Motivated Slacking: Or, How Come I Never Need Extra Incentive to Kill a Locust?

I’ve been in a bit of a slump lately. I find that I get in these funks from time to time, where a few week pass and I feel as though I am accomplishing very little, both personally and professionally. I don’t know if it’s a seasonal disorder / nutrient deficiency / alignment of the planets thing or what, but whatever it is, it sucks a throbbing donkey dong.

Whenever I get in these little ruts of mine, there’s one thing I always find a little curious: no matter how listless I get, I always manage to keep up with my video gaming. Moreover, I find myself asking the same questions each time: “Why are video games such an exception? How come when I don’t feel like doing anything, I still feel like doing this?”

Now, there are certain obvious answers to this question that may occur to the naïve reader. Of course I still play video games… they’re “games”, after all. By definition, they’re supposed to be fun. What’s more, they’re the kind of fun I can have without the burden of leaving the couch or putting on pants. What could be easier than that?

However, I think the real answer is more complicated than that. For example, anyone who has ever seen me play a video game—with my body rigid and twitching from the stress of thousands of near-death experiences, eyes red and bloodshot from lack of blinking, and a slight bruise on my thigh where I punch my leg in frustration every time my character meets an untimely end—would be hard pressed to imagine that I’m having “fun”. In fact, they’d be just as likely to call the police, assuming that I’m being held against my will, subjected to some variant of the Ludovico technique.

Maybe if I develop an aversion to being chainsawed in half, it’ll make me better at Gears of War.

It’s not just appearances… in fact, there are plenty of times when I’m really not having “fun”. For example, I don’t think I was having fun when I spent two hours jumping down flights of stairs trying to train up my Acrobatics skill while playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and I certainly don’t have fun playing Call of Duty online multiplayer as I’m repeatedly and brutally murdered by foul-mouthed adolescents with Gamertags like PwnsUrMom. (I made this tag up, but of course it turned out to be the real handle of a redneck from the Florida panhandle. Motto: “Cold beer, George Strait, and good people is all I need.”)

So what’s the difference? How can I be “motivated” enough to play video games, even when I’m not motivated enough to do virtually anything else?

I think the answer to this question is best phrased in terms of goals. Let’s say that a goal consists of three parts: a what, a how, and a why. In other words, what do I want to accomplish? How do I go about it? Finally, why the hell should I bother?

In video games, the “what” is usually handed to us. Typically, the “what” is as simple as “save the world”, or “kill that guy over there”. Although more specific goals may manifest as Achievements, such as “Smash 1000 pixies with the Gavel of Procedural Amendments (+30 Gamerpoints)”, in any case our goals are nearly always given to us. In fact, so common is this practice that I remember being pretty confused and disoriented the first time I played Minecraft, a sandbox game so open-ended that there really is no stated goal.

Great, I built a castle.  Does this mean I win?

However, it’s not like things are much different in the real world. Most of the goals I have are things handed to me by society: “graduate from college and get a job”, “copulate with a woman for the purposes of making a genetic copy of yourself”, “survive 78 consecutive years without dying (+30 Gamerpoints)”. I’m not saying this is a bad thing… I mean, there has to be some reason these goals are so common, as opposed to goals like “collect one million plastic forks” or “grow more limbs than anybody else”.

Where video games and reality differ much more is in the “how”. When I’m playing a video game, I almost always know how to work toward the thing I’m trying to accomplish. (Role playing game: kill enemies, get gold, buy better weapons, repeat. Platformer: kill enemies, save princess, repeat. First-person shooter: kill enemies, repeat.) By contrast, at work I almost never know how to work towards my goal. (Will this equation solve my problem? Will that project get me a raise?) At home, it’s even worse. (Will this thoughtful gesture keep my wife from getting mad at me? Will that parenting style keep my kid alive until adulthood while subjecting him to the minimum amount of emotional damage?)

Finally, there’s the “why”. At the most philosophical level, this question is all-encompassing: why are we here? What is our purpose on this Earth? Fortunately, the answer to these questions (like all questions) can be found on the Internet, both here and here.

Seriously, though… why do we do anything that we do? For wealth or power? For glory or recognition? To help others? For me, I’m not sure how much it matters. Even at my motivational nadir, I’m still compelled to play video games, and they offer none of those things (at least, not in reality). Regardless of the “why”, I think I’m more likely to get off my ass and do something if the “what” and the “how” are easily accessible. Perhaps if I could find a way to make real life more like video games in this respect, I’d have an easier time getting things accomplished.

What Do You Think?