It ain't about badges. Games are fun. Work is not. Why?
Neuroscience of gaming. Where managers got it all wrong.
Have you ever played a video game? It’s fun, right?
Have you ever thought about what makes it so fun?
I did. A lot.
Especially while reading about flow states, optimal brain-body performance, and what makes certain activities so addictively pleasurable that we don’t even mind the challenges, coming with them. That’s how a lot of elite athletes get to be world-class. They actually quite enjoy the experience that feels like a game to them.
Ok. Let’s break the gaming down.
What makes it feel so exciting, so engaging? We can’t stop playing even when hungry and underslept often. It’s kind of like a drug. Gaming somehow magically makes us focus on just one thing, forgetting all about our ADHD tendencies, all of a sudden. It’s like we have different brains for gaming and work - one is super focused, driven and engaged, the other is distracted, unmotivated, bored.
What if we could switch on the gaming mode for work?
WHAT MAKES GAMING ENGAGING AND ALL-CONSUMING
There are different games but the ways they engage our brain are very universal, very similar. All the features of gaming also have a lot in common with flow states, when elite athletes and great inventors, business geniuses experience their peak performance.
Goals and Meaning
There’s no game without a specific goal. Everything you do in any game has a reason. You don’t do stuff randomly. It’s all either to pursue a direct goal of the game, to ultimately win, or it’s out of curiosity - "Hey, check it out, what else can my elf-magician do?" (I used to be hopelessly addicted to the World of Warcraft and I had to quit because I started to sleep less to play more).
Human beings are goal-pursuing machines. When we have no goal, when we have no meaning - we lose interest.
In a game, you always know what’s it all for. (Do you always know what’s your work, your task at hand for?)
Rules, Boundaries and Freedom
Games are the ultimate playbooks for leadership, for environments where human genius and initiative, human creativity thrive.
In any game, you have a set of rules, a set of parameters that you can’t change. You have very clear boundaries. In sports, by the way, it’s exactly the same. You can’t have unlimited lives and fly, if you are designed to be a human. You can’t drive a car in a competition where you are supposed to cycle. It’ll break the game. You can’t use your arms in football. It’ll break the game!
But then inside of those boundaries - you are free as a bird. You can fly right, or lift or, dead center - whichever suits your strategy.
You are confined by boundaries but you also are free to choose any strategy, any tool to get to the goal, to get to your destination. (That’s where micromanaging really kills the buzz)
I remember in my programming classes at University I had a teacher. She was a definite buzz-killer. She would tell you WHAT you need to program. AND she would require you come to the finish line exactly HOW she wanted it. Even if you had a more economical, faster, more beautiful solution - it would be “wrong”, cause it wasn’t how she wanted it.
(Hey you, leader, manager, I hope you aren’t that teacher? Are you?)
Novelty and Unpredictability
There are always infinite possibilities, discoveries, and hidden treasures in any game. You are always just a moment away from the next surprise.
Our brain loves novelty! It’s addicted to novelty! Novelty is one of our major human drives. Novelty means possible rewards, more chances to succeed, to excel, to dominate.
Our ancestors won over the whole animal kingdom because we've always been insatiably curious. We learned to maximize resources everywhere around us instead of sticking to one-two sources like the rest of the natural world.
Games are littered with novelty and surprises. You just never know what to expect at the next level, at the next step - that’s part of the adventure and why we keep playing. (Why I had to stop World of Warcraft)
(How can we introduce more novelty and constant learning into the workplace? That’s what people are looking for - not a badge when hitting numbers! - Boring!)
Speaking about badges, speaking about rewards. One of the reasons why leaders find it difficult to incentivize people is that when they design a system of incentives, it always works the same. It’s predictable. And THAT is the problem. Predictability is boring. It’s not that people don’t like financial incentives. It’s just after a while it becomes mundane. You do this - you get this. The brain learns it and it’s bored.
(How can you make rewards different? Unpredictable? And ultimately, very addictive and satisfying. How can you make incentives more like a treasure hunt?)
This is a very popular flow trigger. A lot has been written about it by the most prominent flow researchers like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and recently, Steven Kotler.
There’s a reason why you aren’t thrown into level 10 when you start any game. It’s not that it’ll break the game - it’ll break your interest.
Imagine playing Tetris as a beginner, and all of a sudden, you are bombarded with puzzles at a flashlight speed. You’ll be losing before you understand what’s happening. You’ll be frustrated. You'll make no progress. You'll quit.
It’s been popularized by recent behavior studies, that when people are presented with an example too challenging to emulate (like a world-class athlete performing their workout) - people don’t even try, because the leap from here to there seems impossible.
We love progress. We hate losing.
We love growth. We hate stagnation.
We love challenges if we are able to overcome them.
We hate doing the same stuff that feels like no growth.
It’s a tricky one for leaders, and team managers. How do you create an environment in which you help everyone to grow indefinitely in a non-overwhelming fashion, that doesn’t cause excessive amount of stress?
Using the words of Steven Kotler and the rubber band analogy, "how do you stretch, not snap"?
Progress and Feedback
It’s very related to the previous point.
In any game, we keep playing we keep making progress. The way we know we keep making progress - there's some metric we can consciously track that improves over time because of our actions.
We get coins, we progress to the next level, we get to do fancier tricks as a magician of the next level - we are moving forward and there’s almost constant feedback, what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s moving us forward, what’s moving us nowhere. We get the feedback and we are able to adjust our behavior to improve as we go.
Do your people, do your teammates, do YOU have the metrics of progress?
Do you have the ability to get or provide regular feedback?
Do you know what’s the number one reason people quit their long-term weight loss journey? Their workouts? They feel like they make no progress!
“I’ve been training for the whole month and I haven’t lost a pound! What’s the point?! Pain and no gain?!” - The worst imaginable scenario for the goal-driven, resource-limited brain.
You might be better off designing a better tracking system - like body fat percentage, or biomarkers to track health aspects - and it’ll make all the pain tolerable and meaningful.
We came full circle. From goals and meaning to progress and feedback to meaning again.
Take your favorite game and find all these aspects in it.
Take your job - and you’ll be lucky to find a couple.
How do I keep my people motivated?
How do I keep my people engaged?
How do I keep my people from quitting and looking for the next adventure?
You can start with the list above, figuring out how to put the principles (not badges) into regular practice.
Our workplaces are diverse but our brains are surprisingly similar.
Use neuroscience principles that game designers figured out a long time ago and you might be surprised to find, that your people are superheroes who were never called to summon their superpowers.
▶️Don’t forget to share your thoughts, share the article to start meaningful conversations - let’s make workplace fun together! 😊
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