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The Devil's Advocate: Where Work and Play Meet

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on August 01, 2012

A pair of unrelated articles spawned today's Devil's Advocate. Unlike most of the columns I've written here, however, I'll be a bit more upfront about the conclusion I've drawn from what I've read. Simply put, the premise of today's Devil's Advocate is this: I would like any readers of the Devil's Advocate who have an interest towards the playing of games to devote an hour less into gaming and repurpose that time into other constructive tasks.

Of course, this particular discussion isn't going to go over well with anyone without any proper explanation. Very few people (myself included) like being told what to do, and even fewer folks like being told what to do without any reasons, so allow me to tell you about two unrelated articles that planted this idea in my head.

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The Baining of Papua New Guinea

Psychology Today published an article on July 20 about the Baining culure of Papua New Guinea, which was picked up and made known to me through the science and science-fiction website io9.

The Psychology Today article discusses the results of a study by anthropologist Jane Fajans, which basically describes a culture that doesn't like play, among other things. The Baining “eschew everything they see as 'natural' and value activities that come from 'work'” because their culture resists what is natural to focus on aspects that are uniquely human. For the Baining, human tasks involve turning products of natural processes, such as animals, plants, and babies, into human products, such as livestock, crops, and civilized human beings, through the process of work.

Now, we could discuss ethnocentrism and how we would think them odd for not playing games, but they probably think us odd for not working more often and engaging in other behaviors that are natural.  The main draw of the article for me, however, is that the Baining do work with fervor, and in my mind they must maintain their will to work not only due to their culture, but also due to some force that makes them feel their actions are worthwhile.

Leaf by Niggle and the Concept of Flow

Moving on from the Baining, I also encountered a post by Becky Chambers on The Mary Sue about a bit of fiction J.R.R Tolkien wrote in the late 1930s, called Leaf by Niggle. Chambers' article put to the forefront of my mind two things: the premise of the story and the psychological concept of flow as proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The premise of Leaf by Niggle is simple enough to understand, though interpretations vary. The main interpretation I find interesting is that Niggle, who is a kind-hearted, yet unremarkable fellow, is struggling to complete a painting but is constantly sidetracked by chores, duties and a neighbor with a sick wife.

Now, Niggle himself is talented enough to be able to make leaves that are all different, yet of painstaking detail. Before he can complete his painting of a tree and forest filled with those leaves, however, the story says he goes on a journey unprepared, which seems to connote Niggle's death and the afterlife.

What he finds on this journey of his is that he ends up in the country of the Tree and Forest of his painting, only the tree is the realization of his vision, but the general area is in a state of disrepair. With some help from his neighbor Parish (I suppose he passed on as well), the two of them make the Tree and Forest more beautiful and eventually, Niggle is able to further venture into the realm of his painting, where he takes slightly more challenging adventures that allow him to push himself further and find more fulfillment in further adventuring, all while other people who have passed on find themselves in the country of the Tree and Forest, which is eventually called Niggle's Parish.

As Chambers mentions in her article on The Mary Sue, the seeming afterlife described in Leaf by Niggle touches upon the psychological concept known as flow, which also happens to be one of the fundamental reasons behind why people play video games.

Flow, as Wikipedia describes it, is essentially a state wherein one is singularly immersed and motivated to complete a task, where the focus is on nothing but the activity at hand. When you play a game and you feel like you're “in the zone,” that is flow.

At the Intersection of Work and Play

As some of you may have already guessed, the intersection of work and play is flow. In my mind (and I certainly hope this is true), the Baining and video gamers have a common thread in which they both find flow.

For the Baining, immersion in work might bring out feelings of joy and sense of focus. For gamers, we know that the focus exists, and it shows when someone is able to perform a game-winning counterattack after blocking a multi-hit super or finishing off a boss by himself (which may have been done either with the help of marijuana or despite being stoned).

There is a second thing that happens to be at the intersection of work and play, and that is time. As Leaf by Niggle points out, you can only do so much before you get called off, unprepared, for that long journey (or nothingness, if you don't believe in an afterlife). We can spend time taking care of important things that allow us to function in the world we live in, such as being good neighbors and working to provide for ourselves or our families, and we can also spend time engaging in things that help us find flow.

The nature of the Baining and the nature of people who understand play shows that flow - and the sense of joy that comes with achieving flow - can be found in anything we put our full emotion and mental faculties into. As such, it seems highly likely that devoting time to things other than gaming can also bring about flow and make us feel good about ourselves.

Seven Hours a Week

Going back to the original conclusion put forth at the beginning of today's column, I can understand that people might be hesitant to devote time to things they don't feel like doing, and that's fine. We derive our pleasures from all sorts of things, and there's nothing wrong with that. What I'm proposing, however, is decreasing the time pursuing flow through one activity in order to find other constructive activities that allow us to find flow anyway.

For instance, my doctor tells me I could stand to lose some extra weight; at the same time, I want to write that book I've always wanted to publish. I can spend 20 minutes a day walking (then jogging, then running) and I can spend another 40 minutes of my day just penning a few hundred words towards that novel I've always wanted. Heck, I can even spend one of those seven hours a week learning how to cook healthier meals or following recipes inspired by MMORPGs (link leads to an excellent blog filled with game-based recipes).

All this leads back into the ending of Leaf by Niggle, wherein Niggle manages to overcome slightly more difficult challenges in the afterlife and creates a legacy for himself. While some of us might be able to create a strong legacy in a game or in real life, sometimes, it's the simple things, such as being a strong positive influence for your family or for the people around you, that can make living even more worthwhile. I encourage the devoted gamers out there to put in some Baining-styled work by taking some time away from something that feels natural to you and trying a challenge that will make you feel good about yourself and build up skills you never thought you could develop.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a road outside my house that needs to be walked on. Allons-y!

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler (Rappler.com) as a technology reporter.

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