All of which is to say: Video games are huge. Very huge. And getting bigger. Exactly what one thinks about this development depends partly on how one views the possibilities or evils of technology. But a growing number of people are trying to figure out if or how other parts of life, from school to exercise to work to household chores, could be structured to capture the same kind of attention, energy focus, and potential addiction that video games inspire.
On one level, the results reveal some fascinating -- if slightly embarrassing -- facts about human responses and behaviors. For all of our advanced mental capacity, it appears we respond to stimuli very much like lab rats.
In an article in last week's Science Times John Tierney said a crucial element to the appeal of video games was the fact that they provided "instantaneous feedback and continual encouragement ... while also providing occasional unexpected rewards." That assessment mirrors the research results of Dr. Paul Howard-Jones a British neuroscientist who has found that (as a Times article reported earlier this fall), "children's engagement levels are higher when they are anticipating a reward but cannot predict whether they will get it."
As anyone who's ever taken college psychology knows, lab rats too will continue to hit a lever if they keep getting rewarded, but will stick with the task far more persistently if the rewards are unpredictable. I'd love to be able to argue that human motivations are more complicated than that (and, indeed, in some or many areas of behavior, they are), but the evidence for how easily we get transfixed by little bells, lights, and other sensory reward pellets is hard to ignore.
In addition to video games, there is, for example, the increasing number and popularity of individual activity tracking devices and websites that allow people to record, upload and share (and in some cases get rewarded with charity donations for) their exercise during the day: FitBit, Nike Plus, Run Keeper, the Garmin FR 60, FitDay, FitWatch, MapMyRun, FitTracker ... the list goes on and on, even though the phenomenon puzzles me just a bit.
Really? We're more motivated to exercise if a little gizmo lets us track each step, and we can see cool little trend lines or achieve new levels on a computer screen? Apparently. Come to think of it, running on a treadmill in pursuit of those disappearing dot-lines of hills and distance conquered doesn't, on the surface, differ all that much from the hamsters who run on an exercise wheel in pursuit of ... well, whatever it is they're in pursuit of.
Not that our connection with rodents in the behavior/motivation category is all that surprising. There's a reason, after all, that researchers watch rat behavior in an effort to understand humans. But the comparisons have their limits. Even if it's true that we respond to immediate feedback, constant encouragement, and unexpected rewards, how transferable, really, is the video game framework to real life?