Why do some people find games more fulfilling than real life?

This is another blog post inspired by a TED video. This one on the world of online games by Jane McGonigle. 

Humans spend 3 billion hours a week spent playing online games.  This is a lot.  Many American teenagers will have accumulated more hours playing online games than school hours by the age of 18. 

Two questions: 1) why? and 2) what are they learning?

The answer to number one is quite simple.  I can approach this as a economist might approach it.  Each individual case will have their specific reasons, but on a massive scale people play because there is something better about being in the virtual game world than they get in their real world.  Jane McGonigle in her TED talk identifies 4 specific disciplines that are part of a gamer’s experience of the virtual game world.

  1. Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation, the desire to act immediately to tackle a problem and to start now with a belief in a good chance of success.  There is a constant belief in the existance of the epic win – a winning outcome that you sense will be bigger and better than anything you could imagine.
  2. Social Fabric – instinct to trust.  The attitude of gamers in virtual online worlds is to trust and share resources and challenges with unknown strangers.
  3. Blissful productivity – we know that we are happy when we are working hard.  The average gamer of World of Warcraft plays 22 hours a week.  These are not 22 hours of watching the clock, waiting for the coffee break or the school bell to ring.  These are 22 hours of intense problem solving, collaboration, trying and trying and experimenting until the gamer achieves an outcome.  Gamers know that they are most fulfilled when they are totally absorbed in their tasks.
  4. Epic Meaning – gamers love to be attached to awe inspiring missions.  They might be tapping buttons and shifting pixels, but they believe that this is connected to a really worthwhile purpose – saving the galaxy, taking Argentina to the world cup final, defeating evil.

An the answer to question 2 – what are they learning?  Jess says they are learning to be “super empowered hopeful individuals”.  The pity is that they are not taking these super powers – persistance against all odds, trust and openness to strangers, desire to work hard and faith in something bigger – over to the real world.

What can we do to make real world more like these games?  What can be done to allow kids to feel that it is worth working hard to build something important?