By now, I’ve mentioned numerous times things I've perceived to be potential strengths and benefits of devoting attention and effort to games. I like that they can generate states of stress and focus, and we can learn about ourselves through them. I like that the sheer variety allows you to always find one that you love. I like that the risk of catastrophic injury is pretty low. I think, depending on the game, they’re rather cognitively demanding in a variety of interesting ways. Challenges demand the training of skills, and the training of skills leads to improvement. Hence, I think games can be used for personal improvement.
But I don’t think games are perfect. They have several weaknesses, but there’s one in particular I’d like to talk about today, and there are a few ideas I want to discuss before I get there.
First, there is a concept known as “ego-depletion,” documented in numerous studies, which basically says that you have a limited amount of decision making per day. Making conscious decisions, resisting temptations, exercising your working memory, concentrating deeply, all those tasks and behaviors deplete that reservoir of energy. This reservoir functions a lot like a trainable skill or muscle as well; by repeatedly exercising and exhausting it, then resting, over time you develop more capacity for willpower, focus, and conscious decisions. That tired, burned out feeling you have as a result of focusing, learning, concentrating, or working for a long time is related to ego depletion.
This cognitive stamina is a huge part of what determines how long we work and how effectively we concentrate on things. Certain things extend and refresh it; sleep, food, rewards, and stimulants are all ways that you can try to get more mental mileage from your brain.
Furthermore, I think of your mental energy as having three components or aspects. First, as mentioned, is the amount. We can call it mental endurance or stamina. The second is how good you are at directing that amount. I think we frequently use the term willpower for this; it’s your ability to consciously make choices and be aware of your impulses. It’s the ability to aim your actions and attention, to self-regulate your behavior.
Third would be your depth of focus; this refers to how zoned in you can get on something. There are many people I know that can’t really focus heavily, or zone in intentionally. They aren’t capable of giving things 100% of their focus. They are more than capable of putting themselves in the right place mentally, but they can’t give all their mental energy to one thing at a time.
So we can have three elements; the depth of your focus, the ability to aim your focus, and your mental stamina. Why make the distinctions? Because I think most of us know people who have one or two of those elements, but not all three. There are people who structure themselves well and put their time where it needs to go (their direction/willpower), and can work all day towards a goal (their stamina) but they don’t have particularly strong, in-the-moment focus skills (depth). They tend to be better at executing lots of low and mid-level tasks all day long, even when it’s tiring. Likewise, you see people who can focus in the moment, and who do incredibly amazing work involving deep levels of focus, but always seem to be operating on a short battery (hence, they lack stamina).
Based on this model, I notice a tremendous weakness when it comes to games. If we accept that increasing the number of decisions you make increases cognitive burden, then that means two things: first, if we’re training ourselves for the long-term, we want to increase our cognitive burden so that over time, we become mentally stronger. We make more decisions, we focus for longer periods of time, or we try to focus more deeply. Two, if we want to be as efficient with our time and focus as possible in the short-term, we want to decrease cognitive burden everywhere we can. We will intentionally avoid using energy in all unnecessary places until our most necessary tasks are completed. Games, as it turns out, do a great job of reducing cognitive burden.
Games create a very specific structures and incentives. They make many choices for you and funnel your attention. By reducing the number of choices you have to make, they give you the opportunity to channel your mental ability in a very specific way. It’s a lot like having a study guide for an exam--it is much harder to study for that exam if you have to hunt through material, figure out what is most important, and study everything to try and have a comprehensive grasp of your material. If the teacher does half the work for you by telling you specifically what you need to study, you save a lot of time and energy.
And many video games are a lot like that. They give you concrete objectives so you often know where to go or what you’re looking for. They make a thousand and one decisions for you, and the actions within the game are simplified to button presses. Everything in a video game is simplified and directed.
They even trigger something called the OR, the Orienting Reflex, a reflexive habit of your brain to give attention towards sudden movements and stimuli. Things which suddenly move, make sudden noises, sudden emissions of light, our brains reflexively give them attention. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with somebody while a TV is on in the room? Sudden noises and dramatic moments and constant movement make it quite a chore. Likewise, games are full of movement and stimulus that demands your attention; in this sense, they auto-aim your attention (though compared to a distracting TV, you actually want it to do so).
Furthermore, by constantly giving you senses of motivation and reward, they trigger the release of the very chemicals that refuel mental stamina. It is tough and grueling to work at something with no reward and no end in sight. We feel bursts of satisfaction and motivation from seeing feedback and receiving some kind of positive stimulus in response for our efforts. Games use tons of tactics to make you feel rewarded for actions; satisfying noises from lethal blows, the cha-ching noises of making money, flashes of light and happy music letting you know that you’ve leveled up or completed a task, and that barely covers it. So in this sense, many video games that auto-assist with the stamina aspect of mental energy as well.
Not all games are like this; some games have more delayed payoffs and some games are more free-form with less direction. However, it’s a common trend that games will direct your attention and effort for you, and constantly reward you for meeting small objectives. In fact, this is the very reason many companies and businesses, in recent years, are trying to structure their workflow in the manner of games! Google “gamification,” and you will see what I mean.
So now we finally get to the point which is that this is a tremendous double-edged sword. On the one hand, many video games let you emphasize completely the depth-element of focus. How quickly you react, how well you can execute, how deeply you focus on the single task in front of you; to be sure, it’s a valuable, highly sought-after skill to develop.
But it also presents itself as a weakness, one parallelled by lifting weights through a machine rather than with free-weights. When the machine does aA lot of the work for you, you miss out on training other aspects of the movement. Aspects like balance and control are an important part of having fully coordinated strength; you will certainly gain some kind of benefit, but you can easily develop poor form and end up with an incomplete picture of strength. Later, you won’t be stronger at other movements, you’ll have deficiencies and liabilities present in your body. Likewise, when playing games that structure things for you, and constantly supply you with rewards that refuel you, you fail to train the ability to structure yourself, and you don’t train yourself to function without immediate rewards or refueling. Is it a surprise that people with ADD often 1) attach quickly and easily to video games, 2) have the ability to focus heavily in-depth on things when those things happen to catch their attention, but 3) have difficulty directing that attention and lack mental stamina?
Games do teach a variety of skills, most of them mental, but I think one of their weaknesses is that, through their very design, they don’t address this element. I don’t think it’s necessary they be modified, just that we be aware what’s happening in our minds as we play.
Thanks for reading. Hope it was interesting.