A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Four: Self-Service Motivation & Strategy

This is the fourth of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World.

Café World (CW) is a café-themed, goals-based computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood.
CW has three points systems running concurrently, each representing a different aspect of the game and influencing strategies for play. There are coins which you earn by selling your food for a profit. There are also points that reflect your experience as a Chef. New levels unlock new recipes. There are also buzz points. These indicate the popularity of your café and how many visitors you are getting. The appearance of you café has only minimum effect on your rating. As long as you have easy access to chairs and food on the tables, then it’s easy to maintain the maximum buzz points.

So, apart from taken a total random approach, basically there are three main strategies in CW. Either you cook dishes for profit (coins) or you cook for reputation (Chef points), you cook based on your tastes in the real world.. All dishes in CW have separate points and profit ratings. Now in the early stages it is a good strategy to focus on money. This allows players to buy more tables and chairs and buy the more expensive dishes that also yield higher profits. In later stages once you have enough money, to ascend the levels it best to select dishes that yield more points, but are not necessarily the best money spinners. With the third strategy, people cook the type of food they like. So people who don’t like cheese won’t cook virtual pizza. This decision robs them of access to the dishes that would help them ascend through the levels in the game. So either, these people have not grasped that different rules apply. After all, they should be cooking for their customers and not for themselves. Maybe they are playing the game in their way and are not bothered about succeeding, just having fun.

Playing a computer game requires a degree of focus, motivation, determination, the ability to manage time and the ability to take action. It also causes us to pause and reflect about our values in life. I don’t see myself as a competitive person, but clearly I am. I did get a certain amount of pleasure from ascending the ranks and passing veteran players whose achievements seemed unattainable when I first started playing. However, playing CW also affirmed my value of cooperation. It also helped to remind my strategic skills at a time when I had unfamiliar real-world tasks to complete. It was also enormous fun, except when there were software conflicts and the program kept crashing. However, as frustrating as this was, it caused me to experiment with different browsers. I learned that the Flash application on which CW is based can conflict with other software, especially if the Flash code is not well-written. Yes, it is only a game but the principle applies to real world obstacles and problem solving. All too often people give up on their goals when life’s obstacles get in the way. Sometimes we need to find a way around the obstacle and sometimes we need to be patient. Either way, giving up is not going to get us closer to the desired result. Being resourceful or even asking for help may indeed get us over hurdles.

Focusing on values is the cornerstone of motivation for achieving goals in the real-world. What is important to you in life? What values do you stand for? Are your goals linked to your values? In the first part of this series of posts in Just Being SociableI considered the importance of co-operation as a source of motivation in my life, and the quality that motivated me to continue playing CW. Other values dear to me include fairness, curiosity and the love of learning. All of these have an impact on my motivation.

Values and motivations are not always as simplistic as in CW. However spending time to work out what is really important will help pull you along when your goals get tough. It can also serve as a challenge. If you know what is really important to you in life, then what actions are you taking that directly support these values? It’s no point valuing ‘adventerousness’ if you never embark on an adventure!

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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Three: Non-Stick, Non-Stuck, Cognitive Flexibility

This is the third of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World. 

Café World (CW) is a café-themed, goals-based computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. Computer games can sometimes shine a light on the way we view the world, in particular cognitive flexibility – that is, our ability to flexibly in different situations.

Sometimes we can become fixed in our approach to goals as we adopt a one-approach fits all situations. One aspect of playing CW illustrated how personal values can affect game strategy. In CW there is a distinction between cooking dishes and serving dishes. Some tasks require players to serve a dish which means cooking for the prescribed duration and serve it. Other tasks require a player just to cook a dish, where it is enough to just get it on to the stove. It doesn’t have to be completed or served. So, the moment the beginning of the cooking duration is acknowledged, the player can click on the dish and throw it away. This process of cooking and throwing away can be repeated until the task is completed. However, some players refuse to adopt this strategy and insist on cooking all dishes to completion and serving them, because they “don’t like to waste food”. Now this value is one a whole-heartedly uphold in the real world. In fact, I actually refuse to go out for a meal with people again once I know they are ‘push it around the plate’ food wasters. However, in CW, this value and approach just doesn’t apply. I’m happy to “waste” virtual food. The dishes are nothing but pixels on a computer-screen. There is no waste.  No one goes hungry as a consequence of my actions, virtually or otherwise.

Sometimes it is vital in life not to drag values or approaches from one setting to another where they have no validity. Different situations sometimes require different approaches. This applies to goal-setting, problem solving and solution finding in the real world. It is important to take stock of the situation and context to develop an appropriate strategy and response to particular circumstances. As babies we have maximum cognitive flexibility and continue to adapt to new situations. As children we learn as we play. As we age, sometimes we forget the value of play in our lives and also fall back on a limited number of strategies. Anyway, this is my defense of spending time playing on a computer game when I could be doing more grown up stuff (and I’m sticking to it).

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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Two: Goal-Setting on the Table

This is the second of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World. For Part One of A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World, see: Just Being Sociable

Café World (CW) is a goals-based computer game, where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. Goals are often divided into sub-goals. On completion, players are rewarded with new recipes or kitchen appliances, such as coffee machines, slow cookers, pizza ovens and sushi bars.

The way goals are organized in CW provides insight into how we should structure our real world goals. CW has larger goals divided into several sub-goals, with each step building on the previous one. In both CW and the real world it helps build motivation to tackle larger goals. They seem less daunting and are encouraged to build on our successes. That’s where CW gets it right. Where CW gets it wrong is by overwhelming players with so many goals all requiring action. That’s when tempers become frayed and insults in the “neighbourhood” start to fly.  Of course, the demands of real life often divide our attention and our resources. We talk of “spreading ourselves too thinly” (to use a catering metaphor). However, for goal-setting in personal development, it is better not to take on too many things on one time. Progress builds motivation whereas feeling overwhelmed negatively impacts on motivation. Goals should be achievable and realistic. Sometimes in CW there is just too much going on and so people either have to select just a few goals to pursue or else give up playing.

Many of the CW goals are also time-bound. Having a target date is important to focus our attention and resources. It gives a sense of urgency and can add to the motivation. However, if the deadline is totally unrealistic, it causes negative stress and adversely affects performance. A little stress (eustress) is a good thing and boosts performance. Too much stress (distress) inhibits performance. CW often miscalculates the time players need to complete the team tasks. Inevitably this leads to panic as player frantically try to complete the game and shout at the people who are ‘just not pulling their weight”. So, having a realistic target date from the outset is important. Goals should stretch us, but not to breaking point.

So playing Café World can act as a goals tutorial. The secret is to actually apply these insights to real-life and take action. When it works well it follows the SMART acronym for goal -setting. I’ve added a couple of extra letters to make goals SMARTER:

  • Specific – you know exactly what it is you are aiming for, such as a turbo-powered stove or the right to cook a new recipe
  • Measurable – thea fixed number of steps and a fixed number of things to collect or cook
  • Achievable – the goals are possible within the realm of Café World.
  • Realistic – this is sometimes here CW gets it wrong. Do you realistically have enough friends and enough hours in the day to achieve these goals?
  • Time-bound – Again this is where CW gets it wrong. Sometimes the special tasks don’t allow enough time.
  • Enthusiastic – all goals in CW have a positive emphasis. They are about moving forward and achieving something, not moving away and avoiding something.
  • Reviewable (or Regularly Reviewed) – sometimes players give feedback on unachievable target dates and the game-makers adjust the dates. This is what exactly what we need to do: review and adjust rather than give up.

So, the challenge is to leave the safety of Café World and apply the principles to the less predictable real world, where they rewards are greater. . . and not pixellated. Start small, be SMARTER.

For more on goal-setting see:

To discuss your goal-setting and coaching needs contact Gary Wood on Facebook (Page)

A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part One: Just Being Sociable

Psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. After rejecting countless invitations from strangers (a.k.a. Facebook friends) to accept imaginary gifts or send culinary items, I relented and decided to see what all the fuss was about. It was the beginning on a year playing Café World (CW).  My primary motivation was just to have fun. Some of my real world friends accepted my invitations and it became another way of keeping in touch. However,  I also quickly learned that CW is a very socially oriented game. As a social psychologist this really appealed to me.

CW is a café-themed computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. In my “neighbourhood” I noticed that the one player points ahead of the rest, was also the most reliable in responding to requests.  In CW, even though it’s a competition, you succeed by co-operation. However, some people are slow to grasp this. There are also various challenges where players form teams to tackle time-bound catering goals.  Where there is a limited time to cook an insurmountable numbers of dishes, it isn’t possible to go it alone. It is these challenges that bring out the worst in people. There are some hilarious posts on Facebook profiles of bitter disputes that breakout over non-cooperation. Warnings and ultimatums are issued stating “If you don’t respond to my requests, I will no longer respond to yours”. People are accused of being “amateurs” and “not taking things seriously”. This minority, who take things far too seriously, complain, hassle and become quite aggressive with statements such as “How can we expect to succeed if you are not pulling your weight?”. They can become abusive. People gently point out that “it’s a game and none of us are getting paid for this”. For some, this does not seem to matter. They become so engrossed that they become the bullying celebrity chefs we so often see on television. This begs the question, if people behave like this playing a game, do they behave the same in the real world? What are they like as colleagues, team players and team leaders? Do we all play computer games by the same rules as we live our lives by? Did CW turn make these players a little too “enthusiastic” or just shine a spotlight on their behaviour?

Early on, I took the lead from the top player in our neighbourhood and I simply responded to all requests. I’m sure that some people hoped to prosper by taking without reciprocating, however I didn’t let their behaviour alter my strategy. I like the idea of succeeding by cooperation, so I just played my part and didn’t worry about the motivations of anyone else.

CW also appealed to my sense of fun and irony. Other non-players would scoff and tell me that I had too much time on my hands. I was told that I need to get a real life or run a real café. The implication was that my time should be put to better use. Part of me liked the fact that I was playing a “dumb game” and should know better. The gross assumption was that playing a computer game can tell us nothing about ourselves and other people. As I wrote at that start of this, psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. CW did not make me a more socially-oriented person, I was that before I started playing. I like the lesson that we can succeed in life by co-operation. Whether pixellated virtual reality of Café World or the “real world”, co-operation for me is not just a means to an end, it is an end point, a terminal value, in and of itself.

In the following parts I will consider how playing Café World can help us to reflect on goal-setting strategies, time-management, cognitive flexibility and transferable skills.

See also:

Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

Links: