You Minus Stress



The Question

Here is a forum post that I found:

Why do some People Work so Hard In-Game but not in Real Life?

Why do I feel so self-motivated to invest so much time, energy and sometimes money into developing in-game characters. But don’t feel like doing the same in real life? It just seems odd that I work an insane amount for the former (and a lot of the time I’m not even having fun), but not for the latter. So its not that I’m incapable of doing hard work that I dislike. Any thoughts?

I have seen this sentiment echoed by gamers all over the place. Many of us can’t quite understand why we have such a disconnect between games and real life.

This is something that I struggled with for a long time. It felt like with games that I could think clearly and enjoy myself, even if it involved grinding or practicing. When I turned to the real world, I went into a fog. I got mentally exhausted quickly and I couldn’t get excited about anything.

Looking at my in-game creations/achievements, I had a haunting suspicion that I lost my tether to the real world. Looking at questions like these, it seems I was not alone in this experience.

The Opinions

The answers that were given in the thread for this question reflect what people think about this.

The top answer the the question posted above was (paraphrased): “Games are perfectly designed to activate the reward center of the brain. Games have instant gratification – the real world doesn’t.” The implication being that games are addictive, or at least, trick your mind into wanting more digital satisfaction.

Another answer was simple: “Games are easier than life.”

Both of these fit the popular conception that games are bad for you and that they make you lazy.

But if you are following closely, these do not answer the original question. They might explain why someone would sit down and enjoy a game, but they don’t explain why gamers will go above and beyond for their games.

Gamers will often spend a lot of time doing things that do not have instant gratification for the purpose of the game: researching strategies, debating on forums, watching videos of competitions, practicing combos, grinding for materials,etc. All of these things are for long-term payout. Also, many of them happen away from the game itself, so the game itself is not able to reward those actions immediately.

Someone who is truly lazy wouldn’t be interested in anything of the sort.


The Answer

After a lot of work to figure out the root of the confusion, I think I have the answer:

In games, stress can’t hold you back.



Real life is quite simply stressful. Even everyday decisions become knotted up with all the conflicting ideals and insecurities than run through your mind.

Just trying figure out what you want for lunch takes you down a labyrinth of Shoulds:

  • I should watch how much I spend.
  • I should watch my diet.
  • I should avoid looking weird by eating a messy food.
  • I should avoid that restaurant because of their political stances.
  • I should support that small business.
  • I should eat quickly and get back to work.

All of those Shoulds weigh on you. So much so that even if you make a good decision you often have that nagging doubt that you missed something.

You started out just wanting a cheeseburger and you end up questioning your own competence.

Important decisions and situations are magnitudes worse, but a stream of little problems can become an issue, as well. Chronic stress makes you susceptible to depression and poor decision-making (12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain).

Looking back on my life now, I can see that much of my difficulty in the real world was because I didn’t handle stress well.


The Magic Circle

The beauty of games is that they rewrite the rules that you have to operate under. All the Shoulds are erased. All you are left with is the challenge ahead what you want to do about it.

“In the play-state you experience a protective frame which stands between you and the “real” world and its problems, creating an enchanted zone in which, in the end, you are confident that no harm can come.”

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

Game designers refer to this as the “Magic Circle” –  where a player adopts the scenario and conditions of the game and opens herself to the possibilities.

Think back to the last time that you lost track of time playing a game. You turned all your attention on the game and everything outside faded away. That’s what we’re talking about.

In case you couldn’t tell by the name – no one understands how it works, exactly. It’s a phenomenon of psychology that happens naturally, but can also be brought on by smart game design.

Two worlds

Both real life and video games have challenges. These challenges are not the same, but they overlap in one important way: they require time, attention, and clarity to overcome.

When you face the real problems, you have a host of anxieties that drain your mental and emotional batteries. Even a victory can feel hollow.

Within the Magic Circle, you have nothing to worry about but the challenge in front of you.

You are free to do what it takes to win. You can be creative, you can be adventurous. You are no longer bound by stress. That is why you feel more productive and want to put the effort in.

There is nothing wrong with getting excited about games. You are simply gravitating toward where you feel confident and effective.


The path forward

So are we gamers stuck in this split existence?


Stress is a significant hindrance, but it is still a mental barrier.  Mental barriers can be moved, can be permeated, and can be broken.

The games we play tell us how it can be done:

  1. Believe in yourself – If you can be motivated and confident with your games, then you can be motivated and confident in the real world. The potential is there, evidenced by your gaming feats.
  2. Deal with stress – You may have never known how much of a difference that stress can make. Now you do. You know how important it is to handle your own mental health. Tackle those things you have been putting off. Take command of your schedule. Inscribe your own Magic Circle.
  3. Live boldly – Games draw us in because they challenge us. The competition keeps us on our toes and puts our brains to work. When you put yourself up against real obstacles, the mental ones slowly slip out of your mind.

With a little luck, you can live like you game.

2 thoughts on “You Minus Stress

  1. Great article! I would agree, stress is a killer. I often struggle with quick burnout, especially if I have a lot of high stakes decisions on my plate. The more decisions I have to make the more I avoid them all together for the fear of making the wrong decision. However, it’s all a matter of getting out of our own heads and trusting ourselves [and God] to move forward.

  2. I can attest. I have often challenged myself to look at all my decisions with the same awareness that is achieved in deep flow. Life’s rules are malleable, and as such we can really break the game in ways that rigid game design resists. Stress is like a heat that slowly bends the rules.

Adventurer, what do you think?