How To Use Video Game Design to Become Productive

We all love to play video games. Maybe you play Words with Friends on your commute to work, or maybe there was a time in your life where you would play Minesweeper on your laptop. Maybe you only reserve playing video games when you’re with your family, or maybe you dedicate hours playing Dark Souls alone. Did you know that the video game industry is larger than the music and film industry combined? Sounds crazy! But there’s actually a really good reason for this.

Why Are Good Video Games So Addictive?

I’m currently studying game design and decision-making strategy, and the concepts behind it. Great games make so much money because they are purposefully designed to keep the audience absorbed in the game— repetitive play testing and user feedback is used to perfectly balance challenge, satisfaction, pleasure, and commitment. We can become addicted to completing games because the challenges are crafted for optimal motivation. Developers create a sense of moving forward, our actions feel like they have meaning, we get to feel in control of our fate, and while we may not always know the right move, we’re able to define the task at hand and prioritize what we need to do to overcome the obstacle.

Most importantly, we like video games because we commit to a decision. When we play a game, we would rather move backwards or even lose, to just try the possibility of winning, than to just pause the game and stare at it forever. Good games are addictive because it structures our brain to prioritize, make decisions, and find meaning in challenging ourselves— and this mental mindset is exactly what you need to cultivate productivity, motivation, and energy in your own life. This design framework video game developers use can also be used to create a system for being productive and balance opportunity, risk, and success.


The 3 Key Components That Keep Us Motivated

I’ll be using the popular video game Super Mario Bros as an example. In this game, you’re given the role of Mario and the goal of saving Princess Peach. You face a number of obstacles in between, some minor and some challenging.

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Even if you’ve never played the game, it’s evident in its worldwide success that Super Mario Bros is incredibly fun and addictive. Their first edition, released in 1985, sold 40.24 million copies. But imagine if this game had no fire-breathing plants, no angry porcini mushrooms, and no Bowser to defeat. It would become an easy game right? Well imagine if this game was even easier! There are no tubes to jump over, there are no cliffs, and no potholes. The entire game is just flat land, and you walk from one end to another.

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You don’t need me to tell you that this game sucks. No one will pay for it, and even if you managed to get someone to play it, they would never spend hours and hours playing it. It’s easy, yes, but the lack of challenge is precisely what makes it so boring.

Takeaway 1: Humans need some challenge to be motivated to take action

Having challenge isn’t all there is to motivation. Let’s take the original Super Mario Bros game, but this time there is no Princess Peach to save. There are no levels to discover and advance to, no clock, no points, and no other opponents. The entire game is the same, but it’s on loop, and you keep jumping over things, avoiding snapping plants, and periodically battling Bowser. What’s wrong with this game? There is no goal to it. So this game is poorly designed too.

Takeaway 2: Humans need purpose to be motivated to take action

Now let’s look at another bad version of Super Mario Bros. This time, before you start the game you are given a question block, and you must bump your head on it and to get a flower plant that will upgrade you to fire-throwing Mario. This question block is programmed so that it randomly assigns you the flower plant 20% of the time. If you get anything but a flower plant, you lose the game.

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Now the game is just about getting lucky! If you get the flower plant, you win, but if you don’t get it, the game is over and there is nothing you can do to change your fate.

Takeaway 3: Humans need some control over their fate to be motivated to take action.

When you’re playing a popular video game, you don’t really think about it, but that game has been specifically designed to optimize fun. The designers spend time playing, testing, and surveying user feedback to create a product that will keep a player engaged and motivated to keep coming back to tackle the challenges that stand in the way of achieving the goal.

This motivation to pursue a goal in the face of challenge stems from a desire to gain mastery of the skills and knowledge needed to defeat the boss enemy, beat your friends, complete the game, or simply be the best. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the instant gratification that keeps games entertaining, but the best games will optimize challenge, purpose, and control. Within a game world like Super Mario Bros, it’s why we’ll find ourselves playing the same level over and over, trying to complete it. Outside in real life, it’s why we have athletes who are willing to spend hours and hours practicing to master the sport, or why we have chess players who will come back to study the game again and again to get better at it.

So how can we apply video game design to real life? We don’t always have control over the challenges or work we are assigned to, and these tasks aren’t always centered around our goals. However, even if life isn’t a video game, it turns out we have a lot more control over how we approach our work than we think. Let me show you how to design a system which will make you more motivated to complete tasks and reach goals using the MDA framework, developed by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek.

What is the MDA Framework?

MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. Each of these terms correspond to a component of a game:

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  • Mechanics = Rules of the game

  • Dynamics = How the game is played

  • Aesthetics = Feelings we should have while playing the game

Game designers will establish the rules and boundaries of a game (mechanics) to create a certain sort of playing environment (dynamics) which will invoke certain feelings in the player (aesthetics), which is “fun”.

In Mario Kart, which is a Mario-themed car racing game, there is a tool called a blue shell which has the power to blast away whoever is in first place. Many players who have played Mario Kart before know of this special weapon, so they may choose to strategize by staying in close 2nd place until the very end, to avoid being targeted by the blue shell. In this case, the mechanic is the blue shell, the dynamic is trailing close behind 1st, and the aesthetic is the feeling of frustration we would have as player one, and the feeling of schadenfreude (satisfaction from another’s misfortune) as a player behind them.

To apply these principles to motivation, we should focus on what we can tweak to the mechanics, to have control of our aesthetics, and create a better system of work which will allow us to reach our full potential.

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There are two kinds of tasks we procrastinate with:

Have-To-Dos: These are tasks forced onto us, without our permission. They tend to have deadlines, make us panic, and cause us to suffer from dread and anxiety. Consequences of incompletion include, but are not limited to, getting yelled at by superiors, being criticized by your parents, or feeling frustrated for submitting sub-par and incomplete work. We all have different reactions to these potential consequences.

Sometimes just the thought of studying for exams will often lead us to anxiety, exhaustion, feelings of jadedness

Sometimes just the thought of studying for exams will often lead us to anxiety, exhaustion, feelings of jadedness

Want-To-Dos: These are tasks that are not forced onto us, but things that are important to pursue for ourselves if we are to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. Some common Want-To-Dos include becoming physically fit, reading more books, starting your own business, traveling, or becoming fluent in another language. Consequences of incompletion include “nothing”, as in there is no anxiety or stress in getting it done. But these goals make our lives richer, allow us to experience what life has to offer, and ultimately make us a lot happier by challenging our full potential.

*terms are borrowed from Tim Urban, master procrastinator

Why Have-To-Dos and Want-To-Dos Make Us Procrastinate

The biggest problem with Have-To-Dos

Have you ever downloaded a new calendar or to-do list app on your phone? You saw that it had great reviews on the App store, and it seemed like this was going to be the magic tool that would solve all your tendencies for distraction. You wrote everything you had to do on it, did the typical “break down daunting tasks into small, manageable actions”, set a time limit, chose the perfect location to work, and made yourself a cup of coffee to ready yourself.

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But did it work?

The truth is, procrastinators actually love to plan for these tasks. Creating a schedule is not the problem. Procrastination doesn’t stem from a lack of organization or laziness, because if that were the case, procrastinators wouldn’t have trouble following through. What tends to be the case is that procrastinators will have their space set up, they’ll sit down with a pencil in hand, and then dread sets in. Because no matter how chopped up it is, the arduous task still exists.

And so what do you do when you feel unmotivated and lethargic from just thinking about the task at hand? You open your phone. You scroll through Instagram. You open Youtube and go on a deep dive. You look up interesting articles on a new 3D technology that was recently released. You stand up and go to the kitchen and wash the dishes. “Once my headspace is relaxed, I’ll feel better, and then I can work.”

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But that feeling of relief never comes. Instead, the stress of the assigned task floats around in the back of your mind as you try not to think about it, making you even more anxious. Once you finish whatever you distracted yourself with, you now realize you feel even worse, and decide that you need to relax yourself again with something else. And then you find yourself spending 5 hours finishing half of the work you told yourself you would finish in an hour.

We get distracted because we hate the feeling of doing our work! You know that I was once told by someone that they would rather clean 1000 toilets and walk 20 miles under the sun without being asked, than do the work that’s required of them? It seems ridiculous, but these feelings are very genuine.

The good thing about Have-To-Dos is that they have great mechanics. These tasks are very easy to plan for, as they tend to be deadlined, have a prompt, and clear guidelines as to what we should have by the end.

However, Have-To-Dos lack in aesthetics, which lead to poor dynamics-- meaning, our feelings toward Have-To-Dos are comprised of negative thoughts like dread and anxiety, which cause us to stress and fear completing these tasks, so we procrastinate and instead choose unimportant activities that make us feel better. We know that completing the assigned work would provide us happiness and pleasure in the long run, but these feelings never seem to outweigh the pleasure we get from washing the dishes.

So how do we change the aesthetics of doing Have-To-Do work? Check out my article on How To Fix Your Broken System for Have-To-Do Task Completion.

The biggest problem with Want-To-Dos

What’s different about Want-To-Dos is that they lack in mechanics, rather than aesthetics, which lead to poor dynamics. Meaning, thinking and dreaming of our Want-To-Dos is fun, gets us excited, and inspires us, but we tend to have no clear vision of how to get there, which is why we procrastinate these goals off.

The uncertainty of what to do and no clear direction of what will help us move forward causes our inner mentality for success to weaken. Often times we will feel motivated for a few days but then give up. This feeling is so strong that sometimes we’ll pretend that we never even wanted it in the first place, and that the desire never even existed.

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We like to convince ourselves of being ‘fine’ when struggle settles in our mind. For example, let’s say we have a strong desire to help abandoned dogs. We recognize that there is a huge puppy mill problem in our city and we want to change the way people view pet adoption and raise awareness about the unethical practices of pet stores. But how do we start? Let’s say you try volunteering at a shelter, but all you do is pick up poop and walk the dogs sometimes. You ask what else you can do and the shelter tells you they need more donations, but you have no idea how to raise it. Do you do a bake sale? Will people help you? Are you allowed to sell at your workplace or do you need permission from administration?

Then you come up with reasons not to pursue something that might not work. Common answers include “I’m not qualified”, “I have other responsibilities to tend to first”, “Someone else would do a better job that I can”. Not to say that none of these reasons are valid, but you can understand how easy it is to abandon your Want-To-Dos.

We must set clear mechanics, which are rules and systems that will keep our task boundaries narrow enough that we can construct a clear vision of what we want, and what we need to do to reach it. Rules and challenges are not the enemy of productivity; they can actually increase our motivation for progress. What we need are boundaries that will set clear challenges for us so we don’t feel overwhelmed or bored by the tasks that lie ahead of us. Challenge can be difficult, frustrating, risky, and annoying, but it’s ultimately what makes us productive, satisfied, and accomplished. These Want-To-Do tasks may even become Have-To-Do tasks, but with the proper aesthetics in place, that you really want what you’re striving for, then the challenge to get there will ultimately be very fun.

So how do we change the mechanics of doing Want-To-Do work? Check out my article on How To Get Started on Completing Want-To-Do Tasks

Conclusion

To summarize, here are the key points I hope you take home with you at the end of this article.

3 Key Components to motivation:

  1. Some challenge to be motivated to take action

  2. Purpose to be motivated to take action

  3. Some control over your own fate to be motivated to take action.

MDA Framework:

  • MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. Game designers will establish the rules and boundaries of a game (mechanics) to create a certain sort of playing environment (dynamics) which will invoke certain feelings in the player (aesthetics).

There are two kinds of tasks we procrastinate with: Have-To-Dos and Want-To-Dos

  • Have-To-Dos lack in aesthetics, which lead to poor dynamics-- meaning, our feelings toward Have-To-Dos are comprised of negative thoughts like dread and anxiety, which cause us to stress and fear completing these tasks, so we procrastinate and instead choose unimportant activities that make us feel better.

  • Want-To-Dos lack in mechanics. We must set clear rules and systems that will keep our task boundaries narrow enough that we can construct a clear vision of what we want, and what we need to do to reach it. Rules and challenges are not the enemy of productivity; they can actually increase our motivation for progress.

Use video game design to optimize for productivity and motivation. This framework can help us structure our thinking to prioritize, make decisions, and find meaning in challenging ourselves— and in turn will help us produce our best work, attract amazing opportunities, and bring exciting adventures into our own lives.

Sakiko Ohashi