By Aaron Dignan
We’re bored. Not all of us, and certainly not all the time, but it does happen a lot. Look into the eyes of the person behind the checkout counter the next time you buy something. Note the expression on the face of an employee in accounts payable who has held that same job 10 ten years. Observe a classroom of students during a middle school world studies class. Boredom is everywhere, and it’s a by-product of poorly structured systems.
In so many communities and organizations, the lack of interesting and challenging opportunities is apparent. Teenagers with excess free time and hungry minds are forced to choose from a scant menu of options, often resorting to mindless forms of entertainment to pass the time. Adults in the workplace aren’t much better off, but the demands of work and family life keep us busy enough to be complacent with the status quo.
Whether the fault lies with the systems that surround us or the way we’re approaching them, boredom isn’t the only thing holding us back. It’s part of a larger trend of issues preventing us from realizing our potential. Some of us suffer from a lack of motivation. Others have problems with follow-through—eagerly starting new projects with verve only to lose steam over time. Still others feel helpless even to try, discouraged by the apparent difficulty of what lies ahead.
These feelings are all common among people who have become disenchanted with “the system,” whether that system is their company, their school, or even their personal life. Examining these issues and how they relate to each other, I’ve grouped them into two distinct symptoms: lack of volition and lack of faculty. By understanding how they inhibit us, we can attack them head on. Let’s take a closer look.
Lack of Volition. Volition is the will to do something; the motivation and internal drive to see it through. Any kind of proactive or ambitious behavior is evidence of strong volition. People who lack volition feel lost, bored, or disconnected from the task at hand. They can’t see why an activity or behavior is worthwhile. A lack of volition is defined by disinterest, low involvement, and arrested development. An individual lacking volition says, “I’m not going to do that. Why would I? What’s in it for me?”
Lack of Faculty. Faculty is the belief that we have the skills and tools to handle the challenges we’re facing; that we know how to begin and have the confidence to pursue our goals. People who lack faculty in a particular situation may feel that it’s too hard, or that it’s unclear what they need to do to succeed. A lack of faculty is defined by anxiety, submission, and ultimately, despair. An individual lacking faculty says, “I can’t do this. I’m not prepared. I don’t know how.”
We can’t bribe our way out of these issues. But that’s exactly what we try to do. Faced with an unmotivated employee or student, our first instinct is to dangle a carrot (an incentive). If that doesn’t work, we threaten him. In either case, we’re missing the point. Tackling a lack of volition or faculty with blunt instruments such as rewards and punishments simply ignores the fact that the activities and experiences causing these symptoms aren’t any fun.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
Fortunately for us, one medium is designed to address these issues systemically: games. They do this through a structured and challenging system that makes the process of learning rewarding, enables deep engagement, provides a sense of autonomy, and asks us to be heroes in our own stories.
Games, in contrast to shallow rewards systems, are made up of activities we genuinely like. They manage to pull us in and hold our attention almost effortlessly. This is no accident.
Games are created with our enjoyment in mind. Josh Knowles, a software developer and designer, drives this point home on his Website: “Games are engagement engines. To design a game is to take some thing—some basic enjoyable and/or satisfying interaction— and carefully apply rules to help players maximize the enjoyment and/or satisfaction they have with that interaction.”
The point is that playing games is satisfying in and of itself. If we aim to overcome the lack of volition and faculty we’re facing, it follows that our experiences—be they at work, school, or at home—need to be enjoyable and satisfying in their own right. Layering a rewards system over an existing experience doesn’t make us like it any better; it just encourages us to tolerate it.
And yet, game-like rewards systems have become quite popular. From loyalty cards to points systems to badges for achievement, organizations are beginning to see the value of game mechanics applied to everything from software to staff meetings.
But while simply pasting game mechanics—the ingredients that make games work—onto an existing system is great for short-term engagement, it almost certainly will lead to diminishing returns down the road. The core experience of an activity matters, and a veneer of gameplay isn’t going to change that.
If deeper engagement and performance are what we seek, we need to change our systems from the inside out. And in places where we can’t, we must pay close attention to the way we apply a game layer to our lives. Because using play to influence behavior is more complicated than we think.
Human beings are learning machines. Our brains are always hunting for patterns—exploring and experimenting—in order to increase our chance of survival. We learn in order to thrive, and it’s our main method of interaction with the world around us. So it’s not surprising that learning often is accompanied by enjoyment.
A game, at its core, is a kind of structured learning environment. In games, we learn two important things: new skills and new information. Game designers spend a lot of time thinking about skills in particular, because they are the basic framework of interaction with the game system itself. In the classic Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros., learning how to run and jump are skills that are fundamental to completing the game. Much of our engagement comes from the trial-and-error learning process of running and jumping with abandon, slowly turning clumsiness into precision. Once you’ve acquired those skills, you’re able to move through subsequent levels far more freely. And, of course, knowledge of each level—the location of every enemy and reward that lies in wait for you—is the other half of mastering the game.
Excerpt from “GAME FRAME: Using Games as a Strategy for Success” by Aaron Dignan (2011; excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.).
Aaron Dignan is the founding partner of digital strategy firm Undercurrent, based in New York, where he advises top executives at global brands such as General Electric, PepsiCo, and Ford Motor Company, helping them define their future in an increasingly technophilic world.