Motivation and Structure

I don't know about you, but I often have difficulty getting motivated to work on school assignments. Even moment-to-moment, I just don't have any clear idea of what I should be doing, of what exactly is the best action to take. The only place where it really flows is while playing a good game, or surfing forums on the web (or of course working on a project, which is not so much of an option during the school year). I suspect that this is true for many people, particularly the typical Flash games audience.

As I mentioned in a recent post, most Flash games are all about the reward structures, the path you take through the game, rather than the play itself. These games very overtly lead the player along with carefully (or not so carefully) spaced goals and rewards that create a continual sense of accomplishment and purpose.

This is just my speculation, but maybe for the general audience of Flash, these games are one of the few places they consistently get that feeling. They may be aimless in school and in trying to deal with the increasing responsibilities of adulthood. :p

In other words, in many aspects of real life the goals are just not clear, and the feedback is delayed or inadequate. This means flow is harder to achieve, and learning is more difficult. Obviously with much of life, this is appropriate, as it's not simple or easy to learn how to live life, but many of the subjects taught in schools could be effectively encapsulated in this way.

If you're trying to impart a body of knowledge, like inorganic chemistry for example, it would be possible to set up a learning experience that leads the player along with ample goals, feedback and rewards in order to create flow. I think most students would agree with me that most chemistry textbooks are insufficient in this respect. Instead, an electronic game would be better suited for this role.

But once you get to the real interesting stuff, where science takes place through pushing the rules, interaction with other players, and so forth, creating the smooth ride of a well-oiled game is not completely possible. However, there do exist games and communities around such boundary-pushing activities as well. Look at the communities that have built up around hacking or modding games, or even the many people exploring the Line Rider universe.

Here we are getting into motivation beyond the goals encapsulated inside a little game. Whether you are looking for social recognition or mastering the system or something else, the feedback, the reward structure, is less immediate and you must supply your own motivation to bridge that gap.

Scientific interest, and perhaps more significantly in the past, religion, has often supplied people with an overarching context to structure their motivations. I was just talking to a guy about this a few weeks ago and he noted that, contrary to popular belief, there are in fact interesting things to do outside. With the right mindset, you can apparently have a lot of fun observing patterns in nature and trying to explain why things are they way you see them: why these kinds of trees grow over here, while these grow over there; why the shoreline is shaped the way it is; stuff like that. Obviously, there is hardly any feedback to test your suppositions against, short of going through a lot of expense doing scientifically controlled experiments, but the right kind of mindset can bridge this shortcoming and find enjoyment.

More specifically, a scientist might enjoy trying to interpret natural phenomena in this sort of freeform way, because of the context for looking at life that science provides. On the other hand, I might like to imagine how one might navigate these trees and the shoreline in a game environment, because of my game-obsessed view of the world. And then the many other mythologies and religious interpretations lend their own unique ways of seeing things, of decision-making, motivations. Seeing a raven and understanding it not just as bird but also in the context of its role as Raven the trickster. Or seeing it in terms of its role in coastal forest ecosystems, whatever that is.

So, what I'm trying to do here with this post is to illustrate the significance of motivation and structure throughout all of life, and perhaps a dangerous lack of this kind of flow in modern culture. You wonder why kids play these stupid games so much? Yeah, most of these games are pretty stupid. But that's one of the few places they can get this experience. People aren't learning how to experience flow, how to bridge the gap with their own motivation.

Games, science, and religion. They are much more closely related than you might think, and will probably become more intertwined in the future. And that's a good thing.

1 comment:

Aaron Miller said...

I consider everything related. The ancient greeks had it right: all subjects fall under philosophy (love of truth/widom).

Anyway, I agree with you on goals. Sometimes, I seem unable to care about anything that's not right in front of me. Long-term goals are just not my bag.