People ask all the time why kids love video games but generally seem to hate going to school. Why people will spend a lot of time diligently devoting themselves to baseball statistics or the arcane rules of a particular game or even Angry Birds or how their cell phone works, but not apply the same steadfast energy to chemistry or the latest novel they’ve been assigned to analyze. It’s often not a question people investigate seriously or intellectually; more often, they’ll simply throw up their hands and say “kids these days” or decry the collapse of attention spans and young minds.
What they often overlook, as is becoming somewhat trendy to observe, is that there’s actually a lot of effort and even intellectual curiosity going into these alternate pursuits. There’s creative problem solving and collaboration and sometimes almost obsessive dedication. It just happens to be to the “wrong” things. Or as I’ll explain in a minute, I don’t think it “happens” to be to that at all. I think it’s obvious and measurable exactly why some things get attention from the younger generations of our era and others get ignored to the aghast gasping of old-school academics and their ilk that everything is about to collapse.
Video games and other time-consuming pursuits of the genre are structured around motivating a certain series of behaviors. And many of them, especially the best ones (e.g. the much-maligned Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs [e.g. World of Warcraft or WoW, which you’ve almost certainly heard of]) do an almost insidious job at motivating their player to achieve the goals desired at the expense and detriment of everything else in their life. The rewards are frequent and satisfying and there are always more goals and rewards to unlock, all amidst a fun and interactive environment to partake in. Contrast this with traditional classroom learning or the traditional workplace, where the main goal to achieve is simply putting in hours, regardless of accomplishment or function. There are goals and rewards to unlock, potentially, but the main goal and reward is being at an appointed place for an appointed time when expected and surrounded by others doing the same thing.
Indeed, this motivation, something my Dad and I have called “time in the seat” since my first serious rebellions against education in the late 1980’s, is the fundamental core of the modern Western life. People are not recognized or acknowledged so much for what they do or even how they do it, but when they do it. And not even when they do it so much as for how long. The person who works 60 hours a week is automatically respected more than the person who works 40 (let alone 20 or 30), no matter what they’re actually doing with that time. They could be surreptitiously playing eight hours of Minesweeper while no one is looking over their shoulder at their computer screen, but people will nod sagely and say that this is a better worker than someone putting in 20 hours of brilliantly focused work and otherwise out living their life.
Thus we see that Minesweeper itself, unlike our school and work places, actually motivates people to minimize how long it takes to complete a given task. And one ends up spending a long time, or long enough, mastering and perfecting that task in order to complete it more minimally the next time around. While school and work actually motivate and incentivize people to maximize the amount of time it takes to do a given thing, because that will prolong the time in the seat and fill the hours or enable one to work longer and thus get more respect and/or money.
It’s no coincidence that pay is traditionally doled out by the hour in our society and those like it, or that schools are paid for the number of full days of attendance logged by their students. And even for the increasing army of “exempt” non-hourly-paid employees, their respect and prestige tends to correspond to how long they can be seen “slaving” away at the office, yet only an excellent supervisor or trained eye will be able to see the person actually working smarter and harder, not just longer and longer. These incentives and motivations are precisely backwards, and among the best and brightest actually create a very common and extremely pernicious impact.
This impact is to actually sandbag productivity in the effort to make something challenging or interesting or actually push oneself to develop. Almost everyone I know will recognize this from their own college days, but I’m sure many have also done this during high school and work. The phenomenon is centered around procrastination of a given task or duty, not because one is lazy or disinterested, but because the procrastination itself builds a sort of excitement or pressure around then having to complete the work in a short period of time. And that pressure supplants the lack of excitement or push to learn or grow or exert effort normally found in a school/work environment, building a learning curve and a thrill of challenge that the work would otherwise go without. And almost universally, inevitably, the work completed under such circumstances is better than that completed over a slow plod or mincing hours of working laboriously. It’s fresher, it breathes with the passion of a looming deadline, and it reflects the rise to the occasion so often seen as a result of a human pushed to their capacity.
So what’s the solution? Is Storey just railing again with another problem and no fixes? Or is he going to suggest something absurd like having us all play MMORPGs instead of working? Fear not, friends, for I have the most obvious solution in the world.
School is the easy one – work’s a tiny bit trickier. But we need to unleash school students of all ages from their annual fixed rate of progress. Graduation from high school – not a GED or quick-fix substitute, but actual full graduation – should have no implied age. One should be able to complete the full work of high school assignments at any pace they so desire. Maybe people have to get kicked out of high school by 22 or 25 or something to keep things moving along, but there are otherwise no restrictions on pace of work. Assignments are available to be taken on at any point – the only catch is that when an assignment is given, it comes with a fixed deadline X number of days thereafter. But if you want to do three grades’ worth of work at a time and graduate at 11, you’re welcome to try.
Suddenly under such a system, which would take roughly the same resources as status quo, just more open-minded teachers and a more flexible attitude overall, everyone in school would be motivated. Don’t like high school? Get out quick! Bored with a subject? Finish it in days! Your motivation would be not just to play a game for grades or to goof off in the back of class for a diversion, but to actually absorb material, demonstrate mastery, and get moving with your actual life. Even if this system took more resources to try to deal with all the people flying around at an individual pace, the job satisfaction and ease of work increase from dealing with people who want to be learning would be exponential. You’d basically turn school into a video game with checkpoints that can be completed faster and better with more obsessive play.
Work can be trickier because there’s sometimes the need for people to have meetings and, worse, committees. But I think the same basic rules apply. Release all hourly requirements and restrictions. Have each job assigned a pile of tasks. These tasks must be completed by X time and short of that, however much or little you have to work to do that well is done. This even works for construction and ditch-digging and some of the worst jobs imaginable, because you’d suddenly be incentivized to complete projects faster rather than take your time and milk them for hours. Lawyers would no longer be limited to billable hours, but freed up to try to streamline the efficiency with which tasks were completed. About the only thing I can’t figure are certain service jobs where a place is open for X amount of time and people have to be there to anticipate that. Then again, outside of maybe restaurants, most of these jobs are being replaced by online retailing. And I think that’s great, because most of those jobs being replaced are no fun at all.
The human mind was not meant to pursue things for fixed amount of hours every day. It craves creativity, spontaneity, new thinking, innovation. It is not greed that motivates us to such things, but flexibility and our own internal motivations of wanting to get things done. If the motivation were to speed up this process, then synergies and opportunities would continue to rise exponentially. Instead, our society languishes in the doldrums of clock-watching. No wonder we’re disproportionately overweight, saddled with back problems and stress and all the other collateral damage of life glued to chairs for fixed amounts of time. We need to get up, get out, get going, and get faster. And we can’t do that with the number 2080 (or a larger one) around our necks like a stone collar.
Free your time and the mind will follow.