Addicted to a better world?

World of Warcraft GamersBack in the late 90’s I worked for a small start-up software company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was my first job out of undergrad college, and I loved it because I worked with a bunch of other fresh-outta-college people in a 30-person company where we dreamed big.

Around this time, one of the first (and probably the first that gained really wide popularity among people who weren’t traditional “gamers”) massively multi-player online role-playing games came out – named Everquest. A MMORPG (yes, that really is the acronym) is a game where you can go online, log in, and play as a character in a completely immersive 3D virtual fantasy world. The world is populated by other virtual characters controlled by other gamers doing the same things you are. It’s fantasy gaming with a social element. The most popular MMORPG now is World of Warcraft which is reported to have 62% of the market, which means they have approximately 10 million monthly subscribers.

A few folks at work tried it and got into it a little bit, but there was one guy who REALLY got into it. After awhile, his door at work would remain closed as he spent hours upon hours (and lots of company time) playing Everquest. His workplace gaming started to cut into the real work he was supposed to be doing, and worsened until the inevitable happened and he was laid off. It was a shame, and it left the rest of us searching for an explanation.

I myself have had unnatural urges to play everything from Starcraft to Minesweeper (yes, Minesweeper) – but nothing that ever interfered materially with my ability to hold down a job, be in a relationship, or eat regularly. Yet my friend from that job isn’t alone. A couple of weeks ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival I got to see the debut of Second Skin, a documentary film which followed a couple stories where people destroyed their lives playing online games. One guy lost his job and his family, not minding “as long as he could keep the lights on and the internet connected.” Games can be horribly addictive. But why?

I’d never heard any really good structured reasons explaining why people can get as addicted to games as they can to drugs or gambling – until I heard another talk at South by Southwest Interactive from game designer Jane McGonigal, who offered some fascinating insight.

Jane observed that these games are increasingly designed to mimic the real interactions between people (people get married and have funerals in these worlds), but they seek to separate themselves from the real world environmentally (dragons and trolls and damsels in distress). The goal is clear – to create a world that is more interesting, more fulfilling than the real world by keeping the meaningful pieces and throwing out the rest. And because the economic purpose of game design is to get you to play more, designers have gotten exceptionally good at understanding the triggers within people that generate that interest and fulfillment.

As a game designer with a philosophical streak, Ms. McGonigal has spent a great deal of time thinking about what those triggers might be in a universal sense. She shared with the audience why she believes people get addicted to games, particularly the immersive role-playing variety. What is unexpected is that these reasons have nothing to do with cool graphics and sound, imaginative monsters, or compelling plotlines. They have to do with the satisfaction of more basic human needs, and there are four of them :

1. There is satisfying work to do (accomplishment).

2. There is an opportunity to be part of something bigger (significance).

3. There is a chance to be good at something (expertise).

4. You get to spend time with people you like (relationships).

The best (most fulfilling) games are very clear about how you can do the things above (instructions), have better features for allowing interaction (community), and give frequent, quality feedback (milestones).

The implication is that people who become addicted to games are finding much more satisfaction in the dimensions above than they are in their real lives.

So have game designers become the new experts in the psychology and sociology of human fulfillment? I find the theory fascinating – and I believe it holds water. Psychologists and sociologists are already studying gaming environments and learning important things from them.

If we spend more time capturing what we learn from game worlds, and applying what we already know, we might just be able to use those lessons to restructure the real world to be more fulfilling. To be more like a game. Wouldn’t you love it if your real life, especially the part of it you spend at work, could be something you could get addicted to?

UPDATE: My friend Josh aptly messages: “those 4 things also describe working at Google.” One of the many reasons why they are probably on the Fortune 100 list of best places to work. Jobs at Google.

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