A Self-Experiment Goes Wrong

*Disclaimer: It ain’t always sunshine and rainbows. In the interests of transparency, this post must go public.

Wow. It’s been 4 solid weeks since the last metaphorical messenger pigeon came out of the DreamBigStartSmall camp to deliver a tiding of news.

Why? – One word.


Let me tell you a story…

5 weeks ago, I watched a Ted Talk. This Ted Talk:

I’m a very impressionable person. By impressionable, I mean my mind’s there for the mouldin’. This means I need to be very careful exactly who and what are in my environment.

“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” ~ Jim Rohn

Anyway, the TED Talk. In it, Jane McGonigal tells us we should all play more videogames. She even goes on to say that videogames will save the world. Play more videogames?! Save the world?!

Now before I begin, I need to make a confession. I’m coming clean.

As a kid, and in early high school, I was obsessed with videogames. Yeah, I played sports and studied hard. But hell, I spent a LOT of time sitting in front of a computer. On a game called Habbo.

(This. Is. Embarassing.)

For those of you who don’t know, Habbo is this massive online multiplayer game, based in a virtual hotel. You build rooms, buy & trade furniture and talk to people. I never really cared much for the interaction with others (wow – cold), but I LOVED the feeling of amassing a furniture empire.

I was so obsessed that I’d get up at 5 am before school to earn more furniture. I’d build casinos and shops, and come up with crafty money-making schemes.

My 13-year old self would’ve killed you for this room of bling.

My Habbo addiction evolved into Runescape, and after Runescape, I got an Xbox and it was Call of Duty.

My point is this. With my history and impressionable nature, the funny, quirky Jane McGonigal’s speech about how we should all be embracing the awesome benefits of videogames intrigued me a great deal.

Having quit videogames of any kind for 4 years, my pre-talk opinion was firmly in the “Videogames are a total waste of time” camp. But post-talk, I was thinking, “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should be playing videogames! Am I missing out on something here?!”

And thus started the unofficial videogame challenge. I’d heard McGonigal’s purported benefits of videogames. But would they stack up?

This was going to be fun…

The Videogame Challenge

Before I started, I knew one thing. That videogames only have benefit in moderation.

“Iain, you’re gonna have to ration this off. Don’t do anything stupid.”

With Ts & Cs taken care of, the only thing left was to choose the game. The natural choice was the last online game I’d been obsessed with – Runescape.

“No more than 1 hour of Runescape a day!” I naively declared. And just like that, the self-experiment had begun.

A couple of days in; “Hmm, 1 hour isn’t that much.” The psychological bag of tricks that the game designer boffins use were starting to take effect. Let’s face it, a non-addictive videogame doesn’t make a whole lot of money. And I reasoned, “Well, McGonigal said I should be playing more games.” (Shifting responsibility – a bad sign…)

With this advice ringing in my ears, and the addictive nature of the game, I caved.

My discipline caved. 1 hour became 2, 2 became 3, 3 became an all-nighter, and an all-nighter became an entire weekend. Wasted. In the virtual world. I was falling down a slippery slope indeed.

My entire thought process changed. My mind was stuck in a medieval world. “How can I train skills faster?”, “How can I make the next level of armour faster?”, “How can I play more?”

In lectures and tutorials, I’d feel almost twitchy. Twitchy – because I couldn’t wait for studying to finish so I could get back to the virtual world. I’d look at the clock, and painstakingly wait until the hour was up, before I could bolt home and get playing again.

I went to bed as late as possible to play the game. I woke up and ate breakfast as quick as possible to play the game. Desperate times.

My life had ground to a standstill. I didn’t write. I barely worked out. My eating habits went out the window. My work started to slip. My sleeping routine was destroyed.

By the second weekend of the self-experiment, I’d had enough. I was accomplishing nothing. The hold that a simple pixelated game had on my life was scary. I wanted out. So, I purposefully died in the game, and gave up all my pixel possessions. All the progress I made during those 2 weeks was destroyed.

Game Over.

Or so I thought…

A day after the giving up, I craved more. And the very next day I found myself reasoning “Well, let’s just play an hour a day. But only AFTER I do everything I need to do.”

Did this work? Up to a point.

And by point, I mean 3 days later, when I bent my own rules to play more. Things started to slip as I resumed playing during the following week. And on the brink of the third sleep-deprived weekend playing videogames, I pulled the plug. Again.

And this time it worked. I had no urge to go back. This time, it was an incredibly liberating feeling. I’d returned! “I’M BACK, BABY!!!!”

Since the self-experiment came to a messy end 2 weeks ago, things are back to normality. Lifting, eating, sleeping, waking up early, reading, planning ambitious stuff, studying, writing, playing air guitar…

But hell, it was a scary and revealing 3 weeks indeed. My discipline crumbled. Completely. And I succumbed to the psychological wizardy at work behind the online game. Which begs the question….

Just what makes some videogames so damn addictive? And what, if anything, can we learn from this?

Why are games so addictive? Simple. – Feedback.

In pretty much every videogame, you immediately see the result of your efforts.

In Runescape’s case, it’s levelling up. If you fight a monster, you get experience points. If you chop down a tree, you get closer to levelling up your woodcutting skill. Every single thing you do, whether it’s fletching an arrow or mining a rock, rewards you for your effort with experience. And that experience goes towards levelling up.

The same psychological tricks are used in most videogames these days. Farmville, Call of Duty, Fifa…  Angry Birds. The Helicopter Game. On paper, they sound absolutely awful. And yet….. they’re strangely addictive. Because they put you in a insta-feedback situation.

Human nature does the rest. Who doesn’t love getting acknowledged for their efforts?

In real life, it’s much harder to see the results of your efforts. You write a blog article, but have you actually improved as a writer? If so, how do you know? You work out, but have you gotten stronger?  You save a little money by not buying a coffee, but are you getting richer? You eat one healthy meal, but are you getting healthier?

How do you know? Is all this effort just pointless?

The Unexpected Lesson of VideoGames

So if you’re with me, we’ve established that instant feedback makes videogames so addictive.

So what if we used this to our own advantage? What if we constantly got feedback in real life? What if our efforts were constantly acknowledged… by ourselves?

Now, need to be careful with this. To become the strongest versions of ourselves, we have to reward our efforts, and NOT our results. If we acknowledge our effort, this will create the iron-will needed to push through obstacles. If we only acknowledge our results, there’s a danger we’ll become needy on the result-reward mechanism.

This little story sums it up perfectly;

Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.“ ~ Jacob Riis



(Interestingly, it turns out that this quote hangs up in the locker room of the former NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs.)

So what does this mean? It means we should place importance on every hit we make. And not get too caught up in the final result.

Focus, give feedback to, and reward your efforts, and NOT your results.

 “Hey, I’m chipping a way at this rock here. Good work bud, keep it up!”


Journaling: How to Give Self-Feedback

I’d argue that one of the best ways we can give ourselves feedback is by keeping a journal. A small A5, leather-bound book – you can carry it everywhere, and constantly jot down your effort.

 “Just grafted for 3 hours on the assignment – good work.”

You can also use it to reflect on your behaviours, and habits.

Now, I had come to this realisation about halfway in to the videogame challenge, which was when I started to journal also.

So, journaling has continued on to be my November 30-day challenge, and it’s been going great so far. I’ll wake up, have a mug of tea, and write down what I want to achieve for the day. Throughout the day, if I’ve finished an activity, I’ll write down what I did. If I finished a killer set at the gym, I’ll write it down.

“Killer set of deadlifts today. Good job bro!”

This way, I’ve always got a plan (all bout dem big rocks), I’m always reflecting (how my day went vs. how I wanted it to go), and I’m always acknowledging my efforts.

The journal.
The journal.













Lastly, what were the findings of this self-experiment?

I’m sure there are probably some benefits playing them in MODERATION, but in my opinion, there’s always something better and more satisfying to do than videogames. Reading, talking, working out, writing, cooking, walking, hanging out with friends…..

Playing them in moderation, personally – I couldn’t do it. If you can, then hats off to you.

Final verdict: Videogames – definitely not worth it.

And try out journaling!


As always, lots of DreamBigStartSmall love!

Over and out,







Photo credits: [1] <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/32194387@N02/4350030091″>The Stonecutter ~ bronze</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/58038482@N03/12057382525″>Invader</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>