Thanks for Adaptation

It seems like the joy in life never lasts. The wonderful feeling from buying a new car or getting that new computer fades in a few short weeks. Winning a competition or getting a hard earned promotion only keeps us happy for a short while. Even the thrill from a ‘once in a lifetime experience‘ eventually comes to end. And sometimes, once the emotional high is over, we even feel a little sad – like we’ve lost something, somehow.

Unfortunately, this is just how we’re wired. It’s a normal part of being human and it has a name. It’s called adaptation. Simply stated, adaptation means, ‘we get used to things, and then we start to take them for granted.’ Barry Schwartz talks about this quite a bit in his book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less. Adaptation is something that effects almost everything in our life.  Our purchases, our life choices, and even our romantic relationships. It happens to everyone, but somehow, we never expect it. In fact, no matter how much it happens, we are always surprised when our enjoyment of something begins to fade. Almost everyone predicts that the NEXT awesome thing will make us happy forever. If only I had this other thing then I’d really be happy.

The reality is that all things lose their novelty over time. We’re biologically wired to get used to our circumstances. And that’s a good thing. How else could we have ever survived as a species? Break a limb as a cave man? You’ll adapt and deal with it. Didn’t kill that wild bore? You’ll get over it. Don’t have as much food this year? You’ll get used to less. It’s even true with the most awful of tragedies – losing a child, sibling, or parent. We feel terrible, but eventually we recover. As the expression goes, time heals all things. And yet, we’re still surprised when our new car, our beautiful date, or landing the best job in the world no longer makes us ecstatic. And sometimes we feel bad about that – we know we should be thankful for what we have, but the novelty still fades.

The same is true with our games. Our players are going to go through the exact same emotional cycle. It’s why sequels are rarely rated high – even if they are in fact better games! The reviewers have already played the first one, so they have already adapted to the awesome experience. Yet, they still expect it to feel as awesome as the first time. It’s why you can never recapture the experience of your first ‘MMO’ or first dungeon crawl or first raid boss success. It’s why we get bored with even the best games. And it’s why Raph Koster writes, ‘the definition of a good game is therefore ‘one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.’

But, all is not lost as game designers. There is something that counteracts the phenomenon of Adaptation. And that is gratitude. Gratitude is the antidote for adaptation. It extends how long we enjoy new things and it can even help us re-capture the joy of things we have already become used to. The old becomes new again. Seriously, this is not just mystical, new-age thinking. It’s proven. In fact, the science of gratitude is well studied. People who are routinely grateful are healthier, more optimistic, and feel better about their lives. They are more alert, enthusiastic, and energetic and on the whole, they are more successful in whatever they do. Finally, they are more resilient to set backs and failures, which makes them more willing to carry on in the face of difficulties. If you like survival shows, you’ll know that gratitude and optimism play a big part in surviving a near-death experience.

So, here’s the question I’m trying to figure out. If adaptation is the reason our players get bored with our games, and gratitude is the antidote, then is there a way we can encourage gratitude in our players? Are there techniques we can use, mechanics we can employ, or feedback we can give that will help? Is there a way to encourage our players feel grateful about the experience and therefore play our games longer and enjoy them more?

I am inclined to believe that there is. But… I don’t know how. So, I’m throwing this one out to the ether. What do you think?

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