Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Whittling Part Of the Brain

(One of the reasons I started this blog, besides pimping my games, was to resurrect some of my old writing that has disappeared from the face of the Earth. For example, about a decade ago, I wrote a column for the late, lamented Computer Games Magazine called The Grumpy Gamer. Here it is, only slightly updated.)

(This was the first column in that series, and, while its basic idea is simple, I still think this piece or writing is True. What still fascinates me is the way some people feel that their way of resting their brain makes them oh so superior to people who rest their brains in a different way.)

The Whittling Part Of the Brain

I have spent the last several years of my life designing computer role-playing games for a living. Thus it came to be that after a friend of mine, who designs board games for a living, couldn’t figure out why anyone found Everquest to be the slightest bit fun, he came to me for an explanation.

For those of you who haven’t experienced this particular brand of delight, most of the Everquest experience tends to involve waiting next to a place where wimpy monsters appear, waiting for them to appear, butchering them once they do appear, collecting their loot, and repeating this process until it’s five in the morning. For the uninitiated, this looks, let us be frank here, like a big waste of time.

But, when he asked me why anyone would want to do this, I had an explanation ready. It’s the same explanation I give whenever anyone asks me what the point of playing computer games is. I simply say that computer games satisfy the Whittling Part of the Brain.

Some of you, in this advanced, techmological age, may not be familiar with the concept of whittling. To whittle, you sit down with a knife in one hand and a stick (or other piece of wood) in the other. Then you take the knife and systematically proceed to carve thin slivers of wood off the stick until there’s nothing left but a pile of wood shavings and your own sense of deep self-satisfaction.

(This sounds, of course, like a pretty dubious source of entertainment, but people do some pretty bizarre things to kill time. Like watch Jersey Shore, for example.)

Of course, this sort of thing is what people did before computers were invented. Or televisions. Or fun. Nowadays, people can do all sorts of low-thought things to pass the time. Knitting and needlepoint. Crossword puzzles. TV. Reading mystery novels. Playing Minesweeper. And playing computer role-playing games.

The human brain just seems to have a need for resting, for passing some time in a low-energy state. Computer role-playing games are perfect for that. When I fight fifty basically identical combats against darkspawn in Dragon Age or spend five hours finally getting my level 13 druid in World of Warcraft to level 14 or piled a hundred bricks on top of other bricks in Minecraft, I’ve done more than waste my time. I’ve given by brain rest that, for reasons I can’t begin to understand, it craved.

And, of course, some of my friends think that I’m wasting my time, both designing the games and playing them. The same friends who don’t think twice about doing their five thousandth crossword puzzle, or reading basically the same damn mystery novel for the billionth time. Or read The Onion, like that’s such an enriching activity. People just like to fritter time away, and computers give us an unusually satisfying way to do it.

The most important thing about these low-brain activities is that they have to be rewarding in some way. They have to give us occasional positive feedback, little flashes of satisfaction. Sometimes, when whittling, you might carve away a particularly long and attractive spiral of wood. (Yeah. I know. Just bear with me on that one.) When knitting, you have the satisfaction of finishing your sweater. With a crossword puzzle, you feel smart when you finish.

And when playing a role-playing game, you get a constant, pleasing form of feedback in the form of gold and experience points. Or upgrading from a +1 to a +2 sword. Or getting a new spell, or completing a quest. Everquest is particularly cunning in the way it rewards the player. It has the character’s skills constantly creep upward, a tiny bit at a time, providing a constant stream of tiny rewards.

Now sure, when described this way, the whole activity sounds a little sad and lame. But really, when you think about it, if it’s such a pointless activity, why do we want to do it? I have found that, in general, our brains our smarter than we are. They want what they want, and if my brain wants to spend a while in front of a computer screen stabbing orcs, who am I to tell it it shouldn’t?

So there you go. In just the first column in this series, I’ve come up with a complete, comprehensive explanation for why it’s good and healthy and productive for us to like to play computer games. And I will recite it to myself, again and again, at two in the morning, when I’m lying awake trying to convince myself that I’m not wasting my life.


  1. This is all so very true.

    I would like to add that there is quite a bit of satisfaction can be gained by applying the knowledge you learned at level 13 to get to level 15 by only killing 49 things, or maybe 45 if you're really good.

    Because that is more efficient, right;)

    Let's face it, we all just like seeing numbers get bigger.

    This may even explain the behaviour of some of our more prominent businessmen - it's not like they need the cash to buy more stuff past the first billion or so, it's just a kind of personal 'level' at that point...

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  2. Just a few points:

    The whole concept of "grinding" is pleasing, but there's one aspect of that which really hits the happy centre of the brain: random rewards at carefully timed intervals. Slot machines and World of Warcraft have this down to a fine art.

    I spent as much time staring at the Minesweeper graphic as reading this article. Even though (after a few seconds' contemplation) it becomes apparent why there's no point in staring at it. Still hits the happy centre of my brain.

  3. I think there's a huge gap in the analysis here. Many computer games involve repetitive and unchallenging activities, but not all of them. Other games are difficult and test the ability to think quickly or deeply or confront new challenges. You can't lump "why people play computer games" under a single answer, any more than you can lump "why people read books" under a single answer.

  4. All very true. Some games are more mindless than others. Something like 'Bejeweled' is enjoyable on the same level as playing with worry beads. It's a way to turn off our brains by doing a very simple repetitive task which helps us avoid thinking about bigger issues. A kind of zero-effort meditation. In fact most game playing could be thought of as a kind of procrastination - to avoid other more stressful tasks. Unless you play games for a living, in which case I guess doing spreadsheets would be fun.

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  5. To be fair, there is a difference between games, but that's just taste. Some people love really challenging puzzle, while others prefer more simple knitting.

    People then try to apply these principles to other activities and game-ify them. I wonder how successful they can be, or even how base and degrading it might become. Do we really need to have a progress bar every time we mow the law to get us to do it? Sometimes, is it not more satisfying to take a slow, hard rout to things? A digression, but not entirely unrelated.

  6. Good points as usual, Jeff. I have to ask: did you use any books or other resources to help you become a better writer? I'm always impressed by your articles and the way you convey your points.

    I don't think you should worry too much about the work you do. People have a need for entertainment, as you've pointed out, and you're able to enrich the lives of thousands of people with your games. I'm working toward being able to do that and release my first game, and while it might not be the life of a scientist or Batman it still seems pretty awesome to me :)

  7. Yes, tell us about your progression as a writer Jeff.

  8. Dude, I'm so glad to know you and to be able to read your writing. You enrich my life.

  9. I agree in general, but I have to protest that whittling can also mean actually carving something, not just whittling away to nothing:
    whittle(courtesy of wordnik)

    Which may fit your argument better - after all, you're not left with the digital equivalent of a pile of shavings after grinding, hopefully...

  10. Bravo. Consider your RSS feed subscribed to.

  11. I've been saying basically this for years...and I'm sure I never read the original!

  12. This might not really contribute to the discussion, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your insight, and find all of your blog posts fascinating. Keep up the good work!

  13. Nicely written, interesting perspective. Now I must sweep up all these wood shavings and get some actual work done.

  14. Jeff, you just blew my mind. I read that original article, and have been using that term ever since. Seeing it as the title on your "new" post led me to question reality and myself for a good few seconds. Thanks for putting this back up!

  15. Late to the game, but I would highly recommend reading a book called "Reality is Broken" for a decent analysis of why this time of gaming and feedback is important, the value it actually provides and why we need to bring it to reality, rather than treating it as escapism.

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