin is that so much time is spent and lost due to gaming. Imagine the intrinsic reward one would receive following a great accomplishment, such as in creating an actual flux capacitor (I know there’s no such thing, but no one has created it because we’re instead playing the video game). I believe the true reward is going to appeal to what the individual enjoys, if your inspirations draws from gaming, then game on!

  6. I agree with the study because it makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know if I’m looking at it wrong, but it seems to be stating that self fulfillment is what truly makes you happy, as opposed to tangible rewards or material wealth. It’s basically like you need to love yourself first. Obviously money and fame certainly can bring some joy, but you really need to be happy with whats going on internally, find pride in your work or small acts that give you a sense of purpose, things you can be proud of. There are tons of rich people who are miserable, celebrities kill themselves all the time. I don’t have a lot of money as a college student, so I rarely get to buy anything other than food, but I’m cool with that. I don’t physically need anything that I cant live without at the moment, I’m in school so I can just graduate, not even sure whats going to happen after I get a degree and what not, but I’ll be damn proud of my self either way. Just trying to take things one step at a time, make the people I care about proud of me. I too took a creative writing class in High School because I loved the idea of having no limitations, just create any story I want with 100% control over it. That’s probably why I love playing RPGs so much, I love the freedom of it, the game itself is just the groundwork, but the way you play it is what defines it. I think gaming is just a healthy form of escapism. People find many ways to escape from their day to day lives for a little to do something for themselves. Going to the gym, going for a run, watching a movie, playing a video game, It’s fine as long as there’s a balance.

  7. It’s kind of coincidental that this reading came up in this course, I was just having this same conversation with my mother the other day. She was pestering me with the “what I wanted to do with my life?” talk. I honestly didn’t know what to say to her, I mean I know exactly what I want to do but I don’t know how to put it in words. All I could say was “I like to make people laugh”, and she wondered “how does that translate to a job?”. I replied “I don’t know”. She always tells me “I just want you to be happy” and the funny thing is all the grown up things we are expected to accomplish to “be happy” and “support ourselves” make me freaking miserable. I mean think about what the average grown adult does on a daily basis, they work at a job they probably don’t enjoy in order to pay for a residence they never imagined themselves living in, and so an and so forth. I think it’s easy to say majority of adults are not truly happy. But why do they work at these jobs? Why do I take classes I hate? So we can get a job right? But why do we need a job? So we can support ourselves and our lifestyle. But if the result of all this “education” is a job you truly don’t love, is it worth it? Why don’t we chase our dreams? I think I know the answer, fear. We don’t take the path less traveled because we’re scared, and the path of going to college/getting a safe job/living modestly is the easier path. The more comfortable path. Maybe that’s the reason I couldn’t just tell my mother “I want to be a comedian”, because I was scared. I think that’s a big reason why we can find these intrinsic rewards in video games. The things that make you truly happy are the most rewarding, and for some of us those things are extremely “unrealistic” to chase after in the adult world. So we settle, and many can substitute the rewards of our dreams with the rewards within a game. Heck, I myself can relate, theres been multiple times I’ve immersed myself in a game. Then when I finished that game I felt amazing it was awesome, I felt like “I finally did it”, I was happy. But then that passes, and were sent back to reality. Back to the life that we’re not truly happy with. What I took from this reading was, even though the things that make us happy are tougher to achieve doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. We’re surrounded by happiness, surrounded by family, lovers, friends. Find happiness in the everyday things, the beautiful mess that we call life. Will most of us become the singers/athletes/comedians we dreamed to be? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I might not be a professional comedian tomorrow, next month, and next year but I’m sunna enjoy the ride. Regardless of the destination.
    Devin

  8. I have a couple problems with the Rochester study. Firstly, the time span measured skews the result, for internal or personal goals are more achievable in the first two years after college than external professional goals. I know many people who right out of college have social affluence, a stable relationship and a full slate of hobbies. They have the sort of autotelic activities available to them which can make them happy for a time. But I know very few people, (no one in fact), who has reached the pinnacle of their professional ambitions merely two years after graduating, and furthermore, the people I do know who are particularly successful so soon after graduation do not become suddenly satisfied with their professional career; they rather become more driven to turn their success into more success. That is, it seems that professional success at a young age breeds more ambition, not contentment.
    My point with this, is the fact that people less concerned with professional status immediately following college are happier might be chalked up to desire-satisfaction, and so not lend itself to a deeper verdict about happiness in general. Those who are externally focused are less likely to see their desires fully realized soon after college, than people who are internally focused. Because of this there is also a disparity in happiness between the two groups. But it could very well be that those who are more externally focused, are in the long run more satisfied with their professional career, and that this particular brand of satisfaction becomes more and more important to a person’s happiness as they grow older. This leads me to wonder if the Rochester study would have the same result if had expanded its scope to tracking the relative happiness of college grads thirty years after graduation.
    I am not trying to dismiss the importance of autotelic activities or rewarding relationships with regard to happiness. I don’t think any reputable theory of happiness can recommend a person have an entirely external set of values, or even a set of values which tips toward the external. But I think McGonigal might be overstating the use of this study to her overall point about video games.
    The question of the value of video games is one which is more pertinent to youth; I think the most compelling argument against the sustained use of video games, claims that people at a young age would be better served to focus on the reality of their situation than to escape in virtual reality. We could extend this particularly to the sample population of the Rochester study and say that people who have just graduated college might do better to focus on meliorating their external situation while they have the energy to do so, rather than escaping into immediate pleasures, even if it means being less happy in the moment. I do not see how McGonigal has answered this argument, nor how the Rochester argument can help her do so, given the small length of time measured in the study. (I want to note that I am ambivalent toward the argument myself. I’m not fond of it, but I think its logic is hard to get around.)
    I have one last complaint about the study, based on the triviality of its conclusion. For if the study simply states that professional and financial success do not contribute to personal fulfillment so much as time spent doing the things we enjoy with the people we enjoy, then the researchers could have saved time by forgoing the study and summarizing the general lesson of any production of “A Christmas Carol”. This has little to do with McGonigal’s point, but is still I think a valid criticism of the study.

  9. The Rochester study mentioned here provides an interesting perspective into statistics- but as we know, statistics are easily skewed by our own biased perception and must be carefully examined before drawing conclusions. What I see here, is an implication of a simple and widely accepted cliche, “money isn’t everything.” I have always thought this to be a poorly thought out idea. OBVIOUSLY money isn’t everything. A hat is not money. Nor a sock. Jokes aside, money is used in this case to refer to material things, and more generally in the case of this study, it is used in reference to extrinsic reward. The problem is that extrinsic progress and intrinsic progress are two completely different spectrums who share a sort of symbiotic relationship. If somebody has made great strides in their relationships with people, or their self confidence (intrinsic)- they will have a much easier time being promoted, seeking new jobs, or achieving other extrinsic goals. It goes both ways of course- for example, many families fight over monetary problems, so you could say that some of these families maybe wouldn’t fight if they had more money.

    Admittedly, this is an oversimplification of the relationship. But I am using this to illustrate the very nature of the relationship itself- they are two completely different categories. Like comparing apples and oranges. In addition to this- everybody has their own goals that they base on the life they have lived. Extrinsic will be satisfying to some, and not to others.

  10. caleblay I think your theorization of McGonigal’s view on Intrinsic reward is right on. The rochester study although is just that a study with set parameters, the point you make about varying social situations could have weight. Very insightful comments, well done!

  11. I hate to admit, but I think that I disagree more than I agree with this study’s findings and outcome. It isn’t necessarily the impossible strive for the American Dream that actually ends up leaving people with anxiety and unhappiness, but it is the fact that one needs stability in order to be content and happy. Meaningful social relationships and personal strength irrefutably contribute to an individual’s happiness, but money does play an extremely large factor. I mean in a way you need money to maintain social relationships and personal strength, everything we want, need, and do is based on money. And someone who lives a stable life, who is not worrying about how she/he will put food on the table for their family, will ultimately be happier.

  12. I have always felt as though entering the gaming world helps you escape the real world problems you face to at least keep some hope intact. The feeling of the fiero is stronger in achieving real world goals, but at times, we can struggle to reach those goals. I believe that video games truly do allow people to feel that moment of achievement and thrill, best described by Bernard Suits as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,”(22). The idea of the American Dream brings me back to the play, “Death of a Salesman,” significant in incorporating the flaws that come with searching for the American Dream. I agree that the search that comes in obtaining these American Dream ideals such as wealth, fame and physical attractiveness, as McGonigal states on page 45, are goals that can prevent us from attaining happiness. If we are not satisfied with the outcome of our career paths or lifestyles, we may forget all of the important achievements we have once made. Video games can remind us through moments like the fiero that there are still goals waiting to be obtained in the real world, and achieving those goals feel even better in real life than in the virtual world.

  13. I reacted immediately to the concept of “naches” in Jane McGonigal’s book. I always remember this word being used by my grandmother when she talked about my mother or my uncle. My other grandmother did the same. They would always take pride in their children’s accomplishments as well as in the one’s of their grandchildren’s. In this case, I remember teaching my childhood friend how to beat levels in Mario or being proud when a friend of mine scored a goal in NHL 2K14 after I had taught him how to play.
    I had made me particularly proud because I had taught them myself and I felt a little bit like a mentor who was proud of his mentee. They author mentions this as well. Being on the supportive side, I feel that I am doing something positive and two days ago, I tried to help my mother beat the impossible level 70 in Candy Crush on her new iPhone.
    Personally, I feel that I have “fiero” each time I go further and further in a game.

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