Work 2.0: Game on!

The world of play and the world of work are often seen as opposites. But they may have more in common than we think. In the second installment of our new Work 2.0 series, Ethan Mollick makes the case that we can make our jobs more engaging by incorporating elements of games. 

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Additional Resources:


Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Future of Business, David Edery and Ethan Mollick, FT Press, 2008

The Unicorn’s Shadow: Combating Dangerous Myths that Hold Back Startups, Founders, and Investors, Ethan Mollick, Wharton School Press, 2020


Video game play is positively correlated with well-being, Niklas Johannes, Matti Vuorre and Andrew K. Przybylski, Royal Society Open Science, 2021

The Educational Value of Virtual Ecologies in Red Dead Redemption 2, Edward J. Crowley, Matthew Silk, Sarah L. Crowley, People and Nature, 2021

Memory and comprehension of narrative versus expository texts: A meta-analysis, Raymond A.Mar, Jingyuan Li, Anh T.P. Nguyen, Cindy P. Ta, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 2021

Simulation Typology and Termination Risks, Alexey Turchin, Michael Batin, David Denkenberger,Roman Yampolskiy, arXiv: Other Computer Science, 2019

The Dark (Patterns) Side of UX Design, Colin Gray, Yubo Kuo, Bryan Battles, Joseph Hoggatt, and Austin Toombs, Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2018

Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric versus Data, Patrick M. Markey, Charlotte N.Markey, and Juliana French, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2015

Mandatory Fun: Consent, Gamification and the Impact of Games at Work, Ethan Mollick, Nancy Rothbard, The Wharton School Research Paper Series, 2014

Can Games Build Financial Capacity? Nicholas W. Maynard, Preeti Mehta, Jonas Parker, Jeffrey Steinberg, RAND Labor and Population, 2012

Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic Images in Normals and Amnesics, Robert Stickgold, April Malia, Denise Maguire, David Roddenberry, Margaret G. O’Connor, Science, 2000


BlueSky Ventures: The Entrepreneurial Mindset. Learn to think like a successful entrepreneur in a short game,  Wharton interactive, University of Pennsylvania

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologists have always been interested in studying how we make sense of the world. Over and over, in many fields of research, one theme has recurred. What we see, hear, and feel is not just about what's in front of us. In the 1800s, early researchers began working in a branch of psychology called psychophysics. It looked at how, for example, we can easily spot a single burning candle in a dark room. But put that same candle in a brightly lit room, and the flame can be hard to spot. In other words, the context or frame around that burning candle matters. And that's true for many aspects of our lives. If you break your foot the night before your wedding, you might feel very sorry for yourself. But if all you experience during a war is a broken foot, you would consider yourself extremely lucky. Frames also shape how we think about our jobs. This week on Hidden Brain, the second installment of our new series, Work 2.0. Last week, we looked at how many organizations fail to notice the frictions that hold them back. Today, we explore how smart companies and governments are reinventing the world of work by changing the frame around it.

The world of work and the world of play are different worlds. At least, they seem that way. When we are at work, we are supposed to be serious. Play is the opposite of that. We play games to relax, to kick back with friends, to have fun. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Ethan Mollick asks if these worlds have more in common than we think and whether the world of work has a lot to learn from the psychology of games. Ethan Mollick, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Ethan Mollick: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start by talking about the ubiquity of games in our lives, Ethan. Social scientists are always talking about what would happen if a hypothetical anthropologist from Mars would pay a visit to planet Earth? And, surely, a visitor from another planet would notice how integral games are to human life starting right from childhood. It's actually quite remarkable.

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. I mean we are a game-playing people. That's a definition of humanity actually. So, we have evidence that we've played games through history. And, obviously, games are how we learn as a kid. Games are how we relax, how we compete with each other. So, it really is a ubiquitous feature of being human.

Shankar Vedantam: And if you extend the world of gaming to include sports, we spend huge amounts of time not just playing recreational sports and watching sports, but arguing about sports, dissecting it, engaging with it.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. This is a thing we all care about. We've cared about for a long time. There's actually graffiti in the Great Pyramids that suggests that there was actually game playing among the various groups that were building the pyramids. The pyramids appear to have been built at least in part by drafted labor. And they would divide into teams with names like "the friends of Khufu" or "the drunkards of Menkaure" and compete with each other to haul the most blocks and get beer as a reward for being the winner. So, games have been with us as a motivating factor for a very long time.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, these days, Ethan, there's one type of game that dwarfs all the others. And those, of course, are video games. Can you give me some sense of the scale of the popularity of video games?

Ethan Mollick: I think one of my favorite stats is actually from a very popular game that you've probably heard of called Fortnite. And at its peak of popularity during the pandemic last year, people played 3.2 billion hours of Fortnite in a single month. And just to put that in context, that's equivalent to building 29 Panama Canals or 457 Empire State buildings.

Shankar Vedantam: Wait. You're saying the amount of time people spend playing Fortnite in one month, you could build 29 Panama Canals or 457 Empire State buildings?

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. If you could get the people to work. A lot of them are middle schoolers. So, it probably wouldn't be legal. But yes.

Shankar Vedantam: Well, that's astonishing. I mean you also cited a survey that once asked people in three Canadian cities to identify a photo of the prime minister of Canada and a photo of a character from a famous Nintendo video game. What did the survey find, Ethan?

Ethan Mollick: Oh, far more people were able to identify Mario than Stephen Harper who was the prime minister at the time.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean isn't that astonishing? I mean people are recognizing a fictional Italian plumber in a game versus the prime minister of their own country.

Ethan Mollick: I don't think it's that surprising because of our level of engagement, just like if you ask people to remember the circle of people they knew in high school, they might have more trouble than remembering who was on their local sports team during that same period. We really connect to games as people.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, this may be hard for people who don't play video games to understand. But the business of video games dwarfs many other industries. Can you give me a sense of the scale of the business of the video gaming industry?

Ethan Mollick: It's bigger than movies. It's bigger than music. It is the biggest entertainment industry by far. And its influence is everywhere. It drives the adoption of new technologies whether it's virtual reality or the Apple app store. It's an amazingly ubiquitous part of what we do. And the money flowing into it is huge.

Shankar Vedantam: All right. So, I want to contrast what we've just heard about the world of games with the world of work. I want to play you a clip from the TV show, Friends, where the character, Rachel, expresses how many people feel about the world of work.

Jennifer Anniston, as Rachel: Oh, god. I hate my job. I hate it. I hate my job. I hate it. I don't know.

Courteney Cox, as Monica Geller: Honey, I'm sorry.

Jennifer Anniston, as Rachel: Oh, I would quit. But then, I think I should stick it out. Then, I think, why would such a person stay in such a demeaning job just because it's remotely related to the field they're interested in?

Shankar Vedantam: Now, many, many people feel like Rachel, don't they, Ethan?

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. I mean work is full of frustrations and things that make it feel meaningless or a treadmill. And even if you're enjoying your job, I think everyone has times where they wonder, "Is this what I'm really doing with my life?"

Shankar Vedantam: I remember talking with the late anthropologist, David Graeber, some time ago, Ethan. He told me that vast numbers of people believe that jobs were not just boring but pointless, that if their jobs disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice. And it sounded like a terribly sad commentary on what work feels like for many people.

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. I think that many people don't feel meaning in their work. They don't feel a connection to a bigger picture. And that can be incredibly demotivating.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, the life of a Wharton school professor sounds very exciting. But surely, you must have some points in your life when you feel like your own life is marked by drudgery and boredom and repetition.

Ethan Mollick: Oh, absolutely. I mean just like anyone else, I had a series of jobs before becoming a professor that were quite tedious ranging from sorting broken computer equipment to cleaning up parking lots at shopping centers. So, this was before we had podcasts, right? So, it was just the radio you were listening to. And it was both gross and boring. So, you'd start to turn work into a game. So, I was, "How many cigarette butts can I get in my scoop before I have to empty it out? Can I get one of each kind of garbage before this song is over?" So, making up games and challenges to turn this boring work into something at least somewhat more interesting.

Shankar Vedantam: And what about in your current day job? I mean do you experience drudgery at all, or is it unending excitement?

Ethan Mollick: Well, as much as I'd like to say being a professor is unending excitement, there are aspects of the job whether that's cleaning giant data sets or sitting through some of the particularly long meetings that we sometimes have in some committees though I probably should admit that on podcasts. But they can feel a bit tedious. Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: So, Ethan, we've looked at how many people love games and fun. And many people think of work as being drudgery or repetition. But again, looking from the perspective of that anthropologist from Mars, there's a paradox here which is: many dimensions of games look a lot like work. Talk to me about the Sims.

Ethan Mollick: So, the Sims is an incredibly popular sort of life simulator. So, you build families. You build houses. You have people live in these houses and kind of go through their daily jobs. And people use this for all sorts of reasons, sort of a living doll house. But what always amazes me about the Sims is how much time people are willing to spend just setting things up kind of correctly. So, for example, people have recreated the entire Ikea catalog including historical Ikea chairs so you can decorate your house exactly the way you would your dorm or your other home. And it's amazing. People spend hours just getting haircuts right. So, the kinds of things that we do on a regular basis in our daily lives, people are happy to recreate in these virtual worlds as well.

Shankar Vedantam: But isn't it interesting that in our daily lives, these often feel like chores? So, if you're telling your teenager to clean up her room or get her room in order, that feels like a chore. But to design a room on a virtual game sounds like fun.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. And that is the sort of paradox at the heart of trying to connect games and work, is that work is often tedious and the same thing in a game can be made to be terrific.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at a few other dimensions of this paradox, Ethan, games like Chutes and Ladder. And I don't know how many people play those anymore. But there are many games where we routinely play the game for a while and then suddenly find ourselves back at square one. And now, we have to march all the way back again to get back to where we were. So, we constantly, in many aspects of games, have to deal with the kind of setbacks that in the real world strike us is really tedious.

Ethan Mollick: Well, there's even a word for this in the game world which is "grind." So, the idea of grinding is putting in tremendous amounts of work to advance your character or your game state to some degree. And there's all kinds of games that include grind. You might spend 30 or 40 hours sometimes to just be able to get access to a particularly good looking piece of equipment or to upgrade your skill in fishing in an online game. So, this sort of approach is really common. We see people being willing to go back to square one and start over again over and over. In fact, some of my favorite games are these types of games called Roguelikes where the whole idea is you keep failing. You might fail hundreds of times before you succeed once or twice. And it's one of my favorite categories. I find that there's something... Failure in the real world is really difficult and painful. And failure in games can kind of be a sort of release where you get to try again and try and be more perfect the next time around.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, I mentioned David Graeber's research a second ago into how many people find their work to be pointless. So, this is another dimension of the paradox because, almost by definition, games are pointless. Whether you end up with more green cones than red cones or kill the pink dragon or manage to land the ball inside the line, if you apply the same logic that people bring to their work, you can say, "Who cares? It's pointless." Yet, somehow when it comes to games, this pointlessness is somehow appealing instead of demoralizing. No one ever says, "Okay. I captured the flag. Who cares? It's pointless."

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. We have a category in our heads of sort of feelings of accomplishment we get from games are real even if the experience isn't. So, I think you're highlighting really nicely this kind of contrast between the fact that our real life experiences, even though they actually matter in the world, often don't feel like there's a point while the things where we know they don't matter in the world, we get satisfaction out of them. And I think that is one of the most interesting aspects of games.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we've looked at how games often involve similar kinds of repetition and setbacks and drudgery that lots of people experience at work. There is another aspect of games that also looks a lot like work. Games often demand intense effort. Now, some of the earliest games we learn to play as children involve physical activity, running. And many of us continue to pursue these activities into adulthood. I want to play you a clip from the 2019 Boston Marathon where the commentators are talking about an athlete approaching the finish line after running more than 26 miles.

Announcer 1: What a finish to see that. I mean you could just see everything going. Arms, legs and everything is hot.

Announcer 2: So, painful. I kind of feared for Desisa that he might rip his hamstring muscles he was straining so hard at the finish. And he knew it was going to come to that.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean surely, Ethan, the anthropologist from Mars would say, "These kinds of activities don't look like fun." And yet, tens of thousands of people voluntarily sign up to do them over and over again and think of these activities as being some of the most meaningful achievements in their life.

Ethan Mollick: I think it goes back to what you discussed earlier which is that meaning in our work is about how we feel about this, right? And when we play games, there's some degree of we get to pick the competition that we're in. And we pick competitions that are meaningful for us. And there is this sense of accomplishment and joy that comes with achieving goals that you set for yourself, even if those goals might seem meaningless to the outside world.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean do you do this yourself, Ethan? I mean do you do this when you're working out, for example, or when you're... I don't know if you're a runner or a swimmer. Do you sort of set artificial targets for yourself and derive inordinate pleasure when you meet those targets?

Ethan Mollick: Well, I have those targets. I'm a big Apple Watch workout user. But there's another dimension that I think you've hinted at throughout our conversation so far which is a lot of this involves other people. Whether that's sports or marathon running, you want to beat someone else. So, for me, one of my sisters and I since the pandemic have been competing weekly for exercise on the Apple Watch. And I will keep an eye on it when she inevitably starts beating me. I have gone downstairs to work out at 11:30 at night to get those last 20 minutes in to try and overcome her point total even though I think the score is currently 44 weeks to five weeks or something like that where she's won. But every time I pull it off, I feel great.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. It's astonishing that people will exercise in order to have a metric on their watch or to beat somebody else instead of exercising to save their own lives. I mean you would think that the latter would have more appeal.

Ethan Mollick: Except that saving our lives is a slow process. And beating my sister is happening now. And there's a big difference between this. And that's a big problem with the work issue too. Your accomplishments are all for the future. But when you blow up an alien, you're blowing it up right now.

Shankar Vedantam: The world of play and the world of work have a lot in common. They can both involve painstaking effort and repetitive tasks. Yet, many people pay money to do one set of activities and resent doing the other even though they get paid to do it. When we come back, we uncover the psychology behind this paradox and what it tells us about how to make work more rewarding and perhaps even fun. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Think back to when you were a kid. Ask yourself did anyone have to force you to play games? If you were like most kids, the answer is, "Of course not." Whether it was a game of tag or soccer or Minecraft, you often had to be torn away from games by your parents or teachers. Think for a moment about how different that is from the world of what we call work, managers hovering over you, teachers yelling at you, people showering you with threats and inducements to stay on task. At the Wharton School, Ethan Mollick teaches innovation and entrepreneurship. He studies why games have a radically different effect on our minds than work.

Shankar Vedantam: Ethan, we talked about how many games aren't all that different from jobs in that they can also involve repetitive boring or difficult activities. But there are many psychological differences between work and play. And one of them has to do with the way games often incorporate stories. Can you tell me how games use storytelling to hold our interest?

Ethan Mollick: Definitely. So, our lives at work often don't fit a neat narrative. We're not hero. We're not villain. There's not a story of progression. We have to do that for ourselves. But humans are kind of narrative machines. We've always told stories. And games are great because they give you a context or meaning for your work in that storyline. You're not just clicking a button. You're saving a planet. You're not just moving a mouse and completing some task. You are helping your team win. So, there's both the sort of small scale story that we feel like we're part of that narrative, and also the larger scale stories. Many games are built around a storyline in which you are accomplishing some goal. You're often the hero of the tale saving the world or improving something in some way. And that's a really powerful tool because we can imagine ourselves in those positions. And that makes our choices feel meaningful.

Shankar Vedantam: The connection that you're drawing here might explain why movies lend themselves to games and vice versa. The Harry Potter movie franchise has spawned dozens of games, right?

Ethan Mollick: Oh, exactly. I mean one step beyond the movie is being in the movie. So, even though movie games have a reputation for being pretty mediocre games, they're also continuously popular not because the gameplay is amazing, but because you want to be Harry Potter or Rey or Luke Skywalker, whoever you want to inhabit.

Shankar Vedantam: Something you said a moment ago really struck me which is, it's not just that games have stories. But sometimes, the reward for playing a game is that you unlock new elements of the story. So, playing the game becomes a way to move forward in the narrative. Can you give me an example of a game that works like this?

Ethan Mollick: Oh, definitely. I mean a lot of games depend on sort of a cliffhanger next event. And the feeling of, you’re gaining power, gaining control is really important. So, there's classic role-playing games where there's the Final Fantasy games or the Witcher where the story is compelling. You want to find out what happens next. And your choices affect the world around you.

Character 1: Got a minute?

Character 2: Why not?

Character 1: I'm looking for a woman, long hair, dressed in black and white. Seen anyone like that?

Character 2: Of course.

Ethan Mollick: I actually still have some games that I played, one called Mass Effect, that I still, about six years later, think about how I made a bad choice that doomed one of my companions in the game and still regret it at this point. I should have loaded that saved game. I'm sorry, Jack.

Audio from Mass Effect: Damage was contained. But Jack did not survive. I'm sorry, Jack.

Shankar Vedantam: So, games allow us to follow narratives and become entranced by stories. But they also do something else that you hinted at a moment ago. They offer us a chance to try things out and to take chances. So, in other words, when you let down the character, Jack, in the game, that was painful. But presumably not as painful as letting Jack down in real life. Can you talk about how games allow us to simulate life, but with lower stakes?

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. So, we are drawn to systems. We like to be able to kind of play with systems. Failure is interesting. And it's why flight simulators are interesting. The chance to fail to learn from mistakes and to try again is an exciting thing to do. So, building sand castles is fun. Knocking them over is actually more fun. The sort of destruction, the playing with reality is really interesting. So, games lend themselves very naturally to thinking about systems and how they break and how they fail. And then, you get the real sense of improvement from that failure in games that you don't in real life. If your startup company fails, that feels pretty bad. But if it fails in a game, maybe that was interesting. And now, you're going to do something different next time.

Shankar Vedantam: Right. So, if you get killed in a game, you start over. If you lose a match, you come back and play again tomorrow. You mess up at work. You could get fired.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. And that makes us less willing to take the risks that are both important for learning and work. We learn from failure. But we're very afraid to fail. And even if we fail, we're afraid to publicly discuss our failure because then people might think we're not competent. So, all of that holds back our advancement in the world of work. But in games, failure is interesting. Talking about failure is interesting. People make YouTube videos of the biggest disasters they had in games. So, it's a very different attitude towards the world.

Shankar Vedantam: I spoke some time ago with your fellow University of Pennsylvania researcher, Paul Rozin. And he explained this concept to me called "benign masochism" when you go bungee jumping or ride a roller coaster, you have an illusion of danger or pain without actual danger or pain. And in some ways, games allow us to taste what it feels like to be attacked or under siege or even killed without the real risks attending to those things.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. And it's normal to sort of be curious about these things. I actually once went to a military game training convention. And I was kind of just curious about the failure states for all the games. So, I would play every simulator. And these were multi-million dollar simulators and see what happened when you drove the tank off a cliff or crashed the plane. It was always boring although I did, I think, break one of the tank simulators by driving into a wall. And then, apparently no one had ever done that before. And it broke the game. But I think we are interested in what happens when things go wrong in these kinds of cases.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. And even though, of course, some of that might seem destructive, this is how learning actually happens. When you break something, you actually understand something deep about how it actually works.

Ethan Mollick: I mean in the most basic sense, learning is about failure and about doing things better the next time. It's why testing helps us learn better. It's why a lot of my work now is about designing games to teach because you can fail in a game and advance to the future. But if you fail in real life, it's costly. So, this idea that we learn through failure that we should experience more failure in our lives is actually a really good one. And there's this taunt in games that says, "Get good." And that's something you could actually do in a game. You could practice and get good from failure.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about another dimension of the psychology of games. If you like chess, maybe you've tried the game, Play Magnus. It's named after the Norwegian chess star Magnus Carlsen. And the conceit of the game is that you can play against Magnus Carlsen at 29 different skill levels starting with playing with Magnus when he was age five, and then age six and age seven. And you can see at what point Magnus Carlsen starts to beat you. Ethan, tell me how well-constructed games carefully find this balance between not running too far ahead of our abilities and not running too far behind our abilities.

Ethan Mollick: Well, you may have heard of the state of flow, this famous psychological construct that that's when time vanishes at work. We get into a task. And everything around us disappears. Maybe, we're working on a spreadsheet and everything sort of focused down. And you looked up at the hours that's passed. It's very commonly found in sports and activities.

Ethan Mollick: And one of the keys to achieving that flow state is to neither be bored because the task is too easy nor to be frustrated because the task is so hard. And one of the things that a well-designed game does is it adjusts its difficulty level. You beat a level. And then, you get the next hardest level.

Ethan Mollick: If you don't succeed, you play again until it becomes easy. And the sense of accomplishment is something that you can get in a game where everything is always calibrated to keep you in that flow state. And it's not something we get to do in reality nearly as often.

Shankar Vedantam: So, this reminds me of a concept sometimes called the Yerkes-Dodson Law named after the psychologist, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson. They found that people's performance increases with mental arousal and with stress, but only up to a certain point, beyond which stress becomes really detrimental. Performance starts to decline. I feel that good game designers are keenly aware of the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. I mean what the secret of games is. If you look back to the earliest sort of video games and you think about Pac-Man or Mario Brothers or whatever it is, the levels start easy. And they get harder and harder until you lose. And then, you play again. They're adjusting up to your difficulty level. You get a sense of mastery and accomplishment as you go forward. So, games can adjust to difficulty. Work does not adjust the difficulty. In work, we just keep... If our tasks are boring, it's likely to be boring for a while. If it's too stressful, we're stressed all the time. Wouldn't it be great if work adjusted its difficulty level to keep us in the perfect level of engagement without either being too stressed or getting bored?

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about another dimension of games which is that games often come with a clear set of rules. They give us clear feedback on where we are in the game, what happens when we reach certain levels, how we can improve? I mean this is especially true in video games. But it's also true in sports. We all agree that when a goal is scored, you get a point. I'm wondering whether the clarity of the rules of games, even if they're artificial, allow us to engage in games without the ambiguity that often comes into play in work settings where you don't always know what the rules are or how to get ahead.

Ethan Mollick: Definitely. So, there's clarity. We know what we're supposed to do. Even with the uncertainties in a puzzle game, you may not know the exact answer. But you know there's an answer for you. The second interesting thing about games is this concept that people study games called the Magic Circle which is when people play games, they enter the magic circle. They agree to be bound by the rules of the game. That's why no matter how frustrating that Monopoly game is, you don't break the rules and start to cheat. We feel like there's stakes there. And we feel bound to work with each other. So, that's another aspect of games is we're all sort of on the same playing field in a way that we aren't at work, where you may not understand the social rules or the politics.

Shankar Vedantam: Right. And in the game, as you pointed out just a second ago, we all start off on an equal footing which actually is an important idea here. So, everyone who starts a game of chess starts with the same pieces in the same pawns. What happens then follows the rules of the game. And then, your creativity. But you're not starting out with a leg up. Someone doesn't have an extra leg up just because of who they are or what school they went to or what their background or privilege might be.

Ethan Mollick: And that's always the great democratizing aspect of games, is that it lets people sort of show their own ability or work in sort of a pure setting. So, that's why sports are appealing in a lot of ways. Anyone can rise up. And that's a story we love, is that somebody who unexpectedly becomes good or somebody who came from impoverished or difficult background turns out to be a champion. And it's the same thing that happens in games as well. One of the things I've been experimenting with is can we use games to identify extraordinary talent and find people who have capability to say be an entrepreneur that is unrecognized because of all those other social constraints that typically would hold us back, who we know, where we went to school, what resources we were born with. And I think there's something about that game aspect and identification of game, of talented games that is really appealing.

Shankar Vedantam: Games use a variety of psychological techniques to grab and hold our attention. They encourage exploration and learning. The best games are skillfully calibrated so we feel stimulated without feeling overwhelmed. Now, when non-gamers talk about games, it's often from a negative perspective. Parents and educators worry about kids playing addictive or violent video games. Managers worry that games can be a source of distraction in the workplace. Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, once fired a government employee for playing solitaire at work. When we come back, how some companies, organizations and policymakers are taking a different tack. Instead of seeing games as the enemy, they are deploying what we have learned about the psychology of games to engage employees, entice customers, and educate citizens. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Games rely on a range of psychological techniques to engage us and to keep us coming back for more. They keep score, let us role play and encourage curiosity and exploration. In his book, Changing the Game, and in his day job as a management researcher at the Wharton School, Ethan Mollick studies how employers and policy makers are trying to incorporate features of games into the workplace to promote creativity, to increase engagement and to boost the bottom line. Ethan, research teams fighting disease often confront problems that involve mammoth amounts of very arduous work. You talk about a computer game called Foldit that's used to come up with cures for diseases. Can you explain the challenge that games like Foldit are designed to solve and how they work?

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. Foldit represents a bunch of these really interesting games that we sometimes call citizen science, the idea that how do we take complex tasks and outsource them to regular people, regular citizens to solve. And Foldit is one example of this. It handles a really hard problem which is how do proteins fold. So, we have a sense of the sort of atomic structure of protein. But the shape that it takes follows all these complex rules that have never been very easy to model until quite recently on computers. And so, it's relied on scientists to try and figure out what kind of shape these proteins take and that determines all of their properties, what diseases they cause, how they can be used to increase energy efficiency of alternative fuels, and so on. And what is interesting is the people who go into cell biology or into chemistry are not necessarily really great at solving three-dimensional puzzles. But there's a lot of people in the world who are really good at three-dimensional puzzles who may not know science. So, what Foldit does is let anyone play with the structure of a protein and fold it to try and maximize a bunch of scientific characteristics. And what's cool is the citizens have come up with solutions that scientists struggled with. So, it took people 14 years to work, for example, on trying to figure out the structure of a protein in a monkey form of HIV. And the Foldit citizen scientists were able to come up with the answer in just weeks. So, there's these kind of problems that are solvable by people through games that are not solvable in other ways.

Shankar Vedantam: And I understand that Foldit has a collaborative component to it as well.

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. The collaborative element is really interesting. We talked earlier about how we like teams and competition. So, actually in Foldit, you're encouraged to join teams of people. And those teams compete against each other on a leaderboard. And the most successful teams at folding proteins are actually the teams that don't have any formal biology training. So, it's really interesting because these teams would never have been drawn to the problem if it hadn't been turned into a game. But they just love solving three-dimensional puzzles. And so, these street smart teams are actually beating the more scientific teams in the game.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that part of the reason this works is not just because some people have exceptional skills. But that the elements that we've discussed earlier about gaming allow people to invest huge amounts of time in applying themselves to problems like this. Can you talk about how some of these citizen science efforts are able to enlist volunteers not just to contribute their insights but to contribute huge amounts of time to solving problems of public interest?

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. So, there was another citizen science effort in a game called Eve Online which is sort of a giant Machiavellian spaceship simulation.

Audio from Eve Online : You navigate the universe encased in an armored capsule deep within your ship where you have complete neural control and function as one.

Ethan Mollick: And you were able to solve problems by identifying images of cell structures and cell pathways. And a total of 320,000 players identified these things over a course of a year. They added tens of millions of images that have now made up the atlas of cell biology. And the total amount of time they spent was equivalent of 72 years of researcher time to identify these characteristics. And that's because it was built into a game that people loved and cared about. And it was just integrated into their normal process.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand some companies are using games to help them build better products. How does Microsoft encourage employees to find bugs in critical software programs?

Ethan Mollick: So, this is a really interesting aspect of games called gamification. And gamification has sort of had ups and downs over the last two decades. But the basic idea is that you're going to take elements of things that we know work in games. So, those leaderboards that we talked about, competition, the idea of engagement or unlocking stories, and you're going to apply those aspects to work.

Ethan Mollick: And Microsoft's really been a leader in doing this on their own internal teams. So, they have done things that have ranged from giving people badges and awards for participation which increased the number of people who are reporting bugs in their software in the internal Microsoft Teams multiple times. They've created teams that compete to find bugs or issues with software when they download it. And they unlock charity awards for their favorite charity. And so, there's lots of really clever techniques that they've been applying that have all served to increase engagement in this important bug finding, but otherwise voluntary activity. And it's made a huge difference in their work.

Shankar Vedantam: So, the actual programs are being released sooner or later with fewer bugs?

Ethan Mollick: With fewer bugs and faster.

Shankar Vedantam: So, if games can be used to encourage people to solve problems, they can also be used to train people in various fields. And one of the best examples of this might be a program called Top Gun. Ethan, can you explain the genesis of this game and how it works?

Ethan Mollick: So, Top Gun is actually sort of the grandfather of games. It's actually the same Top Gun that you have seen, maybe the Tom Cruise movie or the soon to come out remake of the Tom Cruise movie.

Top Gun Character 1: The end is inevitable, Maverick. You kind of set it for extinction.

Top Gun Character 2: Maybe so, sir. But not today.

Ethan Mollick: And it actually is sort of one of our first indications of how important sort of games and simulations are for training. So, it actually came out of the fact that the US Air Force and US Navy had been dominant pilots in air combat from World War II up through the Korean War. And when the Vietnam War started, suddenly, American pilots were underperforming. So, when there was a pause in the air war over Vietnam, both the Air Force and Navy tried to figure out how to solve this problem. The Air Force had a lot more money. So, they spent money upgrading planes putting new weapons in new turning systems. And the Navy which had much less money concentrated on a really interesting stat which I think is really important overall which is that the likelihood of you being shot down in air combat was highest in your first mission or two. If you could survive your first couple missions, your first critical mistakes, you were likely to keep surviving. So, they wanted to figure out how do we give people the gamified simulated experience of getting a chance to try air combat against experts in your first couple missions without getting shot down in real life. And they launched Top Gun which is this training school in Nevada where top Navy pilots fly enemy planes against trainees. And when the air war resumed, it was sort of like a natural experiment. The air force continued to have worse and worse conditions in air combat. But the navy went back to being incredibly successful. So, there's something about that training or practice that is really important in real life. You don't want your pilot to be flying a plane for the first time with you in it. You don't want to be the first person for a surgeon to be experimenting on. And games can help us get to that stage where people have real experiences before they actually have to pick up a knife or fly a plane.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned the example of surgery a second ago. I mean I'm thinking about the popular children's game called Operation where you have to carefully remove various plastic organs with tweezers from a make-believe character. But I understand that surgeons and hospitals are actually using simulation and games to actually improve the real life skills of people performing surgeries.

Ethan Mollick: Absolutely. Real life surgical experiments playing with games and simulations that give you the experience of surgery is now a critical part of training doctors and surgeons. So, for example, there is a simulator that teaches you how to interact with patients where you are first a doctor telling your patient something in VR. And then, you get to play the role of the patient seeing yourself explain things to them.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Ethan Mollick: So, you kind of learn bedside manner. There are lots of simulators that use real instruments that are hooked up to sort of force feedback machines. So, you are using a tweezer. And you can actually replay surgeries that have actually gone right or wrong and play with those as well. And in fact, we know that people who trained in these simulators have six times lower rate of accidents and other issues happening that there's less complications. So, those skills are very transferable. What you learn in these games and simulators you can use in real life.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean we talked earlier about sort of the value of making mistakes. I mean, obviously, if you're a surgeon, the value of making a mistake to you is that you learn to be a better surgeon. But the cost is that the patient on the table in front of you is paying a very heavy price. The simulation essentially allows you to do the learning without having the cost. And I understand the same principle is now being rolled out in many other areas of industry including truck driving. I understand there are simulators to help truck drivers have fewer crashes?

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. What's fascinating is playing realistic truck driving simulators gets drivers to actually both get much less crashes, but also use less fuel. So, what's cool about a game is you might spend 40 or 50 hours before you have a risky event happen in real life. But in games, we can force you to have that risky event happen many, many times. Drive in the rain, drive in the rain in the middle of a fog storm. Drive with wind against you. And you can get through all those experiences in a compressed period of time so you make all your mistakes up front rather than later. And that seems to have a long-term effect on people's skills and abilities.

Shankar Vedantam: So, some years ago, a North Carolina man named Paxton Galvanek came across an awful crash on the highway. And what he did in the next few moments made national news. Here's a clip of him talking about what happened.

Paxon Galvanek: I witnessed a truck flip over several times. And I was the first person to stop my vehicle. And I figured if I was the first person there, I'd be the person that could save these people. And I witnessed two people that needed to be pulled from the vehicle. I saw that one of the people there had severed fingers. And I actually helped him control his bleeding by grabbing a towel and controlling it. And then, a plainclothes soldier came up to the accident and said, "You did a great job. I see what you did. You controlled his bleeding. This may have helped them." All from what I learned in America's Army. Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: All from what he learned from America's Army. What was going on here, Ethan?

Ethan Mollick: Well, America's Army was a large-scale shooter game sponsored by the US Army. And it was designed to kind of recruit soldiers to give them sort of an experience of playing a game. It was sort of an advertisement. In fact, at its height, it was actually the number two reason after patriotism that people said it was why they were listing in the army.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Ethan Mollick: So, it was actually an incredibly effective game. But one of the really interesting things and talking about making something sort of boring, engaging, in order to get the power to heal people in the game, to get unlocked the medic class in the game, you had to sit through a really boring slideshow. You'd actually go into a barracks in your game. And you'd sit down at a desk. And then, you'd watch a slideshow about first aid.

Audio from America's Army: All right, privates. We're now going to cover combat life-saving or CLS.

Ethan Mollick: And then, your gun was turned into a number two pencil. And you had to fill out a Scantron form. And if you got all the answers right after multiple hours of training, you got the power to heal people.

Audio from America's Army: It looks like everyone figured this one out. Good job, everyone. Let's move on to the next section.

Ethan Mollick: So, that learning stuck around. So, that man that you just heard from was able to actually help someone and help save their life by the skills they learned in a game because they wanted to unlock the medic skill to be able to play a different role in the game that other people were playing.

Shankar Vedantam: What I love about this example, Ethan, is that in some ways, you're teaching people something that you need to teach them that involves effort. You're teaching them first aid and the rules and when to apply what. And doing that, in some ways, requires, if you wil,l sort of didactic instruction. But by embedding it in a game, in some ways, you take the effort out of the learning. And you make people focus on the game rather than on the learning.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. And I think that you have this kind of interesting combination where the game is kind of driving you forward. But the lessons are real. And that often makes teaching with games really hard. It's one of the things that we've struggled with in our efforts to build games for teaching, is making sure the game is engaging and interesting. But also that the lessons you're learning are the real ones.

Ethan Mollick: Otherwise, you can pick up the wrong kinds of lessons from the game. So, what's great about America's Army is the motivation that happened to sit down and watch these videos and take the test and do this right, was inside the game itself. But the actual process of learning wasn't necessarily the point of the game. So, you picked it up on the side.

Shankar Vedantam: Companies are also increasingly using games to meet their business goals. I understand that Jeep once created a game that allowed players to drive one of their vehicles over very rugged terrain. What was the thinking behind creating this game? And what was the effect on sales?

Ethan Mollick: I can have you play a game that highlights the characteristics of what makes my company great. So, if I want to emphasize rugged roads, I can put you in a rugged road in a Jeep. And I can even put you in a competitor vehicle. And you'll get a great experience. And you'll sort of get a real visceral understanding of why my product is better in some way. And so, that ends up increasing sales in the long run.

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways, this is sort of akin to the car salesperson saying, "Why don't you keep the car for a few hours and drive it around?" And as you drive the car, you get to sort of have a feel of the car. But, of course, there are only certain things you can do when you're test driving a car. you can't drive it over a cliff or drive it over rugged terrain. I mean you have to bring it back into the dealership in good form. The simulation in some ways allows you to test out all the possibilities of the car and, in in some ways, also weds you to the car. It engages you in how the car is operating.

Ethan Mollick: Exactly. That idea that you are connected to this this product that you've used it already that you have this sort of implanted good feeling in memory because, again, I can set up a game to put you in a circumstance where you feel really good about that car as opposed to in real life where, hopefully, the test drive goes well. But maybe traffic's really bad, or maybe you end up having an annoying conversation with a salesman. In a game, I could control all of that.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you worry at all that, in some ways, the power of games can, in some ways, lead bad actors to use games for bad purposes here and sell people products that might actually not be the best products, but the games are really addictive? I mean I can see a story of how this could actually turn out badly that the addictiveness or power or engagement of games can be used for bad ends.

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. I think that we do worry. Are games compelling in a way? Does gamifying stock trading make people more willing to make bad investments in stocks the way they would when they're gambling. I'll say that, generally, and it's always up for active debate, the most studied areas of like do games make people more violent, for example, or are they purely addictive in a way that other things aren't. Those don't seem to be panning out. It doesn't seem like game violence causes real life violence. It doesn't seem like that games are uniquely addictive compared to other kinds of activities. But I think we should be cautious about it. And I think it's a form of media. And media is powerful. So, in the end, our research shows that games are effective. But they don't replace work. So, I think the games at work piece is something to be thoughtful about and concerned about. But I think that the danger is not huge because people are aware of the difference between games in real life.

Shankar Vedantam: There are also, I think, many games being designed to actively improve the public good. And they're being created by either non-profit organizations or by researchers at universities like yourself. I understand that European researchers in partnership with Dutch journalists have created a game called the Fake News Game where players create fake news themselves. They get badges and followers, so, making use of the strategies they learn like impersonating someone else or inciting powerful emotions or even creating conspiracy theories. And, eventually, they can create an entire fake news empire. Now, some of this sounds very disturbing. What was the point of a game like this, Ethan?

Ethan Mollick: One of the things that's interesting about games is they put you in other people's shoes. And one of the clever things that this game is doing, this fake news game, is it's asking you to be the bad guy. How would you exploit people? And it turns out that in actual controlled experiments that this game actually increases the ability of people who play it to spot fake news in the real world because they understand the motivation for creating fake news. They understand the techniques people would do to use that. And then, when they play the game, they learn those techniques and become more immune to it in real life. So, there's sometimes an advantage to role playing as the bad guy.

Sander van der Linden (Creator of Fake News Game): Ultimately, we're hoping to achieve herd immunity just as with regular biological vaccines. If enough people have at least some level of psychological immunity, the misinformation virus won't have a chance to take hold and spread as fast and as deep as it has up until now.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand you've created a game where your students have to go on a mission to the planet Saturn in the year 2087.

New Speaker: You will help lead humanity to the future. You are about to take part in the Saturn parable.

Shankar Vedantam: Tell me what happens in the game and what students take away from it.

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. So, it's actually been a lot of fun as the culmination of a lot of my work. I've been building games for teaching. And this one takes place, like you said, on a sort of doomed mission to Saturn.

Audio from The Saturn Parable: The year is 2087, and humanity has left earth behind heading out into the solar system colonizing Mars and looking out even further. But one thing holds them back, the lack of water.

Ethan Mollick: It includes elements from escape rooms. And we brought in a science fiction writer to help us write some of the plot line. And the idea is that by putting people in a fictional setting, it puts everyone on an even playing field. So, no one's been on a mission to Saturn. So, there's nobody who has more knowledge than another. The quiet person in the room has just as much knowledge as the loud person. The older person is the younger person. And we give them a set of problems that are general problems that teams encounter. It's sort of a failure simulator for teams. So, there's issues with communication in the teams, things in the mission start to go wrong and explode. Can they coordinate in the right way? Can they avoid information problems that happen in real life? Can they avoid groupthink? Can everybody get their head in the game so they can coordinate and avoid kind of process failures that the teams suffer from? And so, in the end, part of the reveal is, all the things you've experienced in the game are actually just the kind of problems you face and work all the time with this fictional setting. So, everything we talked about: putting a compelling story and competition and systems on top of it. But in reality, you're learning about the kinds of failure that people have all the time at work.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand you've also built games on how to launch a startup. And it seems to me that some of the skills in the planet Saturn game would also apply to being an entrepreneur of sort of juggling and thinking about the number of different things you have to plan for and anticipate and guard against.

Ethan Mollick: Yeah. And most of the time, how you learn to be an entrepreneur is you have to try being a founder and start a company. And that's a really expensive thing to do. So, we've built a fake game where people live through running a company over the course of multiple weeks in real time. And all the events that happen in real life happen. We build fake Zoom, fake Slack, fake Dropbox. So, you're actually interacting with customers. And crises are occurring. And you get to learn the lessons that you would in real life, but without the risk and without having to have a good idea first. And the early evidence is that it seems to make a big difference in people's entrepreneurial ability. I've actually had students who played the game contacted me a couple of years later when they were running their own company and referring to events that happen in the game as if they happened in real life.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Ethan Mollick: And one of the things we were trying to do is open this stuff up to the world. So, we actually have a 90-minute version of the game that anyone can play at our Wharton interactive site. So, if people want to try it out, they're welcome to.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, I remember the New York Times published an interactive tool on their website that let people figure out how to allocate the national budget. So, the newspaper basically says, "Here's the amount of revenue we have. Here's what we have to spend on. Here are the different priorities. How would you divide up the budget?"So, in other words, ordinary people, ordinary citizens got to play the role of congress. And what I found remarkable about the game was how much it engaged people in policy questions. Instead of simply presenting them with didactic information or ideological positions, people were saying, "How would I balance this if I had to do it myself?" And as people got to explore the trade-offs, I had the sense that even reduced some of the partisan rancor we see in the news all the time. So, I feel like the potential for games in terms of improving things that are in the public interest is actually quite vast.

Ethan Mollick: I agree. I mean there's all the elements come together here. So, games make something that would seem really boring like budget balancing, engaging. You're trying to solve a puzzle now. And also, you get to see how other people are answering it. So, there's social competition and comparison. And it makes a complex topic like the budget feel sensical. My favorite example of a game that engages people in policy even if they don't know it is SimCity. And I think maybe you played it. Many people do. People start playing in fifth grade. And if you actually look at the number of variables people are balancing in SimCity, they're trying to manage police coverage and economic development and firefighting and sewage, there'd be over 450 variables that they're maximizing. And if you tried to tell me that you teach a fifth grader about 400 aspects of city planning, it would seem insane. But in a game, it all seems natural. And so, the idea of a game to build perspective to understand the complex systems we're in bodes really well for educating complex topics like climate change. So, there's a lot there that's really powerful.

Shankar Vedantam: What is your vision for how we should think about games in the workplace and in the public square, Ethan? I mean if based on all of the work and thinking that you've done, what do you think is missing in our public conversations about games or even in our attitudes about the role of games?

Ethan Mollick: Games are here to stay. People love them. So, I think the question is what can we learn from games? And I think it's not that we can turn work into a game, and then work becomes amazing. But we can take aspects of games that make work compelling or make learning compelling, and apply those, that simulation aspect we talked about, competition, the idea that you understand what you're trying to do and have clear rules, clear rewards, adjust difficulty level to someone's difficulty level in life. I think we should be asking: how can we take aspects of games beyond just sort of the simple let's have points and use those to make work and life and policy decisions more intelligently.

Shankar Vedantam: Along with David Edery, Ethan Mollick is the author of "Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business." Ethan, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Ethan Mollick: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Next week, in our Work 2.0 series, we look at how to avoid being knocked off course by distractions. Our unsung hero today is Alex Munteanu. He's a listener, and Hidden Brain is his favorite podcast. He says, "I really enjoyed the episodes that have a personal story combined with fascinating psychological research findings." Some time ago, Alex decided to become a supporter of our show on Patreon. Alex, we are so grateful to have your support. It means a lot to our team.

Shankar Vedantam: Speaking of unsung heroes, if you haven't yet done so, please check out our new podcast, My Unsung Hero. The episodes are short, usually around five minutes. And we think they'll provide you an emotional boost. If you're having a down day, listen to one of these episodes. It will restore your faith in humanity. You can find My Unsung Hero wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it, be sure to subscribe so you'll get every episode. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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