Why playing computer games is easy but writing a paper is hard

This post contains some thoughts about a recent conversation I’ve had with my fellow Habitica group members @AidanBudd and Valerie about why it’s enjoyable to play computer games, but not so enjoyable to write a paper.

Games

I think many games are engineered to be enjoyable in a way that it’s easy to lose track of time. This is a function of several features that many games have a common:

  • receiving an immediate reward
  • continuous feedback that allows to adjust actions
  • being able to see improvement over time

For example, many games start out with an level where it’s easy to learn how the game works and earn points or collect items, so the activity starts out with a reward. During the game you are continuously aware of how well you are doing, for example based on a score, or because you can predict the outcome of your actions based on previous experience with the game. Lastly, the game continuously gets more difficult, but as you are often practicing by playing it, you can handle more and more challenging situations.

[The above is more true of recent games like Candy Crush than for example the quest games I’ve played in the 90’s. These often gave you zero direction where to start or could end up in a “dead end” situation where you can never solve the game due to an earlier decision. While this could be a very frustrating game for a beginner, I think with more experience it’s still enjoyable to solve these type of challenges.]

 

Flow

In other words, games have a good “challenge-skill” balance that contributes to the feeling that time is going so quickly. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, people with more complicated last names than mine exist) calls this balance one of the components of “flow” – being completely immersed in an activity or “in the zone”.


You can probably think of other enjoyable activities you call hobbies which fit this definition. I’m always fascinated by people for whom running is a hobby – you get to do something fun AND become healthier at the same time! But if you are like me, you can’t “just” take up running is a hobby because of the challenge-skill balance. The immediate feedback is discomfort. Then you are likely to avoid going running because of this discomfort, and once you do get to it again, you probably won’t see enough improvement that will motivate you to continue. And that’s not a way to develop a hobby!

Writing a paper, in many cases, also doesn’t have this balance. You might already fear that the task is too big, so if you sit down to start writing, but nothing comes out, you get demotivated, so there is no immediate reward. The task becomes only more daunting, and every time you get stuck you feel like you have not improved at all. Since you are not enjoying the task, it will be easy to get distracted and procrastinate, making it even less likely that you will produce a result you are happy with.

The features will be there, but over a longer scale of time, for example, if your paper gets published, or you start noticing that after several papers, it takes you less time to finish one. But since this reward/feedback/improvement is not immediate, so you might not be too excited to start, or to continue writing.

 

Flow through habits?

If you want an activity you SHOULD be doing, be it running or writing, to be easier, you need to find ways to:

  • get a reward for the activity
  • get feedback
  • do it long enough until you see improvement

This will help to improve the challenge-skill balance, and hopefully help in turning the activity from an “ugh” to something you genuinely look forward to.

 

Habitica

For me this is where Habitica comes in. First, I define habits – activities that I know are relatively easy to accomplish, such as writing for 1 pomodoro (rather than finishing a paper), or just going out for a run (regardless of how quickly I do it). I get an immediate reward in Habitica each time I accomplish one of these items.

Habitica also keeps track of how often I do each habits – habits I’m keeping up with are shown in green, OK habits in yellow and poor habits in red. For habits, there is a counter which tracks how often you did a habit, which resets every day, week or month. This shows at a glance how well I’m doing. If there is too much red, maybe I need to reduce the number of goals I’m trying to accomplish and/or make it easier for myself to earn a reward. If everything is green, maybe it’s time to adjust the difficulty level!

For dailies (habit that you set to do every X days), Habitica keeps track of streaks – how many times in a row you have successfully completed your habit. Longer streaks are quite encouraging, and motivating not to break Together with the immediate reward, this encourages me to keep up with the habit, even if I’m not yet noticing results “in real life”.

 

A few of my avatars, November 2016 to June 2017

 

Results!

Maybe it sounds a bit magical, but after using Habitica for a few months I AM noticing results in real life. For writing this post, I even checked my Fitbit, and decided to share some results with running, from early May and end of June. The round is the same, but I can run it without stopping and a few minutes faster (although I wasn’t specifically targeting either of these things, just showing up).

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
My usual round, early May

 

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
Same round, end of June

With writing, I’m noticing that it happens more and more often that I don’t realize the Pomodoro is over, and just continue – which is great for moving projects along.

But it’s not just writing or running. I’m enjoying the overall challenge of translating a goal into habits, thinking of different parallels between activities like writing and running, and thinking of how I can improve further.

An extra benefit is, although your goals may not seem related, tackling several problems this way exercises the same muscles of not forgetting what you *should* be doing, focusing more, and getting things done even if you don’t have the motivation. For example, stretching every morning motivates me to work on an important writing project every day.

And now that this blog post is finished… I’m afraid I have no excuse for going on that run! 🙂

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