I love video games because they empower us to solve difficult problems and they reward us for doing so.
What constitutes “challenge” and “reward” in a game is up to the individual, though. In other words, while a high score in Candy Crush may be extremely rewarding for you, it wouldn’t mean much to me.
I like games that are soul-crushingly difficult, and, for me, it is very rewarding to beat these games. Recent games like Dark Souls and the upcoming sequel Dark Souls 2 are designed to be viciously hard to destroy the spirits of even the most hardcore gamers. Completing the game is one of the rewards that Dark Souls offers. You might think that Dark Souls would scare away too many potential customers because of its difficulty, but this game has sold a very impressive 2.3 million copies worldwide despite being such a difficult game.
As an academic advisor, I often see students struggle in their classes. Thankfully, most students rise above these challenges and succeed. Unfortunately, though, I also see students quit when their classes get difficult, and this phenomenon proposes an interesting question:
Why does an overwhelmingly difficult game like Dark Souls achieve success while colleges like Texas Tech lose students (and money) every semester when those students drop out because they feel overwhelmed by the challenge of their coursework?
The simple answer, the one that I mentioned in the last blog post, is that it is often times more fun to solve a difficult video game challenge than it is spending hours reading Charles Dickens’s dreadfully long Bleak House or completing some other school assignment. Another reason why students might like solving video game problems over school problems involves video game reward systems. Whether it’s an extra life, shiny achievement points, or a fancy “Slayer of Stupid, Incompetent, and Disappointing Minions” title for your character, you likely play video games because the rewards and instant gratification keep you coming back for more.
While getting rewarded is certainly fun, receiving too many rewards from video games can be problematic for you. If you receive too many rewards, your brain may be programmed to think that you should receive instant rewards and gratification for everything that you do. We’ll talk about this more in a bit.
The Millennial Generation, the generation that you are likely apart of if you are a traditional college student, is often characterized as a generation that needs constant praise for everything they do. This YouTube video humorously portrays this stereotype and others.
According to the Millennial myths, we were all given shiny trophies for failing and runner-up ribbons if we came in last place. While I don’t doubt that has happened to some of us, I think that video game and other entertainment reward systems are a bigger source of these stereotypes. Receiving too many rewards is problematic for several reasons, two of which we’ll discuss briefly.
First, your brain can become so accustomed to receiving rewards that it will become harder for those same rewards to satisfy you. Let’s use Candy Crush to explain this. When you line up at least three of the same treat and make the candies explode, your brain releases dopamine, and you feel a rush of excitement as you see the explosion and earn points. To recapture that first excitement, you’ll keep trying to make candies explode and, as you continue to play, it will become harder and harder to release that dopamine. Eventually, seeing the explosion and earning points may no longer stimulate you yet you will keep playing because you want to recapture that first excitement.
Second, and as I mentioned earlier, receiving too many rewards may program you to think that you should receive rewards for all of your accomplishments. This is problematic because in the real world you will not always be rewarded with a “You’re a Special Star!” sticker when you submit a TPS report to your boss, nor will you have a point counter on your desk that will accumulate points everytime you do something right at your job (that sounds kind of cool, though. brb reserving a patent for that…).
Now, you probably realize that you will not be rewarded for everything you do in the real world. However, I still see reasonable, intelligent students who are not satisfied with their work and education because they don’t feel like they are getting frequent rewards for their efforts. You have probably felt this way in your life before. I know that I have.
Luckily, there are some solutions. First, and as the old saying goes, knowing is half the battle. Just as you would learn how muscles work if you wanted to exercise properly, knowing how your brain works when it receives rewards can help you avoid feeling like you have to be rewarded every time that you complete your work. You don’t have to stop receiving rewards from games altogether, however.
Rather, you just need to change your expectations about how education/work reward systems work.
Realize that games are “addicting” because they specifically trigger the part of your brain that produces dopamine. Most education and work activities are not designed to produce dopamine. Sure, good teachers will try to make the class as interesting and rewarding as possible. Good employers will do the same thing, too. However, the bottom line is that in both of these environments, work needs to get done. Not everything can be fun unless you’re an academic advisor who gets to help people by combining his hobby with his work.
Finally, the best thing that you can do to make yourself feel rewarded is to assign intrinsic rewards to your work. Intrinsic rewards are rewards that have value to you and only you. It is important to assign these intrinsic rewards because only you know how to reward yourself.
I repeat: only YOU know how to reward yourself.
As you are working or studying, find ways to reward yourself. Some students do this incorrectly and “reward” themselves for a good grade on a test by not studying for the next test. Don’t do that. If you do that, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, find practical ways to reward yourself that will not make the quality of your work suffer. For instance, you could set goals for yourself and meet them. You could also try to assign some sort of meaning to your work to make you feel like you are completing meaningful tasks.
I realize this second solution may be difficult, especially when it may seem like a class you’re taking has nothing to do with your degree. But consider this: you can learn something valuable from every class you take. You never know when a concept from ENGL 1301 or PSY 1300 might come in handy while you’re writing a cover letter, conducting a meeting at work, etc. If you try to figure out how something from a class can relate to your everyday life, then you are more likely to do well in that class and feel rewarded by the work that you are doing.
Again, I encourage you to find positive ways to reward yourself that will not conflict with the quality of your work. Don’t stop studying as a reward. Don’t take time off of your work as a reward. Could you imagine what would happen if I rewarded myself for a successful advising appointment by not trying as hard during the next appointment? I’d be doing this whole academic advising thing wrong for sure.
As usual, don’t take any of this as advice to replace hard work with more video games.