Ten Thousand Hours of What?

It has been said that it takes ten thousand hours to become a virtuoso at anything you choose to pursue.  That’s an interesting number.  If you work at something for eight hours a day, that’s one thousand, two hundred and fifty days.  Assuming you work for twenty days a month, that’s sixty two and a half months.  In other words, it takes just over five years.

In this TED talk (see link below) it turns out we also spend about ten thousand hours in secondary education, but astonishingly the average gamer will have spent that amount of time in playing games, by the time they are twenty one.


The title of the talk is “Gaming Can Make a Better World”.  No it can’t.  I will explain why I think this, below.

Many people think that this is an opportunity cost.  Imagine how good an artist, musician or writer you could become in that same ten thousand hours.  Gamers are being, to some degree, short changed, because at the end of their ten thousand hours, they don’t have a lot to show for their virtuosity.  But clearly they got good at something.  What they got good at is in their minds and imaginations (and so definitely not worthless).  According to the presenter of the TED talk, Jane McGonigal, they get good at the following:

  • Blissful productivity
  • Social fabric
  • Urgent optimism
  • Epic meaning

It occurred to me that being an artist or a musician does these things for you too (or can).  The difference is that at the end of your ten thousand hours, you have the tangible fruits of your labours.

While you may have been engaged in the feeling of blissful productivity in a virtual online game, you enjoy actual blissful productivity, which actually produces something, when you are an artist.

You can develop group strategies and engage in collaboration when you play multi-player games, leading to the creation of a culture (of sorts) and a social fabric, but you get that by being in a band too, for example.  In a band, though, you also get to entertain people outside of your closed group and you can record what you play, leading to an actual product, instead of a virtual idea of a culture that evaporates as soon as the game powers down.  As a spectator event, watching people play online games is a little like watching paint dry.

Urgent optimism describes what most artists live with anyway.  If they didn’t have it, they’d all quit and never produce a thing.  Art demands a certain optimistic belief that your work will be worth the effort.  Unless you master the hard part of just getting on with it, with a sense of reasonable (not extreme) urgency, you won’t produce enough art to be worthy of the name artist.

As for epic meaning, being an artist engaged in projects with which you hope to change the world gives you the chance of producing something that really does change the world.  In gaming, the epic meaning is a virtual fiction – a tissue and a fabrication.  There is no real meaning, even though you feel like you are engaged in something meaningful.  Essentially, you have been fooled.  At the end of the game, nothing really changes.  Your real life situation is pretty much as it was when you started the game.

The other pressing question associated with becoming an online gaming virtuoso is this: who does it benefit?  If the only person that feels the effect of your hard won expertise is you (and perhaps your fellow gamers), then what good does that do for anybody else?  It doesn’t cure disease, solve world hunger or prevent war.  In fact, it might make you less resistant to real world war and less empathic about the plight of others in those wars.  In withdrawing from the real world, you diminish your real, social connections with the mass of humanity you don’t even know and won’t ever meet.  It’s very easy to slip into the intellectual mistake of regarding anybody different as an enemy and their deaths as just another score on the board, just like in the games.  You also might become less questioning of the reasons you are being asked to comply with some abhorrent course of action in the real world, if you begin to think that it’s just like an arbitrary starting axiom in the game’s rules, rather than laden with difficult, significant, far-reaching moral and value judgements.

So, while there has undoubtedly been a mass exodus into virtual worlds as an escape from the frustrations, problems and shortcomings of the real world, I’m going to suggest that art is a better destination.

The difference, to me, is that at the end of your ten thousand hours, you are an expert or virtuoso at something real, not something imaginary.  As much as I love imagination and daydreaming, we should never forget that as players of a game, we are engaged in a political dialogue with each other and it’s governed by the game designer’s preconceptions, agenda and world view.  This is not as free as defining our own real world “game”, within our own art.  In our own creative activities, we express our own preconceptions, our own agendas and our own world views.  It’s our political discourse, not a pre-fabricated one provided to us by a corporation.

I’d rather spend ten thousand hours trying to become expert at the beautification and betterment of the real world, rather than the virtual world.  At least what I make has a chance of persisting.  At the very least, I gain skills at changing an unsatisfactory real world for the better, rather than just retreating from it and creating a beautiful and better virtual world.  Unless I can move into the virtual world permanently, leaving the real world to its own devices doesn’t help me.  Eventually, I have to face the real world and live in it, yet I will have made zero net contribution towards fixing it.

Nor is it obvious that the skills I fashioned during my ten thousand hours in the virtual world will readily translate back into the real world.  They might, but it’s like starting again, I think.  Flight simulators are useful, but any pilot will tell you that flying a simulator and flying a real plane are very different things.  Being an expert in the flight simulator is not necessarily going to make you a great pilot.

It doesn’t surprise me that researchers are struggling with the problem of how to harness the hours of effort spent in the virtual world (as an escape from the real world) into actually affecting the real world in a positive way.  The ten thousand hours each gamer spent becoming an expert in the virtual world is largely irrelevant in the real world.  Bridging the two is not going to be accomplished easily.  The tactic that the researchers are pursuing is to introduce real world problems into online gaming situations.  If the virtual world merely introduces the problems of the real world and demands their urgent solution, another mass exodus into other imaginary realms will follow, I feel sure.

The best way to spend ten thousand hours is to get good at something real.  My vote goes to art.  I’d vote for science and engineering (and hundreds of other disciplines too), but they have become so narrowly-focused and so caught up in arbitrary assumptions about money, business and our human relationship to work and authority, that they have lost their humanity.  At least art still maintains that broader humanistic view, in the main.

Of course, there is a third way.  If the games we play online actually produced software code, CAD documents of designs, circuit diagrams, digital artefacts and other design outputs as native deliverables, then creating by playing would be a very good thing.  In the best design and development organisations, the act of designing already feels like play, but it’s in the real world.  Producing real, creative artefacts as a consequence of playing in a virtual world would be a reasonably good outcome.  Ten thousand hours spent playing with some software that made you an expert at computer aided manufacture, solved a difficult problem, or resulted in an educational film or a customised product design might not be such a terrible thing, as long as the results were real.

How will you spend your ten thousand hours?  What kind of a virtuoso do you want to be?

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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