In his book The Compass of Pleasure, the American neuroscience professor David Linden (2011) argues that information about our own future can be pleasurable. Pleasurable in this context refers to activating the pleasure/reward circuitry in the brain – much like how food, water, gambling, and sex would.

Meanwhile (and seemingly unrelated), Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken (2011) defines games (digital, sports and the like) as having four fundamental traits: goals, rules, feedback systems, and voluntary participation. The feedback system provides information to the players of a game how close they are to the game’s goal (getting a high score, defeating the dragon, etc). Effectively, the feedback system “serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing” (McGonigal, 2011).

So let’s make some connections here. Feedback systems in a game provide us with information, mostly on how we are performing in the game… which really is information that directly relates to how successful we will be in a game. Even when we play our childhood game of “Hot and Cold”, the feedback the player is getting is information about our success in the near future. A player hearing a lot of “cold” means his future is not looking so good, while a lot of “hot” means he’s close to victory. A booing crowd in Guitar Hero means your avatar’s future is getting kicked off stage, while the blinking ghosts in Pac-Man means that perhaps death is imminent.

With the idea from The Compass of Pleasure, we can argue that these feedbacks are pleasurable – and this makes sense as McGonigal claims that these feedbacks are what motivates the players to play these games (and we should all know that pleasurable things such as money, sex, and food are all strong sources of motivation). This string of reasoning aligns with why games are so fun to play.

What about homework? Especially the “traditional” type of homework? A prime example would be a set of physics problems in a textbook a student has to chug through. There may be 10 questions or so that he needs to go through, but guess what: there is zero feedback available to him while doing his questions. His only feedback will probably be the score he gets from his teacher about a week later after its due – but this information wouldn’t even be about the future anymore.

There are plenty of online modules nowadays that provide instant feedback, along with a flood of learning apps that try to gamify (and hence have some sort of a feedback system) the whole process of doing homework/studying. If we go with our little theory of how feedback can be pleasurable, we could guess that this type of homework activity is much more enjoyable then the physics homework scenario above.

It would be fascinating if there are specific research conducted to address this issue. If this lab ever gets funding, we’ll know. We’ll study this and tell you whether real-time feedback during studying and doing homework will make the whole experience more enjoyable.

 


Linden, D. J. (2011). Virtuous Pleasures (and a Little Pain). The compass of pleasure: How our brains make fatty foods, orgasm, exercise, marijuana, generosity, vodka, learning, and gambling feel so good [e-book version]. New York: Viking.

McGonigal, J. (2011). What Exactly Is a Game? Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world [e-book version]. New York: Penguin Press.

 

Check out the books in this post!

The Compass of PleasureReality is Broken