Why You Waste Time Playing Farmville

Why do 70 million people spend time managing virtual farms in Farmville? (I know they're not all crazy.) Tom Chatfield, a writer and video game expert (he blogs at What Happens Next?) says it's because the game designers have figured out how to take advantage of human nature. We evolved to find things interesting in very specific ways, he says in his TedTalk filmed earlier this year, and find learning and problem solving particularly stimulating. "Now, we can reverse engineer that and build whole worlds that expressly tick our evolutionary boxes," Chatfield says.

He lists seven ways that games do this:

  1. Experience bars measuring progress (summing up where you are in a game with one easy graphic, a bar of progress),
  2. Multiple long- and short-term goals
  3. Rewards for effort
  4. Rapid, frequent, clear feedback
  5. An element of uncertainty
  6. Windows of enhanced attention (predicting time when learning is taking place)
  7. Other people.

It struck me, as he listed off his items, that these are also the ways in which we can make nearly any effort, such as school, stimulating, even when the day-to-day tasks may be boring. Chatfield calls "World of Warcraft" nothing more than "a great box-opening effort." Like most games, it's about finding items inside other items. The dull version of this is simply opening a pile of boxes. But the game designers have imagined thousands of ways to make this so interesting and so much fun that we keep playing, sometimes for years. Surely there are ways to engineer other areas of our lives in a similar way. Anyone have some suggestions?

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