Monday, June 1, 2009

The Illusion of Accomplishment

I love videogames, but sometimes I have to step back and look at my hobby with a critical eye. Games are great fun to play, but it's fun to eat ice cream and watch movies and jump up and down on trampolines, and I don't find myself devoting hours per week to such pursuits.

What I think sucks me in is that games provide an illusory sense of accomplishment. There's a risk-reward cycle and a sense of progress in most games that satisfies the human need to be productive. We're not fighting for our survival anymore, most of us, and even though there's no REAL work getting done, games satisfy the desire to accomplishment SOMETHING, anything, as long as it feels suitably important. Microsoft's insidious XBox achievement point system capitalizes on this exactly -- does it mean anything at all that I have earned 30 gamerpoints by eating 4 monsters in a row playing Ms. Pac-Man? No -- at least, it means nothing in the real world and precious little to anyone but other gamers. But I invested the time necessary to accomplish that feat, because it was there and it seemed feasible. And I felt suitably rewarded when that little project was done. But it didn't help me pay any bills or get the grass cut.

There is an upside to this, I imagine. Hypothesis: Kids who grow up playing, and being successful at, games would seem likely to believe that persistence and practice and hard work pay off. That there's a reward at the end of the toughest road, and that the easy way out is generally the least interesting. I have no evidence to support this idea, but anecdotally, most of the gamers I know are intelligent, successful, productive, interesting people. Okay, they're on the nerdy side, perhaps, but no one would accuse them of being shiftless, boring or stupid.

And so perhaps the illusion of achievement fosters, or at least appeals to, something very human and very positive. Something that eggs our lizard brains on toward mastery of our selves and the world around us.

Now I have to go figure out how to blow up ten cars in ten seconds in GTA IV. Surely that will come in handy someday.

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