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Jan 25, 2011



Ted, I think you hit on a deeply important conflation in the discussion of games, reality, and happiness. In your WSJ piece you said:

If my kids end up playing video games for 90+ hours a week, I will not think of them as having a “good life” no matter what the well-being indicators say. You see, not everyone is a utilitarian. Making people maximally happy is not, in my view, a proper goal. We are reaching the point where the mass deployment of Nozick’s machine, the one that makes you happy all the time, just sitting there doing nothing, is within the realm of possibility.
The problem here is a misunderstanding of happiness -- or more precisely, a conflation of many things onto that one overburdened word.

Games don't bring happiness in the broad sense. They can bring fleeting pleasure and momentary delight, but rarely -- very rarely -- do they bring anything like lasting joy, which is necessary for actual, end-of-the-day (and end-of-the-year or even end-of-the-life) happiness. That moment when you turn off the light for the night, close your eyes, and think briefly about your day and your life. Many of us think about the day just past and the day tomorrow, about things done or said or not said... but it's a rare person who says to themselves, "yep, I feel pretty happy with how things are going. After all I finished that line of quests today."

The sense of accomplishment and fulfillment found in games is fleeting; it's the cotton candy of purposeful happiness. Don't get me wrong, I love games and I think there's a lot more we can do with them. But I think we should be clear on what brings happiness as opposed to pleasure or delight. Real relationships, real accomplishments, real struggle, real learning, real skill -- all these things make us happy.

The danger I see in games is that they become an end in themselves: the often shallow or faux relationships, and certainly the faux accomplishments, struggle, and skills serve to distract many from actually living their lives. That feeling of "what the heck did I spend all that time on?" after playing a long game is the moment of realization that games do not make you happy as Jane says. Game designers are not 'happiness engineers.'

Now, I hope we are able to find interesting ways to integrate games more with reality (as the Volkswagen folks show very well on their funtheory" site). Games can modify behavior. Games can even teach. But making people happy? No, we have to look elsewhere for that.


I think part of this issue relates to the fact that happiness varies in definition and duration, from a sense of well-being in a moment to a sense of well-being over time. I agree with Mike that well-being over time is probably a confluence of factors, some of which are physical and some, arguably, virtual. But I have no doubt that games produce authentic happiness sometimes, though certainly this varies depending on what motivates a player most. Is their thrill the zen of the grind, the massive collective woot at raid's end, or something perhaps more about creation, achievement or even transgression?

I will tell you that my big MMO research project stunned me with the power of players' statements about the impacts of games on their lives. Not just that they were amused for a while, but that play in the game had some transformative aspects. Not for everyone, no certainly not, but for those open to the experience, yes.

What was always particularly touching were those comments that declared vehemently that life changed utterly when the universe of online games opened. Words like love, acceptance, joy, and feeling valued for the first time in their lives. Czik's famous book about flow began its life as a book about the 'psychology of optimal experience'. Flow was the discovery: happy=good, consistent flow - not happy = constantly interrupted or never achieved flow.

I agree that we shouldn't/couldn't engineer happiness (outside of pharmaceuticals), but I think it's quite lovely that we have sandboxes in which people can find their solace, fulfillment and sense of belonging in whatever guise they choose.


Loved your article, btw, Ted. Do wonder if the fact that I take soma daily (for various broken head things) means I have sold out. Confess I don't care all that much, but do know I am constantly seeking more and varied experiences, some of which will occur online or in some other virtual space, many of which do not. Cooking Mama replaced by actual cooking, for instance... so much more satisfying, on multiple levels. I think that's the end game.


@Mike Don't know if you remember this thread?

My contention is that virtual plus real experiences are additive...


I think there are shades and facets to this, Lisa. In some ways I agree that games can make people happy and even be transformative (though that's much more rare, I believe). But I think both of these are situated in a much larger sea of cotton candy feelings, where as you said people run for solace -- if they can't have real happiness or accomplishment, at least they can have a shadow of it in an online world. How many college students have failed out of a class while temporarily exulting in their new raid gear on their character?

But I don't mean to say this is hard and fast. For example, I love Disney World. It makes me happy to go there with my family. It's definitely "virtual" in many ways, but for me that adds to rather than detracts from the value of the experience. But I suspect if I invested myself in it the way that some people pour themselves into virtual world games, the other-ness that is part of the value of the experience, the "let's go to Disney World!" aspect, would be replaced by something less ennobling.

If I went do WDW rather than confront issues in my life (job, family, school, etc.), then no matter how "happy" it makes me, it's an avoidance behavior that will eventually come crashing in on me. Or if I immerse myself in it because the rest of my life is boring, tedious, or lousy, then I'm taking solace in something not-quite-real as consolation for not having the real thing.

Though here too, there are slight differences that seem distinct: is someone who takes refuge in their bowling league, knitting circle, PTA, or hobby dealing in the same sort of faux-happiness? Or do we call this out only when such an activity begins to consume their entire focus? Were we all so hypnotized by watching I Love Lucy, All in the Family and Hill Street Blues that we didn't realize that those "virtual worlds" didn't bring us happiness either (absent the rare transformative epiphany someone might have on the living room couch)?

I still love the promise of virtual worlds. I love the shininess of Disney. But do these bring happiness? Maybe, under the right set of circumstances. Mostly I think that's looking in the wrong places.


@Mike. You may have hit the nail on the head. True happiness might just be about variety of experience. Certainly it's about Maslow-type needs fulfillment, of belonging, self-actualization, contributing, being needed, creating.

Virtual worlds sometimes give people the first tangible, merit-based encounter with this kind of openness to possibility. Sure, if they can find it elsewhere, wonderful. But what about when they can't (due to disability, social awkwardness, cultural limitations, overwork, etc.)? Then that world becomes sanctuary, and that's not always a bad thing.

I say that if people think they are finding happiness, then they likely are. If that happiness comes at a cost of other important aspects of one's life? Yes, problem. But life is a constant balancing act, and moderation is the oft-lauded middle way.

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