I was reminded today that we, as a culture, tend to do our goal-setting all wrong, because we focus on status, achievement and things which are static.
To explain, imagine achieving your goal is something great, which it should be! It fills you up with dopamine and that’s a great way to motivate you to get it, but also nice for your life. The only sensible way to live is to get as much dopamine as possible without killing someone. But if you pick a singular, static goal, you’re screwing yourself. You might choose “get married” or “write a book” or “finish/publish/sell a game”. They are all static, one-time things. Once in your life, you get to eat ice-cream. Yes, it’s a glorious big bowl, but then it’s gone. And your brain is used to wanting things. After all, you’ve spent years getting it to do things on the principle of wanting that ice-cream. So the moment you achieve the thing, it loses its shine. You either feel empty or lost, or you hunt for the next goal to put into your life. Sometimes it can get so bad that you dismiss your actual achievements: that book didn’t count, it was only genre fiction, it was only self-published, it was just a one-off fluke.
A much better idea is to set your goals around experiences. Not “get married” but “be married”. And the more specific the better, like “wake up every morning next to someone who makes me feel loved” (for example). Better than “write a book” is “spend each day making up stuff about fantasy people doing things”. Better than “finish a game” is “always be toying over some aspect of game design”. With goals like that, you get to eat ice-cream every single day. The dopamine is right there for the taking. Yes, goal setting can be useful (although, as mentioned previously, carrots and sticks don’t work) but it is always helpful to think about specific, long-lasting goals, so that you get to live the joy of achieving them every day.
That way you avoid the constant cycle of striving and needing, and you also avoid things like impostor syndrome. When you value “Being Person A”, you will of course feel weird and unchanged when you become person A and realize your life is exactly the same. You can also avoid bad choices. If you want to “get married”, you might not care who you marry, which could really suck. If you discover you want to specifically “have lots of sex” rather than “have a girlfriend”, you can figure out perhaps alternative ways to achieve the former than just the latter, and discover ways easier and better suited to you. And so on.
There are lots of reasons why we’re addicted to the crappy style of goal-setting. One is evolutionary: get the meat or die is an important way to drive survival. Another is advertising, of course, which seeps into everything. And another, I fear, is story. Stories after all have very common structures, and one very common one of those is the pursuit. We meet a character who has a need. They get a goal which will provide that need. And we know the story ends (or climaxes) when they acquire it, or discover, in their pursuit that they no longer need it – but either way, the need is removed (and thus, ice-cream).
It’s quite taboo to suggest stories could be bad for us but if we accept that stories can change us, of course we must allow that they can change us for the worse. Especially these days when we are drowning in stories. A few hundred years ago tales were much less common and much less varied, and in our early days, when we evolved to work so well with stories we might have only had a few dozen tales of our gods and ancestors. Nowadays we drown in stories, flooding our entertainment-hungry minds with them every second from waking to sleeping, and bearing our story-totems on every item we own. And the most common stories are adventure and genre fiction, and its in those stories where physical, external goals are the most common.
We have become story-addicts, and our bodies no longer need them, and it’s infecting things too much. We turn our lives into stories, knowing that the struggle will end when we acquire the need or let go of the desire for it, but the truth is our stories never end, or rather they do but in a completely random and stupid and non-narrative way that leaves most audiences unsatisfied.
But then there’s games.
Now I know what you’re thinking: surely games are WORSE than stories. They also start and end, and there is a clear and stated victory condition! They couldn’t be worse!
Except games are much more than that, and are changing to bring these particular parts of themselves into the forefront. They are recognizing more and more that experience is better than achievement. And thus could be far better for us than stories.
For examples, we can turn to my game shelf, where there are countless examples because I don’t buy games unless losing them is as fun as winning, if not more so. I specifically select games where the play experience – the fun stuff you get to do on your turn – is not weighed down, and preferably is buoyed up by – trying to, or succeeding in winning. Sometimes, these things can be in opposition – you can ruin a good game of Once Upon A Time by trying to force the rules to your advantage, against their spirit. But perhaps the best example is Dominion, the first deck building game. I’m terrible at Dominion. I lose all the time. But I don’t care because I like what happens in the game. I love the thrill of acquiring a new card, slotting it into your deck and then seeing what happens when it comes out. I also, by the by, love the kinaesthetic pleasure of touching new cards, of shuffling decks, and of dealing hands. The problem we have with Dominion is the game is just too short. Before you know it it’s over and the fun stops, even if you haven’t finished exploring your combos.
In video games it’s much more obvious: games you can beat can only be played once. The money is in the ongoing experience. That’s why MMOs are so recurrent, and why they can’t get away with making getting levels boring (no grind) or having nothing to do when you hit the level cap (there must be raids). The point is not to win, but to play.
So why not just play with a toy? It certainly is true that the gap between the two is blurring (look at Minecraft, for example, or the ship customisation in Star Citizen) as games more and more emphasize play over winning. But we still want game elements, because gaming adds something to the experience. It gives us goals to reach and rules to limit us which give shape and context to the experience. They give us little niggles of success. What is best in a game, I find, is the moment when you go “oh man, I was having so much fun I never noticed that I won”.
And that is in fact a perfect mirror for how goal setting can work. If you aim to write every day, you might one day look up and have a novel. If you walk every day, you might one day realize you’ve got fitter. That’s a really good way to live your life, and gaming is modelling it beautifully.
Now, I’m not saying that all stories are poison. We will always need and love stories, as ways to learn and teach and share. There are plenty of stories that invert the Magic Key story and tell us to think otherwise. Part of the escapism of escapist literature is their simplicity and focus on external matters. And indeed, there are plenty of stories that may be adopting the same model as games – dealing with running characters and worlds rather than individual episodic plots is far more common these days. And what Lost understood was that the numbers and other “clues” didn’t have to mean anything, what people liked was the ongoing mystery of seeing them – and then enjoying the flashbacks. (On the other hand, our addiction to the NEXT episode is not really helping).
But perhaps because games are more mechanical, or because of how much we lose ourselves in stories, we’re much more game-mechanic-literate than we are narrative-mechanic-literate. And game design is so nicely modular it is easy to put these things front and center. It’s easy to see that even if games aren’t inherently better at this (although I think they might be), they are more aware of how to do it, and it’s much easier to find games that do this, and build games around this.
Which leads me to once again suggest that games are the artform of the new century. And perhaps, this is the century where stories fade away and games run the whole coming millennia…