Theories On Life Balance through Video Game Design

SUMMARY: I know that the path to happiness goes straight through the Mountains of Productivity, a craggy place where discipline and steadiness of action are required to maintain one’s footing. Nevertheless, I have difficulty mustering the energy to even get on the path, as much as I want to.

In this post, I identify myself as a procrastinator-perfectionist, and detail some factors that I believe are barriers to action: a lack of immediacy, a need to be convinced, and a look at “happiness” not as a question to be answered, but as an indicator of pre-existing conditions. After coming up with some ways to trick myself past these barriers, I postulate that video game design may offer an analogous methodology, to be explored in future posts.

Work-life balance has been on my mind a lot, and the underlying question is what’s gonna make me happy? My assumptions are that if I’m balanced, I’ll be more productive and more at-ease. I’ll have to accept a realistic level of accomplishment given a limited set of resources, and suck-it-up. Achieving work-life balance is essentially finding an optimal solution to the “happiness” problem set.

If you’re a problem-solving type of person (or, as my friend Angela might say, “a typical guy”), itemizing potential solutions comes immediately and easily. And if you’re also a productivity-oriented person, you know that getting things done is an essential part of that solution. While I know these things in my head, my heart remains unmoved and unconvinced. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time this past week feeling rather grouchy about the whole situation. The most productive thing I’ve done all week is earn enough experience points in the Facebook game “Farmville” to grow rice. In a way it’s a fantasy form of productivity; the game essentially is about having an idealized farm in which you plow, plant, wait, and harvest. The difference between the game and real life is that the game has clear rules and rewards, but the strategy to advance through the game is essentially up to you. The question posed by the game is, “how do I grow more produce?”, and the solution lies in exploring the set of farming options to create a methodology that makes more money than you expend.

There’s a precursor question, however, that attends this game: “why in the world are you playing a game about farming?” I really have no idea…I just like the idea of growing stuff, and I admire the work ethic of farmers. I’d be a terrible farmer, but this way I get to pretend I’m one. The “why” query also can be applied to “what’s gonna make me happy”. Rather than choose the action-oriented problem-solver response, which runs through the chain of identity-formulate-execute-assess, we might consider where the question is coming from and determine whether it really is a question at all. You’ll probably discover quite a lot by digging into the roots of the question:

  • The question may be part of a larger question, as an expression of exploration rather than a request for a solution. Therefore, answering the question right now is actually premature, because it’s just a first nebulous step. To act on the question immediately will produce results, sure, but they are likely to be the wrong ones unless you are deliberately exploring potential solution spaces.
  • It may be the timing of the question that is most question. Why was that question even asked at this very moment? It may indicate an entirely different problem space, and assuming that your context of understanding is in the same problem space can be misleading.
  • The underlying mental state behind the question may be frustration, confusion, lack of clarity, sadness, anger…these are all significant blocks to execution, so even if you do have a good course of action, you will have to deal with these issues first before suggesting a course of action.

These are all significant blocks to action, and these are the kinds of issues I consider constantly. This is not a choice; it’s the way I’m wired. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at untangling the threads, but this does not help with getting those big projects moving. I’ve been trying to answer the questions behind the “happiness” question for the past five years.

The Procrastinator-Perfectionist

If this sounds familiar, then you might fall into the “procrastinator-perfectionist” category. I’ve talked to quite a few fellow procrastinator-perfectionists over the past few years, and one commonality I’ve noticed is that we all maintain complex emotional state. We relate everything to everything else, and completed actions are not necessarily points of closure. Instead, a completed action opens up 10 new possibilities. This mindset is the operating context for every action we consider and take. It’s exciting, but exhausting. Especially to people who don’t think this way. Our belief systems are complex, but essential to our sense of identity.

For the procrastinator-perfectionist (P-P) to make the transition to bad-ass GTDer, I think two changes in the belief system need to occur:

  • First, the P-P needs to believe that limited focus is going to help. I think we understand that intellectually, but to execute means turning off part of our brain so we’re not distracted. It’s very difficult to achieve without external measures.
  • Secondly, the P-P needs to believe that the specific focus will actually lead to satisfaction. This belief needs to be in the moment so the impulse to start is there. There is plenty of friction to overcome if the moment of impulse is not present: built-in doubt, the imagined perfect result, and the ability to discern what is going wrong all too easily.

It may be useful to spin the nature of our procrastination not as laziness, but a stubborn need to be convinced that we will be rewarded for our efforts in the moment that action is called for. I’d thought of this as “activation energy” in the past, a primal impetus to act now. One interesting skill of the procrastinator-perfectionist is the ability to imagine so many possible courses of action that doing none of them is easier than choosing one and waiting to see if it worked.

The counter-argument I use on myself is to note that any action at all leads to new possibilities (this is part of the P-P mindset). And among those possibilities, there are potentially higher-payoff actions that are easier to achieve. It’s also lot easier, for example, to make something that people react to to find out what they really are thinking. A corollary is that it’s actually pretty difficult to get something exactly right the first time, and it’s a lot easier to react to an existing piece. These two principles take together encourage me to take the first available course of action no matter how untried it is, and make it less than perfect so I can make it perfect in the next step. However, the reason why these principles work for me is because I’ve empirically discovered them to be a Truth of Human Nature, one of the perfect nuggets of understanding that I can enjoy in contemplation. Ahhhh!

Engineering the Twitch

As I mentioned, there’s a certain activation energy that’s required to move the Procrastinator-Perfectionist into action. For myself, it’s a combination of having:

  • external motivation from people I admire.
  • the notion that I have an important role to play that I want to play or live up to.
  • a belief that the action at hand is absolutely essential and within the reach of my skill set.
  • a temporary lapse of imagination, narrowing my attention to a chain of tasks.
  • a rolling start.

Underlying these factors is the knowledge that making anything tangible or perceptible at all is the essence of being productive. If it’s something you can see or hold, or if it creates a positive change in a person, that’s awesome. If you continue to create things, you can’t help but accrue a big pile of stuff that the universe is gonna have to deal with. And if the stuff you’re making is in alignment with what you really enjoy, it becomes a beacon that attracts like-minded people. Those like-minded people become your audience, your market, your fans, your creative peers, and your friends. That sounds like a formula for happiness to me.

The interesting insight is that so long as you’re creating and showing things, the way you do it isn’t really important, which suggests that one can apply any methodology so long as it meets the essential conditions. And that reminds me of video game design.

When I was in school, I spent a lot of time dissecting video games to their component atoms and ideas. Essentially, though, a good game takes place entirely in your head, which is all about creating focus, drama, motivation, and a sense of completion out of thin air. As in any good story, the effective suspension of disbelief in a video game numbs the analytical parts of our brain, allowing us to accept a reality with rules quite different from our own. What makes suspension of disbelief easier in a video game is that we can create cause and effect through programming. When you press that button and magical things happen in the game world, you have empirically proven the rule that when you press the button you get magic. This is the power of a micro world.

With the ability to create arbitrary cause-and-effect relationships in games, I wonder if it’s possible to create a game-like structure for procrastinator-perfectionists that, in the course of play, produces tangible real-world results. That way, you play the game instead worrying about self-motivation, discipline, and focus in real life. It’s kind of a weird idea, but there’s precedent. Consider that the use of mathematics in engineering as a sort of game. I’m thinking in particular about the use of imaginary numbers in signal processing. Imaginary numbers don’t really “exist”, but they are a useful theoretical concept that happens to, due to the way that their mathematical operators are defined, are very convenient for representing and solving certain classes of problem. I used to get hung up on the lack of “reality” in mathematics, but when I look at it as a form of game design. Rules don’t have to make sense outside of their own specific reality, but they do need to be consistent within it. And, to be useful, there needs to be some way of “converting” the result of an applied ruleset into a context does is your reality.

So what I’m suggesting is that there is possibly some way of creating a “game” for procrastinator-perfectionists that we can play guilt-free, knowing that side-benefit will be increased productivity even while we are procrastinating by playing it. This reminds me a bit of how Douglas Adam’s describes the trick of flying in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is to throw yourself at the ground and then, in a moment of exquisite timing, conveniently forget to hit it.

Universal Principles

There are certain rules of thumb that are universal in game design:

  • Provide persistent and periodic feedback about the player’s progression to the goal.
  • Provide instantaneous feedback on the player’s progress at all times.
  • Give the player enough control to make the task immediately challenging, without overloading them.
  • Give the player a world that is at the core fair and consistent, with observable and intuitive rules and rewards.
  • Keep the player on the edge between challenge and ability.

Game balance, the art of ensuring the a game is consistently challenging and fun, is not that much different conceptually from work-life balance, particularly when one realizes that happiness is, in a sense, a kind of trick we perpetrate on ourselves. Like a game, happiness is all in our mind, and whether a life event is perceived as disaster or opportunity depends a lot on our attitude.

Designing The Life Game

Creating a life-balance game for procrastinator-perfectionists is a tall order, and I’m not going to be able to address this all in just one post, so we’ll just start with the opening question:

“What’s going to make me happy?”

The analogous structure in game design, from my perspective, is:

“What’s going to make this game enjoyable?”

I am deliberately avoiding the word “fun” because it’s a shallow descriptor that trivializes the difficulty of creating a good experience. Additionally, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow makes the distinction between mere “pleasure” (e.g. stuffing our faces with food) and mentally-stimulating “enjoyment” (e.g. a gourmet’s experience in tasting), I find this distinction useful.

For the procrastinator-perfectionist that wants to “be more productive”, I’d say that enjoyment in such a game might involve:

  • Creating an alter-ego that creates very high-quality goods and/or services to exacting standards.
  • Seeing immediate results, in the context of the chosen goals.
  • Validating that high-quality goods produced are more desirable in the world overall, which indirectly validates the alter-ego.
  • Providing the means to assess the quality not only of the goods and services, but of the process as well.
  • Introducing well-defined, yet flexible, methodology for achieving the desired goals.
  • Discernible levels of achievement and recognition, by individual and by group, in a public setting.
  • Increasing reward with increasing risk in a “safe” environment, through applying the methodologies learned during play.

And then there is the world that the alter-ego must overcome:

  • inertia, apathy, lack of discipline, lack of focus
  • sheer scale of the challenge
  • finding a starting point
  • achieving success at the scale that is desired by the individual.

Ok, so that’s a start, but who is going to get “hooked” by such a game? How does one appeal to the procrastinator-perfectionist?

  • There’s a story that every procrastinator-perfectionist knows deep in their heart: I should be doing more. I am capable of it. I crave it. Yet I am not doing it. Something is holding me back. I want to achieve more than I am now, if only I knew how. This is a pretty common story, a variation of the Hero’s Journey in which the struggle is largely internal. There is probably an actual name for it, but I don’t know what it’s called offhand.
  • There’s a truth that every procrastinator-perfectionist believes: There is a way to break out of this. People must have done it. If only I find the right key. This really isn’t so much of a truth as it is a half-delusion. The “right key” is obvious only in hindsight or in highly-structured hand-on methodologies. If you are trying to do anything that is the slightest bit novel or innovative, then the right key will appear to you only when you’re firmly on the path doing something about it. That’s something that I believe, and yet even I have trouble believing it all the time.
  • To make it all work, the game has to consistently prove that it understands the unique context in which the procrastinator-perfectionist-protagonist lives. For example, I think the game needs to show situations where the tendency toward perfectionism is useful, and show how it is made achievable by de-emphasizing the need to “get it right” all at once. The game would also need to help our protagonist identify strengths, sharpen values, and test them in character-building contests of will versus inertia. The scenarios might be artificial, but the lessons and conditioning learned should be eminently applicable in real life.

A Tall Order

It occurs to me that some of the game pieces already exist in the form of my existing Printable CEO, which are based on video game design theory in the first place. What has always been lacking, though, in the PCEO forms is a common framework. It may appear that the forms are designed to work together, but they are really stand-alone tools. Consolidating the tools into a game system, using the elements I’ve factored out above, is a possibility.