Why we want to live, why we want to work, why we want to play

by CynthiaYockey on May 18, 2010

Last night I watched a video linked by dear Jenny, The Bloggess, on the most powerful motivators for jobs that require cognitive abilities, rather than mechanical ones. Then tonight I was looking for a few laughs before bed and after perusing LOLCats it popped into my mind to visit Cracked.com, where I came across a piece entitled, “5 Creepy Ways that Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted,” and darned if the motivators there didn’t have a LOT in common with the ones in the video Jenny linked, which I have embedded for your convenience below.

Then I thought of a realization I had when I was a guest on Talk of the Nation on NPR almost 20 years ago when it was hosted by John Hockenberry. NPR had announced it was doing a show with Jack Kevorkian, the serial killer/euthanasia advocate, and they asked for people caring for people with chronic, progressive diseases to be interviewed before the panel spoke with Kevorkian. I was one of two persons selected — the other was a gay man from San Francisco caring for an acquaintance with AIDS, who spoke first. He was in favor of assisted suicide for his acquaintance because he was going to die of AIDS — but he also remarked his acquaintance had no friends or loved ones and was frustrated with how powerless he felt as he was dying.

In a flash, I realized that having AIDS, or even being close to the end of his life, were not the reasons this man wanted to die. He wanted to die because he had no one to live for — no one he loved, and who loved him in return. And he wanted to die because he had no power over his life, in the sense that other people were making all his choices for him. People want to live — and persevere through the worst adversity — when they love and feel loved, and have some autonomy. It’s not the illness that makes you want to die!

To address why we want to work, here’s the video on research showing the most powerful incentives for people to do work that requires cognitive skills are autonomy (to do what you want, when you want, as much as you want); mastery (challenge, mastery and making a contribution); and transcendent purpose:

In explaining what makes us play addictive video games — as opposed to games that teach a skill and provide real mastery — David Wong, an editor of Cracked.com invokes Malcolm Gladwell on the three elements that make a job satisfying — autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward:

And that brings us to the one thing that makes gaming addiction — and addiction in general — so incredibly hard to beat.

As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the “guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time” horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn’t like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void.

Why do so many of us have that void? Because according to everything expert Malcolm Gladwell, to be satisfied with your job you need three things, and I bet most of you don’t even have two of them:

Autonomy (that is, you have some say in what you do day to day);

Complexity (so it’s not mind-numbing repetition);

Connection Between Effort and Reward (i.e. you actually see the awesome results of your hard work).

Most people, particularly in the young gamer demographics, don’t have this in their jobs or in any aspect of their everyday lives. But the most addictive video games are specifically geared to give us all three… or at least the illusion of all three.


You pick your quests, or which Farmville crops to plant. Hell, you even pick your own body, species and talents.


Players will do monotonous grinding specifically because it doesn’t feel like grinding. Remember the complicated Tier Armor/Frost Emblem dance that kept our gamer clicking earlier.

Connection Between Effort and Reward:

This is the big one. When you level up in WoW a goddamned plume of golden light shoots out of your body.

This is what most of us don’t get in everyday life–quick, tangible rewards. It’s less about instant gratification and more about a freaking sense of accomplishment. How much harder would we work at the office if we got this, and could measure our progress toward it? And if the light shot from our crotch?


The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so incredibly efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people used to get from their education or career.

I have to say I am a little huffy about the piece ending with the grandpa — Bejeweled — of the only computer game I play — Bejeweled Twist, which I bought after reading a magazine at my father’s cardiologist’s office that said it promoted synchrony in the functioning of the hemispheres of the brain so I get a tangible benefit from playing. However, I will admit that even though I play the “Zen” version, I see how certain changes and rewards pop up just about the time I’m ready to quit and I will play longer than I intended.

But I must be enjoying my work because the main reason I play is to stay awake when I’m very sleepy but Dad isn’t ready to go to bed yet, since I have to stay up to see him to bed, give him medicines, help him with his respirator mask, hold up his favorite cat so he can tell his grandpa that he loves him and receive his good-night petting, and get him settled under the covers. And, because of that interview almost 20 years ago, the last thing I always do is remind Dad of all the people and kitties that love him, of the accomplishments of which he is most proud, how much he is needed and how filled with purpose his life still is at 94.

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Liz May 18, 2010 at 1:42 pm

As someone who will most likely be the primary caregiver for a disabled loved one in the future, the pro euthanasia camp scares the hell out of me. The people involved seem to look at the inadequacies of the caregiving system, all the pain that those inadequacies cause and rather than improving anything, they think “we should kill these people”.

I know they have good intentions, and I’m simplifying somewhat, but there’s no way that that is acceptable. Bravo for pointing out the value of each human life, independent of how or whether that life can serve the collective. It’s shockingly lacking in today’s world.

Cynthia Yockey May 18, 2010 at 2:52 pm


I appreciate your comment and I wish you well in your caregiving experience.

However, I’m not willing to credit most people who favor euthanasia with good intentions. My credential for that is all the years I put into caring for my late life partner, who was quadriplegic due to multiple sclerosis the last 10 years of her life and paralyzed from T-5 a couple of years before that. Our system of providing care for people with disabilities, people with chronic progressive diseases and for the dying has a LOT of room for improvement. My observation is that people favor euthanasia because they want to get out of caring for someone, or they fear dependency and cannot tolerate suspense about their future or the loss of control or, God help us, they are very driven people who think everything should be scheduled. What I’ve seen of the dying process of the loved ones I’ve cared for is that the soul looks back and forth from life to the after-life and if they have had a good life and feel safe and loved, they seem to come to a place of peace and let go. It’s like watching heaven open up. This kind of death also eases the grief process of those left behind. It’s what hospice care at its best provides to everyone involved. I don’t consider treatments like twilight sedation to be rushing the process, but I do think euthanasia and assisted suicide do and that the loss to the spiritual progress of the person who died is profound and the injury they commit to the people around them is wanton and cruel.

On the other side, the pro-life people fight legitimate choices people must be allowed to make in a land of liberty, including the right to refuse medical care that will prolong their dying process, such as feeding tubes, antibiotics and CPR. In addition to ensuring people are free to make choices about their end-of-life care without any form of pressure, we must do a better job of pain management and change our laws to reflect the idea that if people are terminal and in agony and/or suffocating, there’s no reason they have to be awake to savor the experience. By the way, one of the paradoxes of hospice care is that proper pain management seems to prolong life so entering hospice care sooner, rather than later, can give a dying person both longer life and a higher quality of life.

Are you willing to share what kind of disability your loved one has? If it involves mobility impairment, I may have a tip or two.


Lanny Short May 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Love this. Great POV!!

Ad rem May 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Dear Dr. Yockey,

I’m sure you realize that you are an extremely lucky man to have the love and respect of a daughter such as yours……and the kitties are just icing on the cake. A house filled with love, kitties, and sunripe tomatoes….can it get any better? I submit that it cannot! Now, go to bed a little early….our Cynthia needs her rest. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Cynthia Yockey May 20, 2010 at 12:14 am

Ad rem,

Thank you! I laughed out loud when I read this because it’s after 1 am and he’s still up, three hours after his bedtime. After the Orioles game, some World War II documentary came on and he’s still watching it. He had a root canal yesterday, so he’s entitled to the pampering. I’m going to get ready for bed so I can turn in right after I get him tucked in. Oh! — and it DOES get better — he ate our first ripe strawberries this week and we have four miniature blueberry bushes!


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