Real Life vs. Games: Why mining ore in a MMORPG is more enjoyable than a paying job

Life in the flesh can be spectacular. All that walking around, eating food, having sex and feeling the wind in our face. Is there really any substitute for physical existence? Are we wasting our lives playing video games? Are we missing out?

They say that if you hear a lie enough times, you’ll start believing it. Well I never started believing this one. If I had an extra-life for every time someone has warned me about “ruining my eyes” or “losing all my friends”, I could finish Battletoads.

Surely, not all games make for a better existence than actual life. But actual life is missing some very critical pieces, and I’m starting to get seriously frustrated by that. What, you too? Great, then we’re on the same page. And you’ll be even more frustrated when you’re done reading. I apologize in advance. Make it up to you in future posts, I promise.  

5 reasons we prefer games over real life

You know that thing that happens to you when you’re not playing video games? The part where you have to get up in the morning, go to work, deal with people up close and shop for groceries? And do it all without the help of health potions or automatic weapons?

Several times in my life, I’ve dreamt of a purely virtual existence  No exposure to the elements, or to crowded traffic. Limited, uncomplicated human interaction. Plenty of exciting stuff to do, with clear objectives and proper rewards.

Even the most driven people do at times suffer from fear, anxiety and lack of motivation. Games are a way to disconnect from the dull and frustrating mundane world for a while. Rest and recharge the brain. Why is it that games so often feel easier, funnier and more satisfying than our real lives? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, since reality is in fact more “real”? Well, studies have actually shown that our brains can’t tell the difference between real and imagined stimuli. We can be as immersed in a virtual environment as in a real environment, especially if we make a conscious effort to be immersed.

But on top of this, there are things we get in games that we don’t get as much of in reality. Things that really impact our wellbeing and happiness, and that could be the very reasons we don’t always perform or feel as good in our real lives as in our games.

These things are:

1. Feedback: “How am I doing?”

Have you ever bought an expensive gym card, worked out like an athlete on speed for a few weeks, but then just stopped going? Or gotten a guitar and practiced for a while, but suddenly just put it away. Or gotten started with programming but quit as soon as the initial excitement was gone.

I have too, and I have a theory why that is.

In games, we are constantly getting feedback on what we do. We are introduced to challenges one step at a time, and carefully corrected when we fail. We are nudged in the right direction and rewarded when we “get it”. We always know exactly what we’re doing and where we’re heading. Clear feedback is a necessity in all software, without it we simply would not understand what’s happening and what we’re supposed to do. “Did I save this information now?” “Was my message sent?” “Is the application loading?”

How frustrating then, that reality doesn’t work the same way. There, we stumble around blindfolded, left to our own devices. “Am I doing ok in this exam?” “How much has my running improved my endurance?” “How will all this overtime impact my paycheck?” Seeing the consequences of our actions in real time has such a huge motivational effect. It is famously said that what gets measured gets improved”. Consider such a simple thing as the progress bar. In World of Warcraft, the experience bar ticks forward with every slain rat, taking you closer to the next level. In The Sims, a bar over the character’s head is filling up with every minute spent repairing the toilet or painting or singing.

Imagine if you had one of those bars in front of you while practicing the guitar or working out. Would it push you a little further if you saw that just another hour would push you over the top, into level 3?

The fact is: we are getting a little better each minute we practice. We just don’t see it. And thus, we lose motivation. (Click to tweet this.)

2. Bite sized goals: “What’s my next step?”

Setting goals is the standard way of getting forward (and upward) motion in life. Everyone talks about setting goals, and designing them the right way. But even if you set the most perfect goals for yourself, you still have to keep your motivation and continue forth in spite of the inevitable obstacles. Many goals simply feel to big and complex to reach. It’s hard to know the road ahead if you don’t have a map.

Goals and objectives in games follow a very important pattern. They’re designed to tempt us into trying to reach them, promising a fair challenge but not appearing too troublesome. After all, we know challenges in games are beatable. (Unless we’re talking old 8-bit games, in which you never know.)

Also, the tasks we get in games are always divided up into smaller tasks, as not to appear too big or tedious. They are unfolding before us one bite at a time. We just need to go with the flow. Nice, comfy goal progression, with little confusion or distraction.

If we want bite-sized real life goals, we have to do it ourselves. And if we are to keep our focus and motivation, we’d damn well fight for it. Reality has neither hint systems nor checkpoints.  

3. Satisfying work: “Just one more customer support ticket before I go...”

That’s an accurate description of your work, right? It may be 10 minutes into lunchtime, but you just can’t stop yourself from answering just one more customer complaint. Pity you have to pause for toilet breaks and go home during the weekend, because this job is just plain addictive.

No? Maybe not.

If you do feel this way about your job, I congratulate (and envy) you. Most people probably wouldn’t call their work very satisfying, but instead see it as a necessary evil to be dealt with before they can go home and spend six hours mining imaginary ore and working the imaginary anvil, crafting imaginary helmets and daggers. Because that is not work. That is enjoyable “grinding”.

But really, how can we spend a part-time job’s worth of time on virtual labor, but continue to put off important tasks in our real lives? Why can’t handling customer support tickets or answering phone calls at the office be enjoyable grinding as well?

I’ll tell you why: because in games, we choose our work. We choose what to do and when to do it. And when we do it, we enjoy it, because we know why we’re doing it. (To get that epic mount.) Isn’t it weird how easily we can bitch and moan over minuscule tasks in our job, even if we actually like our job and are getting paid (real) money to do it? The same goes for studying, which we hopefully do because we’ve chosen to.

Truth is, we tend to forget why we’re doing our real life work, (lack of feedback and lack of clear goals), and when we have no clear purpose or will in what we do, we start feeling forced into it. 

Nobody likes to feel forced to do anything. It’s a major turn-off.  

4. True challenge: “Show me what I’m made of”

Life is hard. Games are easy. That’s why we play them. To escape the hardships of reality.


I don’t think it’s that simple at all. I believe we turn to games because life is either too easy or the wrong kind of hard. (Click to tweet this.) Surely this can be true of certain games too, which indicate bad difficulty design. Games that are too easy or too hard, we don’t play for long. But games that challenge us in the right kind of way, like Tetris, we are glued to.

I’m desperately trying to find an IRL equivalent to Tetris, but can’t come up with any good ones. Perhaps sports, because they are similar to games in that they have added rules and frameworks to make the challenge interesting. Or artistic endeavors. But these actually do tend to fall into the “wrong kind of hard” category. Just ask any writer. Creative work really is bitter-sweet.

Of course, anything in real life can be “right kind of hard”, but it’s we who have to control the variables to make it so. Support ticket handling or lifting weights or cooking dinner can be horrendously boring, or addictive fun. The decision is ours.

We humans crave challenges. We are natural problem solvers, with brains that love puzzles and riddles. But when we are faced with problems that are too easy or too hard or too undefined, we lose interest. The solution is therefor not to try and make real life easier but to try and make it harder. The good kind of hard. How do we do this? With the aforementioned power tools: great feedback, bite-sized goals and a sense of purpose.

5. Safe failures: “That wasn’t so bad”

There’s a reason “fear of failure” is one of the most common causes of an unhappy, unfulfilled life.

It’s easy to get paralyzed by everything that could go wrong, and the consequences it might have. Our brains are naturally inclined to scan our surroundings for threats and risks, something mass media happily use in order to get us to buy their newspapers. Fear mongering is everywhere we look in reality. That and advertising, (often also playing off of our fears.)

Is it any wonder then, that we prefer to be risk takers in Starcraft 2, but play it way safe in our career? 

When faced with challenges in games, we feel excitement and anticipation. We know that if we fail there’ll be more chances, and every attempt will bring us closer to success. A game world is a safe environment to experiment in. A safe environment to fail in.

Reality, on the other hand, is not very forgiving. Stakes are high and there are no quick saves and re-loads. We fear the epic fail so much that we sometimes withdraw from potentially valuable challenges.

Think about it: where could you be today if you threw yourself into challenges as willingly in real life as in games

While you’re at it, try and imagine your life right now with all these 5 ingredients added. What do you see? 

Would you have more money in the bank if you got immediate feedback on the impact of your savings?

Would you finish that sci-fi novel if the process had little check-points along the way?

Would you enjoy work more if your value and purpose in the company was more evident?

Would you perform better at your college studies if every day you were challenged to level up your skills and become a little bit more awesome?

Would you own and operate that beach-side ice cream parlor if you knew that failure would be harmless and only bring you closer to success?

That part in the beginning of this article about us being frustrated about reality: I take it back. Let’s not be frustrated anymore. Let’s take matters into our own hands, and use the tricks from our favorite games to enhance our everyday life.

If we can be that excited about acquiring a complete set of virtual armor in a MMORPG, we can find a way to get just as excited about breaking our personal record for support tickets handled on a single work day.

Or, we can at least try. ;)

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