Towards a More Gameful Life

Expanding definitions

I had a conversation with a volunteer at the SXSW EDU conference a few weeks ago about educational games. But this characterization of our discussion does not do justice to the true content of our talk.

It turns out that our definitions of both educational and games had very different meanings, although the core ideas remained the same. My conversation partner’s more expansive definitions opened my mind to reconsider the possibilities around games and game design.

What did he mean by educational? Learning for the sake of learning – rather than learning from a set curriculum that someone else places upon you. Education, in this sense, has inherent and innate value to the learner. This definition of education encompasses both lifestyle and health. These are all things that build upon each other and stick with us as we live our lives. Here, education is characterized by the longevity of learning and results that stick with the learner and continue to build on top of what they have already learned.

What about games? These are activities that are inherently enjoyable. In this sense, running can be a game to a marathon runner. Walking around taking pictures is a game to me, according to this definition.

Given these definitions, is life an educational game?

Our learning accumulates through life, as well as consequences of the decisions we make, so life is educational according to this broad definition. Is life a game though?

Designing life to be more playful and gameful

Life is full of challenges, conflict, goals, and room to strategize and make your own choices. This sounds like the perfect recipe for a great game. But I’d reckon that most people would say that life doesn’t feel like a game.

Games have optimal challenge

Clearly, an optimal level of challenge is not built into our lives. Many of us find ourselves either bored or overwhelmed – sometimes even within the same day.

I argue that there is a way to make our lives more gameful by designing a more optimal level of challenge through clearly defined personal goals (and also being fortunate enough to have the education and other support needed to succeed in the pursuit of more challenging ambitions). As we progress through life, these goals should become more challenging to adjust to our learning and growth.

Games have clear goals

Our goals in life are never perfectly clear. Rather, they are inferred and often hazy. There is no progress bar that tells us how far we have gone in achieving our goals. Most of the time, we don’t even have a clear idea of what our goals actually are.

Introspection and self-reflection should lead to a better sense of our personal goals, which can allow us to make progress towards them. To make life more gameful, we need to have a clearer picture of our highest priority life goals – whether it be to have a life partner, be famous, raise a child, and/or be a leader in our chosen field of study.

We then need to create a “game plan” to achieve these goals, with clearly delineated subgoals that have a suitable level of challenge for our given knowledge and experience levels. This way, we can make progress towards them and hold ourselves accountable to this progress.

Games have cheap failures

However, there are real setbacks that come into play when we make mistakes or failures along our way through life. If I don’t get the job, how am I going to feed my family? If I cheat on my significant other with someone else, this will likely result in a breakup.

How then, do we make our lives more gameful in this respect? A playful and optimistic attitude that sees potential future opportunities despite setbacks can make failures easier to recover from – much like in games.

Games give clear and timely feedback

Clear feedback allows us to figure out how to change our thinking or behavior. Most of the time, life doesn’t give us clear feedback.

To get this clarity, we’ll either need to ask people and systems to be more direct and/or get better at reading between the lines to clarify our interpretation of unclear feedback for ourselves.

Most importantly, games are fun

Csikszentmihalyi cautions against optimizing for individual fun and enjoyment of life in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“When a group of people embraces goals and norms that will enhance its enjoyment of life there is always the possibility that this will happen at the expense of someone else. The flow of the Athenian citizen was made possible by the slaves who worked his property, just as the elegant life-style of the Southern plantations in America rested on the labor of imported slaves.”

To develop a society of global citizens, we should design our personal goals to optimize individual, community, and global enjoyment – rather than just individual happiness.


The real question remains: How do we make life fun? It seems like a chicken-and-the-egg question, where we need to know what makes us happy while setting our (clearly defined) personal goals in order to allow ourselves (and others) to enjoy life to the fullest. Self-reflection and introspection play a key part in this process, and I wonder how we can train people in this area to make their lives more fulfilling and enjoyable.

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