Have you ever spent hours or even months on getting some achievement in a video game? Did you have to kill 200 spiderlings to get that gold armor piece, or maybe travel every part of the world to read all the randomly spawning mystical texts that have no bearing on the actual game play, just so you could get the special pet that no one has? Did you spend months of your life gathering the right supplies so you could craft a Green Steel item in Dungeons and Dragons Online? Congratulations, you may be what gamers call a completionist, a person who spends hours and months of their time achieving things in video games, just because. Maybe you wanted the Glowing Weapon of Coolness or the title of Emperor Badass, or maybe you are just a happier person.
Some people might find it absurd to spend so much time pursuing goals which give no tangible outcome IRL, but our happiness rarely distinguishes between the imaginary and the real. Have you ever felt happy after a very good dream, or satisfied after watching your team win the big game? Those things give us no solid benefits, other than the feelings we keep with us. Happiness is not linked to physical things, and video games and their achievements have been astounding players since Link opened his first treasure chest. Some people may argue that it’s fantasy and has no impact on real day-to-day life, but it affects us nonetheless. Everything impacts us through our mood, and our mood colors how we see and interact with the world, whether it be the real one or a virtual one.
Happiness, in not an exact science. In fact, it is one of the hardest human emotions to understand, if only because it can be triggered and affected by so many factors. Certain ancient and modern thinkers have tried to group these levels of happiness. Level 1 is momentary, such as the joy you get from eating an ice cream cone or playing Angry Birds. It is a happiness quick fix. Level 2 is what happens when your accomplishments become acknowledged by others, such as when people admire your rare mount or golden ID patch. It is a more visible sense of lasting accomplishment, and envy by others. Level 3, -which we think is the Underwater Temple Level- is about relationships, feeling accomplished in a group setting. It is the happiness that comes from raiding with your guild or by positively interacting with others online, your-mama jokes and teabagging notwithstanding. Level 4 happiness is about finding balance between yourself and the universe, and it is the level that most humans rarely achieve. Think of it like the end game content of humanity, but with less epic gear. The idea of levels of happiness is just one way humans have tried to classify an emotion that is incredible complex.
Martin Seligman, states that the requirements for happiness are PERMA, pleasure, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. Coincidentally, video games fulfill all five criteria. They offer not only pleasure and engagement, but also the potential for the creation of relationships, both real and imagined. Video games even have one advantage over real-life, they give the player meaning. They are goal oriented and accomplishment-based. Even the old Mario and Zelda games were about battling to save a princess. Nowadays, regardless if whether you are playing as Solid Snake, Nathan Drake, or your Level 70 smuggler/pistoleer you have goals, desires, and ambitions within that virtual world. You adapt the character’s motivations and add motivations of your own, such as assembling the coolest weapon, or collecting all the heart gems. Accomplishment, big or small, is often a big part of determining happiness, and it is the one thing that video games offer in spades.
A lot of people in the media like to talk about the negative impacts of gaming, but no one seems to take the time to highlight the positive ones. According to a study conducted at Oxford University, children who play video games for an hour a day tend to be happier, more social, and less hyperactive. Ultimately, it makes a lot of sense. Video games help relieve stress, give children something to look forward to, increases creativity, and even gives purpose, as we talked about above. They give us experience and fun, which scientists have concluded are much larger factors in happiness levels than even wealth or materialism. Actually, according to University of Illinois psychologist, Ed Diener, “Materialism is toxic for happiness.” It is true that happiness increases once a family or individual’s wealth reaches a certain comfort level, but any excess wealth or material possessions beyond that do not significantly impact a person’s overall happiness. Much like video games, it is more about experience, than loot.
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Yet, experiences are only one of several factors as we have been talking about. Another large contributor to joy is relationships. You might be thinking that is the one thing that video games cannot offer, but you would be wrong. First of all, gaming is more social than it has ever been and that trend is only increasing. Online play is common and encouraged. On the Internet people regularly form parties, groups, guilds, hate-mobs, and more. Even in single-player based games the experience can be social. Sharing the experience with a loved one can strengthen a relationship, giving both parties a mutual object to bond over. Even when there is no person around to bond with, it is possible that we could form parasocial relationships with the fictional characters in the game. It is a phenomenon we have all experienced, often feeling sad because our favorite character died or how we cheer for a specific character because we empathize with their plight and their personality. Our brains still understand that those characters are fictions, but the bonds we form with them can have tangible psychological benefits.
Relationships at their core push us to change and grow as people. We often adapt and compromise with those around us, both consciously and subconsciously. The same happens when we interact with both real and fake characters in a video game. The immersion of video games gives us an environment for self-growth and achievement, despite the fact that the environment and the people who inhabit it are just pixels on a screen. Humans, by nature, are empathetic creatures, whether we talk about a lost puppy or a deciding whether to kill/save a small girl in order to harvest her ADAM. Video games offer us the opportunities for social growth and empathy.
Now, let us just clarify. All we are saying is that people tend to not give video games enough credit. Often society treats the gaming community in the same way the literary community treats comic book readers. This article is in no way meant to persuade you, the reader, to park yourself in front of a game console and never see the sunlight again. We would not tell you to give up your real-life to spend it entirely as a well-rendered avatar in a virtual world, anymore than we would advocate giving up your job to volunteer full-time at the homeless shelter. Too much of anything -good or bad- often forces paradigms to implode upon themselves like the Death Star after a well place photon torpedo hit.
After all, Level 4 Happiness is about finding balance as well as a fulfillment with yourself and the universe around you. That means finding a balance in all the things you do. You will never find your ultimate bliss in a virtual environment. That is where IRL experiences and actual friends come into the picture. However, chances are that playing video games in moderation -and even the occasional binging- will make you a happier person.
The real reason happiness is so hard for physiologists to define is because it is not a single destination reached by a single road. It is the goal at the end of a quest, a new pet that you get to show off to friends, or a new relationship you form with someone you care about. There is no one perfect way to achieve happiness, much as there is no single build for becoming a high RPG level wizard or Jedi Knight. Those accomplishments take work and experience, like real life. All any of us can really do is just continue to grind and strive to find our happiness in both the real and virtual world.