Video Games and Entrepreneurship

John Borden | April 29, 2018

Should you decide to become an entrepreneur, startup founder, freelancer, whatever, and decided to work for yourself, the most common advice you’ll receive is that you’re going to need a killer work ethic. There’s some disagreement on what exactly that entails, but it usually entails killing old habits to create more time to work and to add more self-discipline into your life. For instance, you really need to cut back when you drink, maybe to a single night a week. Day drinking will probably mess up your productivity, there’s still things that can be comfortably done after 5pm on most nights, and a hangover will complicate whatever you planned on getting done tomorrow. You can probably still drink, but not nearly as much. It really depends on being honest about yourself, about how you feel about your productivity. Most people are really bad at this though, so usually one-size-fits-all advice is dispensed.

It’s not just drinking though that has to change. You’ll probably have to seriously cut back on your Netflix, you’ll probably want to install a website blocking tool to block Facebook (and a whole host of other sites) during the hours that you really don’t need it. You’re going to have to really limit the time you spend with friends (because let’s be honest, friends generally enable the characteristics we don’t like). The list gets longer and no one’s even told you how hard actually building your business is going to be.

Now, video games are a special rule. It’s generally advised that video games just have to go. Period.

This breaks my heart as much as I imagine it must for some of you out there. When you think about it though, painful as it the decision still is, it is a necessary one.

But Why!?!

There’s two things in particular about video games that get in your way. Let’s get right into what these are.

Addiction By Design

First, video games can be addictive, obviously. What’s less intuitive is that this isn’t necessarily because video games are fun. Most “true gamers” think it’s completely weird to the point of anger and frustration that Farmville in it’s heyday was as popular was it was, since all you did was click to plant crops, click to harvest crops for coins, then use coins to buy more crops and maybe a chicken or something purely decorative. It was largely written off that it’s popularity was the result of bored stay-at-home moms, and this was partially true. Nowadays though it’s more widely understood that free-to-play games are designed to be addictive so that you’ll eventually either give them some money or invite your friends to engage with the game (and it’s ads). I’m not talking just talking about Farmville clones either, I’m talking about more embraced titles like Overwatch and Fortnite’s Battle Royale. They’re addictive by design.

Now obviously free-to-play games that lack traditional gameplay are cynical, addictive cash grabs, but take a moment to think about other games too, including some of the cherished ones. Here, I’ll help, let’s pick on Fallout 4. For a lot of gamers, Fallout 4 is the exact opposite of that free-to-play garbage fluff. It has a really compelling main storyline with hundreds of hours of dialogue. It has a rich assortment of weapons and armor and an even richer number of ways that you can customize said weapons and armor to suit your play-style. It has side-quests. It has this unique feature called settlements that lets you shape the map by creating your own communities within the game.

Take a moment to really track what you’re doing in the the game though, and you might be disappointed. Those side-quests I mentioned earlier felt a lot less like mini-adventures and a lot more like errands. Many of them just task you with finding a certain number of things scattered around the map. Building settlements requires resources, usually obtained by scavenging around the game’s world, collecting garbage, and breaking it down into what might just amount to some metal, a handful of screws, and a sticky adhesive. Customizing your weapon loadout so that you get that really nice scope requires untold hours invested in getting good, leveling up, and investing experience points into an advanced-enough level of gun-smithing skill, all so you can snipe baddies from just a little further away. Very little time is spent in what feels like really challenging combat scenarios. Instead you spent your time being the post-apocalyptic equivalent of urban-planner and recycler-of-the-year, which sounds kinda noble actually, but the intention wasn’t to make you better at urban-planning or to make you care more about the environment. The intent was to make you spend more time inside the game and to get you to buy that content-pack that let’s you add more shit to your settlements.

Now, before moving on, let me add that I don’t intend to go into the actual mechanics used to make these games addictive. However, if you’re looking for a good intro the subject, then I would recommend a Youtube channel called Extra Credits, specifically this video they’ve done on Skinner Boxes

Gaming Vicariously

So, being addictive on purpose is one thing, and I believe is a sufficient-enough argument by itself for giving up most games. A lot of people ignore the argument altogether, however (usually becuase they’re unaware of just deep the rabbit hole of game mechanics can go) and instead argue that you stop playing video games as an entrepreneur because they are an escape. People use games to escape from their own mundane lives and live vicariously through the game.

My favorite example of this phenomenon would have to The Sims and the franchise that came out of it.

When it first came out, it was pretty unique as far as games were concerned. You controlled virtual people with non-sensical speech and limited-autonomy called Sims. You made them work certain jobs, you used their hard-earned money to buy new furniture (like a toilet that flushed itself), made them fall in love, eat breakfast, get married, paint, have kids, sleep, and a host of other things. It was a simulation of our own mundane lives. The difference, besides the inclusion of goofy shit like a futuristic domestic robot or aliens, was the fact that it was a lot simpler. Involuntary unemployment was simply non-existent in this game. For any given career track within the game you were guaranteed a spot at the bottom, which beyond paying you more than enough was also ridiculously easy to get promoted out of. In matters of love, physical attraction simply wasn’t a metric in the game. Your ugly-ass Sim could win over the romantic partner of their dreams simply by talking to that other Sim, continuing to talk until their friendly enough that basic flirting is “unlocked”, then moving your way up from there into kissing and then game’s PG-13 equivalent of sex all within the span of a virtual day. If you want to get serious, within 3-5 virtual days you could probably share a house with this other Sim, get engaged, and possibly even get married on the same day you get engaged.

The game was, and still is, a commercial hit. The reason why I bring it up is that the addiction by design element of the franchise isn’t as obvious as a lot of other titles. Rather, it’s successful because a lot of people sort of lived vicariously through the game, creating their dream life within the game while their own life was, well, less than satisfactory. Hey, I did it while in college or stuck in a job that I wasn’t particularly in love with. In the latest version of the game I even created a Sim-copy of me that became a startup founder, which paid him enough money to live in the house of his dreams, which was shared by gorgeous romantic partner. Oh, and of course he was more fit and physically attractive than me, even though physical attraction is simply not a thing within the game.

Plenty of other games function as escapes from our boring, mundane lives, but I like to highlight the Sims because it serves as not only a great example of how we do it, but helps us think about why it’s wrong.

As I said before, my Sim was more fit than me. Later in the franchise, a mechanic was introduced where your Sim could actually gain weight if they ate too much, and lose weight if they ate less and exercised, meaning that I would make my Sim workout while my own body languished. I knew that if I followed by Sim’s example, I would be in similar shape. But I didn’t, because it’s actual work, whereas in the game it entails watching my Sim work his ass off for a mere 5 to 10 minutes of actual time in the real world. Similarly, if I had my Sim’s work ethic, I could easily have a career as fulfilling as his, and if I was as fearless of rejection as my Sim then perhaps I too could strike up a conversation with that really attractive woman.

So, here I was investing my precious time into controlling a digital avatar of myself and making him eat healthy meals, go to work, develop his skills, exercise, fall in love, etc. I almost never let him play video games, because until only relatively recently in the game’s franchise was it a thing that you could actually gain tangible benefits from (there was a professional gamer career track). It just filled his fun meter. Painting could do the same thing, albeit slower, but a finished painting could be sold for money, so of course I made him do the thing that brought in increased cash flow. Meanwhile, in the real world, I sat at my computer chair and thought about how I should be doing the same thing, but never got around to it because the game offered an easier, albeit less fulfilling, answer to my problems.

Getting Better

So, to recap, if you’re an entrepreneur, or something closely-related, you really should kick the video game habit. A lot of games are addictive, usually by design, and not necessarily because they’re fun. We also tend to avoid fixing things in our actual lives and doing the work necessary to fulfill our true wants and needs by gaming vicariously through the characters we control. This really should be a very compelling reason to stop playing video games.

But a lot of you will keep doing it anyway.

That’s okay. Well, okayish. Look, you really need to stop playing video games, but it’s okay that you’re having a hard time because the two reasons given why they’re bad are the two reasons why they have their hooks in you deep. It’s going to take time.

I think it’s helpful to embrace the idea that the world itself is a game, the game. It has 7+ billion “characters” for you to interact with, each with lives that a video game couldn’t possibly hope to truly simulate. If you’re an entrepreneur, you get the added challenge of negotiating with these characters to either buy your product or service or partner up with you. Some of these characters speak an entirely different language than the one you learned. This is an obstacle, but it’s a fun one to overcome. We invest so much time into learning a narrow range of fake skills within the context of a game, when in the real world an untold number of skills exist, including ones you can just make up. They take longer to master and lack instant gratification, but they’re much more rewarding. Activities that we make up for fun are typically fun for more genuine reasons, and not because they’re just addictive or because they let us live vicariously through others.

Some games let you get to do things that would be impossible or at the least very unrealistic in the real world. One game that I played recently (it actually inspired this blog post) was Surviving Mars, which lets you basically build a colony on Mars, starting from fledgling outpost to sci-fi utopia. I loved it because I loved the thought of having such a direct hand in researching all these futuristic technologies in the game and applying them to my society. As unlikely as I am to ever have this experience in the real world, the fact remains that Elon Musk is living the dream, and probably gets a more rewarding experience out of it. He hasn’t sent anyone to Mars yet, but on the journey to that destination he founded a company that built an insanely-cool rocket that launched his own car into space. On a more down-to-earth level, the game subtly implies that the Machine Parts factory uses 3D printing technology to enable your colonists to manufacture machinery on the red planet. People are experimenting with 3D printing technology right now in their living rooms and at Makerspaces across the world. Some of them are university students, some of them are just hobbyists with no real formal training in engineering, none of them are Martian colonists. If you want to get better at programming, consider that NASA has a lot of open data APIs that you can play around with to make something cool and maybe even help the agency out a bit.

As a final helpful suggestion, it’s worth noting that not all games are the same. There are some video games that simply don’t sink their hooks into you like others. I’ve noticed that puzzle games are usually respectful of my time, but results may vary. There’s also board games, where the time you spend playing them is limited by the schedules of the people you play them with. You have to be careful with this thought though, since it’s tempting to play a game that you really shouldn’t play when you tell yourself that not all games are bad. The trick is to be aware of your time, specifically telling yourself you’ll only play for a reasonable amount of time (like a quick 5 minutes if it’s a mobile game, so long as you’re not doing that every 10 minutes).

Here’s a closing thought that I think will really help you out. Tim Ferris suggests coming up with one thing to do every day that, if done, would make it feel like you really accomplished something. This is good advice for two reasons. First, if you didn’t accomplish that thing, then obviously something went wrong. Either it was unrealistic expectations about what you can get done in a day, or it’s because of how you spent your time. Second, when you get in a rhythm of accomplishing something meaningful every day (or at least every work day) then you’ll get some gratification out of it and feel rewarded. Games are both addictive and escapist because they reward us without much work on our part. So if you’re already getting rewarded every day, and these are actual rewards (not shallow, virtual ones) then video games lose their edge.

Remember how I said I used to play The Sims. Well, I don’t anymore. I got more fit simply by changing my diet and walking more. I applied that little Tim Ferris hack above to feel my accomplished with my work. I’ve become more of a gregarious person by reminding myself that I’m a pretty accomplished and interesting person and people are actually quite happy to talk to you as long as they aren’t busy with something else.