Obsessively eliminating boredom

"Games that fail to exercise the brain become boring…" ALSO: 3/4 HR bosses say their role has shifted

Is it outlandish to ask ‘what can work learn from computer games?’

The computer games industry - unlike work - has had to understand human motivation with far fewer player incentives. Games are unlikely to offer you money to keep playing. You won’t lose your house (or in some places your health care) if you stop logging on. To have a hit a games designer needs to understand how to motivate a player to stay engaged and to keep coming back to do hard graft for nothing more than the pleasure of it. As the experience of work over the last few months has been challenged by creeping monotony I’ve been increasingly interested in what others have learned about humans that work has ignored.

As the dark nights have crept in feelings of exhaustion and isolation are starting to impact more of us. If not you, then some of your colleagues have felt these things. One of the comforts that we used to have about work is that it allowed us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. I remember chatting to Zeynep Ton (who is a visionary about creating good jobs for people in retail stores) and she explained to me that the satisfaction we can get from being in service of others seems to unlock a sense of reward inside of us. But in contrast as we start feeling more disconnected from others that reward is deactivated.

This week I’ve been reading a book that is regarded as the essential guide in the field of computer games design, A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. Koster has spent his whole life working in the games industry and 15 years ago he set out to try to explain what it was that kept players coming back for more - it became a runaway hit, the gospel for games makers.

He asked the question: what is the secret to being motivated by a game? What makes a game fun?

There is no shortage of writing on motivation, but some of it veers into abstraction when we try to apply it. Sure, it seems well proven that to be motivated in our work we need to feel intrinsic motivation, not just extrinsic motivation - in other words we need to feel inspired by the job, not just rewarded for it. There’s plenty of evidence for this, when artists find themselves creating their work to earn money they report feeling less inspired and independent assessment of their work appraises it as lower quality. They fall out of love with creating art because they are earning money for making it (here’s a classic academic paper on just that for the swots).

These questions of motivation seem to be very timely. There seems to be a big division between employers right now. A significant number of firms are asking ‘how do we check in that employees are working?’ meanwhile others are asking what can we do to ensure that their workers are motivated to get their jobs done? But very few are asking how can we make our teams’ jobs fun?

So can we learn from games? To some extent both are formal structures slightly disconnected from reality. The way that people behave at work and the hierarchies we respect wouldn’t wash in real life. In both situations we learn a set of rules and we adapt our behaviour to them. Educators often talk about the importance of play, but in truth modern work is a game with clear rules, not play. Play is non-goal orientated whereas games have clear objectives to them. This is a distinction we often recognise when we reach for metaphors - we’re comfortable about making comparison with sport, which are games filled with rules.

And this is where the games industry can teach us something about creating motivation when we’ve seeking to drive extra effort in a scenario with a non-linear path.

From the perspective of the game designer, Koster sets out to understand what creates fun. In companies we’re often uncomfortable with wanting work to be fun. It seems unreasonable. Strangely there is an inequity across the different strata of society, most bosses consider their own jobs to be fun, it’s intriguing why they believe their own motivation feels like fun but the motivation of their employees needs to be more mechanical.

Without those self imposed limits, Koster sets out to understand the origin of fun. He tells us a golden rule when thinking about motivation:

“Games that fail to exercise the brain become boring… Practising can keep a game fresh for a while, but in many cases we’ll [get bored and move on].”

I can’t help but think that we’re talking the same language, these aren’t two different things, the incentives that seem to motivate us at work are also the things that motivate us in games. As one games blogger wrote: “The sensation that gamers term 'fun' is derived from the act of mastering knowledge, skills and tools. When you learn something new, when you understand it so fully you can use that knowledge to manipulate your environment for the better, you experience joy”. This sounds like it could be directly converted into our motivation at work.

Knowing how to activate this motivation, this fun, seems crucial for creating work that achieves the best results. If we turn up at work merely for the financial reward, sure we’ll do the job but the way we respond to unexpected challenges will be wholly different to when we feel inspired, motivated and engaged by the task we’re charged with. And this is why, for me, understanding how designers seek to make games fun can teach us important lessons about designing our jobs.

Is fun important? It’s easy to say no, but if we reimagine fun as motivation then, yes, it is essential. We’re all witnessed servers in restaurants or bus drivers whose demotivation is expressed as weary annoyance. We recognise demotivation when we see it in some professions, but often not in our own jobs. When we have someone feigning attention on their 6th video call of the day we like to imagine that surely we had their full attention and they’re just tired.

Koster is at pains to point out what is obvious but easy to overlook: “Boredom is the opposite of learning… There are many ways we find fun in games… But learning is the one I believe to be the most important… with games, learning is the drug”.

Boredom can sometimes come when the difficulty level of a job/game ramp too slowly.

I remember working at one big firm where talented people joined, eager to change the world only to learn that the promotion system only allowed them to progress one ‘level’ every two years or so. A dead eyed acceptance that their enthusiasm counted for nothing gradually turned them into vampiric waifs performatively trying to do their job but saddened to their own potential atrophying away. If learning is the drug, these patients were deprived of it. (To hammer home the game metaphor everyone at that firm spends a good portion of their energy consumed with anxiety of whether they will be promoted to the next level).

In contrast games designers are attuned to the peril of this boredom. They take one signal as fundamentally instructive: “boredom is always the signal to let you know you have failed”. How many jobs could be enhanced by us taking that in?

Koster explains some of the things we’re willing to accept in games simply because we understand them as the price of entry, these include things like “blind obedience to leaders and cultism”, “rigid hierarchies or binary thinking”, “use of force to resolve conflicts”. Yes, yes and yes.

As I was working through this I came across an old Anne Helen Petersen post where she talks about how our jobs can feel like performative role playing, where we believe that sending messages late or early can earn us points for being diligently eager. I wonder if it’s too late to review my angle, work is already a game isn’t it? But it’s a game that we’re not willing to optimise for fun. We’ve made the mistake of believing that work is more important than that.

The critical lesson for me is that games never flinch from having challenges that aren’t easy. Games can be immensely difficult, games can offer little reward for long periods of time, in games you can find you are spending an eternity trying to make the merest of starts. But games understand that fun is nuanced. By being fun a game isn’t leaving a player with a beaming smile and a huge list of easy accomplishments. By being fun a game is providing a player with a challenge and the opportunity to learn as they attempt it.

How different would the motivation of our teams be if we were honest by solving these challenges?

Next week I’m going to look in more depth of specific actions we could take to improve work.

Read more: A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.

I had a great discussion with someone who runs a call centre this week. She told me that their productivity is up over 10% from phone operators taking calls from home, customer satisfaction is up too. Why? Because people feel more able to carry on despite things in their life. They can literally balance the two hemispheres of their lives more easily.

Three or four years ago Mo Gawdat found himself going viral talking about how the tragedy of his son’s passing helped him understand the secret of being happy. I have a stimulating conversation with him here which blends philosophy and science. What a lovely man. Listen here (I’m also on his podcast his podcast this week but you’ve heard of my stuff 1000 times)

Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about my book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat website. You might want to catch up on my recent talk at RSA. Thanks for asking, yes I had an incredible time in Washington last week.