Can Gaming Make Us Happy?

Reality Is Broken novelWhile some classmates have been grumbling and murmuring their dislike of the ideas proposed in Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality Is Broken, I have been secretly jumping up and down and cheering on the inside as I turn each page. Maybe it’s because we’re finally touching on familiar territory for me with all of the psychology references, but if someone mentions “happiness engineer,” I’m totally into it (and I want that on my business card). In chapter two, McGonigal talks about “the rise of the happiness engineers,” starting with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his 1975 study called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. In it, he focused on a specific kind of happiness referred to as flow: “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning,” citing that there’s a depressing lack of this in our every day lives. Games on the other hand, provide a Koury Business Center-sized fountain of flow, and do it reliably and efficiently compared to other life activities. While I haven’t truly experienced the “real world” yet as a full-time employee with a company or organization, my part-time work experience has taught me that yes…this can be true. Playing field hockey in high school (obviously a game), I regularly achieved flow – I felt full of potential and purpose – the greatest form of happiness available to human beings, according to Csíkszentmihályi. If I stopped an opponent from driving towards the goal, I knew I served a purpose and actually made a difference to those in the world around me (my team) and to the greater picture (winning the game and increasing your playoff chances). And if another opponent came towards me again, I truly believed I had the potential to stop her again. In everyday situations, people can be left without this sense of purpose and potential and instead wonder if what they’re doing really matters in the big picture. Sure, you finish your boss’ “to-do” list, but were you pushed to your greatest potential? Were all of your strengths put into action? Did completing that task make a difference to anyone but your boss? Often in real life, it is common to do work to get by because it is required (and not at our uppermost limits of our abilities). That is what leads to the feeling that we’re leading a life that  is not entirely fulfilling. I don’t take McGonigal’s extreme view that essentially we should make everything in life a game or else we’re all doomed to depression, but if we incorporated certain gaming elements into our work or school day, I believe we can increase happiness and thereby increase productivity – a win-win for the industry and individual alike.

So how do we go about implementing game-like strategies into aspects of the real world? I’m interested to continue reading McGonigal’s book to find out her proposed theories because I really believe there may be some merit to this idea. As the study of positive psychology (a.k.a. the study of human flourishing) rises and is applied to gaming – how our emotional and psychological well-being may be impacted by games, how games evolve to increase feelings of happiness, etc. – it is exciting to think of the possibilities that may arise. “Happiness engineers” could devise real-life games to engage alienated children in the suburbs and keep them out of the streets, to provide bored housewives with an opportunity to feel more engaged with the world outside the home, to alleviate social stress autistic kids experience in schools, to help those who have retired feel they can continue contributing something to society – even after their working years are behind them. I don’t feel gaming is the only way to solve these problems as McGonigal may insinuate, but I do believe it is one of the most creative, novel ideas proposed that just may be odd enough to work. 

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