Treat Your Life More Like a Video Game

We often think of video games as a way to escape reality, but according to researcher and game designer Jane McGonigal, we can learn a lot of valuable lessons from video games that we can later translate into the real world.

Currently as a society we spend over 3 billion hours a week playing online games. That may seem like a lot, but McGonigal believes we should increase this number if we want to improve our world and eventually solve difficult problems like world hunger, poverty, climate change, obesity, and global conflict.

Sound a little crazy? Maybe. But video games teach us how to manage resources, find solutions, and be motivated to reach our goals in our life.

When we are engaged in a video game, we cultivate key positive characteristics that would greatly benefit us if we could apply them to our own lives. These characteristics include:

Urgent Optimism

While playing video games, we have an extreme sense of self-motivation to accomplish our goals. McGonigal describes this as “urgent optimism” – the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope at success.

When gamers fail at a mission, they rarely lose their motivation to learn from mistakes or try again. Instead, however, gamers always feel that they are just on the verge of “leveling up,” or getting to the next stage, or discovering something important that helps get them closer to success.

This kind of motivation is common to find in video games, but hard to find in our everyday lives.

If we had this same sense of “urgent optimism” in the real world, who knows what we could accomplish. What if we treated goals in our own life as something that we could start acting on immediately – and something that is actually within our grasp?

Social Fabric

Playing video games is also a great way of building social fabric in our lives. In many games, we have to cooperate and work together with others to achieve common values and goals.

People are willing to help us and we are willing to help them. This collaboration builds trust and stronger social relations, something that is not always immediately available to us in the real world.

In fact, according to McGonigal, even when we play competitive games with others we develop stronger bonds with them. Research shows that people tend to like others more after playing a game with them, even if they end up beating us badly.

This is because playing games requires us to spend time with others and interact with them in a fun, productive, and entertaining way. If we had the same approach to relationships as we do in video games, we would probably build stronger social ties and work together more to help each other out.

Blissful Productivity

Video games are proof that people can work hard, as long as they are doing work that fits their personalities and makes them happy.

It takes a lot of effort, skill, and energy to play a video game, yet people love to play them for hours and hours a day, sometimes even losing massive amounts of sleep while doing it.

Interestingly, many people seem to exert more effort in virtual worlds than their own lives, but video games show us that people are capable of productive work when they find it blissful and highly rewarding.

How often do we see kids with attention deficit disorder or learning disabilities get completely absorbed in a video game? What is it about video games that engages us more than school or work?

Identifying these differences and treating our life more like a video game can help us transform this productivity toward real world goals.

Epic Meaning

Many video games provide inspiring stories and missions that add context and “epic meaning” behind our goals.

There is a “big picture” behind our actions. In video games, we save worlds, conquer enemies, and take part in heroic accomplishments that make a huge impact within these “virtual worlds” we participate in.

One interesting piece of trivia McGonigal shares is that next to Wikipedia itself, the World of Warcraft (WoW) wiki is the second biggest wiki in the world. That means there is more information on WoW than any other topic covered on any other Wiki around the world.

That’s a big story surrounding WoW – it’s what builds “epic meaning” – and it’s part of what keeps WoW players so engaged and connected.

What if we can find this same “epic meaning” in our everyday lives? What if we saw the bigger picture behind our role in the world, and treated it as if we were a kind of hero in real life too?

Who invented games and why?

According to the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, games were first invented 2,500 years ago in the kingdom of Lydia. These first game designs were simple dice games made out of sheep’s knuckles.

As the story goes, Lydia was experiencing a great famine at the time and something had to be done. They tried to cope with the famine by spending one day eating what they had and then the next day doing nothing but playing games.

The days they played games were so satisfying and blissful that many citizens were able to ignore their hunger for a whole day. It’s said that Lydia passed 18 years this way. McGonigal believes that many gamers today use video games in a similar way to overcome “real world suffering.”

But here’s where the story really gets interesting. After 18 years the famine wasn’t getting any better, so the emperor decided to play one final dice game where the winners got to go on an “epic adventure” to leave Lydia and search for a new place to live.

Evidence later corroborated by anthropologists and geologists say this story may actually be true. DNA evidence shows that the Etruscans (who then led to the Roman Empire) actually share the same DNA as the ancient Lydians. There is also evidence of a “global cooling” that lasted for nearly 20 years that could’ve led to the famine in Herodotus’ story.

So it could be true that the Lydian’s actually helped save their civilization through playing games.

Research at The Institute for The Future

Jane McGonigal’s research at the Institute for the Future is aimed to empower people through games to help build a better world.

In one game called “World Without Oil” gamers are given a hypothetical scenario where oil is almost completely depleted. The gamers even watch fake news clips and read fake articles to help immerse them into the story.

The gamers are then challenged to invest and manage energy resources in this virtual world to help come up with new energy alternatives and save their civilization.

Games like this are “pilots” of what we might do in a hypothetical world. By playing games that teach us valuable skills, we can prepare ourselves to act in similar and better ways in the real world.


Overall, even if we don’t play more video games (and why not?), I believe that taking these positive aspects out of video games and transforming them into our real world lives can have a real and significant benefit.

Urgent optimism, social fabric, blissful productivity, and epic meaning are all requirements to a truly happy and successful life, including one where we are just as motivated to improve the world as we are to improve our own self.

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