The Video Game Trap

The first iteration of my career was making video games. With many other people, I made a puzzle game for the Atari Jaguar, a bunch of licensed titles for Mattel, and some classic card and board games. I loved video games, and I enjoyed making them (well, when I didn't hate it).

The best video games, the ones that you lose yourself for hours at a time without food or rest, create what's called a Flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi created the construct called Flow to describe what we are like when we are doing really well with our work. The general idea is that you noticeably and progressively get better at a difficult task, and the difficulty increases smoothly as you get better. When those things combine together, you become immersed in your task, and you can work for hours. Being in the Flow is when we are our happiest.

As I mentioned, the best video games put you into this Flow state as part of their game mechanic. You put in effort, you get progressively better, and your brain rewards you with the feeling of a job well done. It's great fun, it feels fantastic, and it's all completely and utterly a lie.

The problem with the real world is that it's much harder to get into a Flow state than it is in a video game. Video games have manufactured mechanics and such limited domains that it's really easy to get into the Flow. Real life has interruptions, non-smooth difficulty levels, and feedback mechanisms that can't adapt to how quickly or slowly you are progressing. So it doesn't feel as good.

However, if you work on something in real life, you get something out of it. If you learn to play the guitar, at the end, you can play the guitar. If you learn to paint, you get some paintings. And so on. If you learn to play a video game, then you have the ability to play that video game, and ones like it.

Which is not to say that you should never play video games, or that video games are inherently evil. Video games are fun, and people should enjoy themselves. Video games are a great way to do that. Some people make a living off of playing video games, although as you may have gathered by my intro, there are some traps associated with working in video games as well. There are many great reasons to play video games.

However, consider what you are losing if you exclusively get your Flow from games. Yes, your RPG character may have some great levels in crafting, but you, yourself, won't be able to craft. You won't have created anything of your own, but you'll have the reward for creating.

So, if you have the urge to create something, but you find yourself playing video games instead, then you are robbing yourself of the motivation and time to actually create. Consider limiting your video game time to after you do real creation.

If you don't have the urge to create something, then this article was not for you. There's no need to avoid the easy Flow state if you don't want the reward for creation. Alternately, if you can direct your video game playing into real creation (Machinima, reviews, walkthroughs, competitive playing, and so on), all the better. You have the best of both worlds. But there's a trap for the unwary, and you can avoid it if you want.