Torah Musings: What Video Games Teach Us About Happiness: Developing a Good Eye, Part II


What Video Games Teach Us About Happiness: Developing a Good Eye, Part II

Sarah Pachter

Reflecting on the recent obsession with Fortnight and other violent video games—thank goodness the hype seems to be dying down—my husband and I reminisced on the good ’ole days. “What ever happened to simple games, like Mario, where the ultimate goal was to collect coins, or even Tetris, the shape-maneuvering game?”

Remember Tetris, that seemingly simple game where one must try to create an unbroken horizontal line while different shapes fall from the top of the screen? The only goal of the game is to create as many unbroken lines as possible. Perhaps this seems boring compared to Fortnight’s goal of mass destruction, but it’s surprisingly addictive. Believe it or not, a study at Harvard medical school’s department of psychiatry actually paid subjects to play Tetris for multiple hours a day, over several consecutive days. The aftermath of this amount of gaming resulted in participants dreaming about Tetris and perceiving their real-world environment as one big Tetris opportunity, and these consequences lasted for days.

For example, one Tetris addict told the Philadelphia City Paper, “Walking through the aisles at the local Acme, trying to decide between Honey Nut or the new frosted Cheerios, I noticed how perfectly one set of cereal boxes would fit in with the gap on the row below it.”[1]

Others expressed a similar experience when seeing a brick building. No, these gamers are not going crazy. What happened to them is a physical process that gets triggered in the brain when playing a game for repeated hours. As Shawn Achor, Harvard professor, writes, “The cognitive pattern caused them to involuntarily see Tetris shapes wherever they looked…it actually changes wiring in the brain.”

Now, imagine what happens after playing Fortnight.

This isn’t just an anti-video game article, because this research doesn’t just affect gamers. Achor describes, “This phenomenon explains how our brain can get stuck into patterns of viewing the world, some more beneficial than others. In other words, this is a metaphor for how our brains dictate the world around us.”[2]

The brain works like a filter for information, and it only has the capacity to focus on a certain amount of input at once. About 90% of what we feed our brain from external stimulus gets put into “spam.” Just like we don’t see what’s in the spam box attached to our email account, if it’s not pertinent, not only do we not remember it, but we don’t even “see” or experience it.

A famous psychological study asked its participants to watch a basketball-passing game on video. The participants were asked to determine how many times the white shirt-wearing team passed the ball. Half a minute into the video, a man dressed in a gorilla costume strolls clearly across the screen for a total of five seconds. After the video finished, the participants were asked questions such as, “Did you notice anything out of the ordinary in the video, like maybe a gorilla?”

Almost half (46%) did not see the gorilla at all! Furthermore, they adamantly requested to see the video again, disbelieving that it could have been there. After watching the video a second time, they were shocked at how oblivious they had been.[3]

This experience is called inattentional blindness, or selective perception. It also explains why when you purchase a new car, you suddenly see that model everywhere. What we focus on is what we see—perception is reality.

In essence, whatever our mind doesn’t use gets immediately filtered. If we don’t have use for negative perceptions, those perceptions will get thrown out. The more we seek to see good, the more we will automatically see good.

The more we play Tetris, the more we see Tetris in the world around us. The more we “play” gratitude, the more we see joy as a byproduct, while automatically filtering out negativity because our brain realizes, “It’s of no use to us.” The same goes for anything we spend our energy on.

Our goal should be to create a positive “Tetris effect.” Rather than scanning the world for bad Tetris blocks or disadvantages, we can actually train our brain to look around us for opportunities. This newfound positive outlook can enable us to grow.

Through her book, The Committed Marriage, Rebbetzin Jungreis shares that developing a good eye is the most important trait for a healthy marriage. Of course, she is not referring to 20/20 vision, but rather seeing the positive in one’s spouse.

In the same way, Rabbi Yochanan (in Pirkei Avos) pondered the timeless question, What are the most important traits for a human to develop that will help him leave this world loved and having made an impression? He gathered five of his most trusted students and asked them what trait they considered to be most important for a human to develop.

Rav Eleazar, the first of his first followers, responded that the most essential trait was developing a good eye. This requires constantly seeking out the good in others.[4]

Acknowledging gratitude and reviewing positive aspects in our day is one way to build and develop a good eye. Gratitude journals can help prune our minds to be more positive. Such journals take many forms, but one way to incorporate the concept is by asking ourselves and family members to identify three positive experiences from each day. Doing this not only inspires a warmer atmosphere at the dinner table, during the bedtime routine, or throughout the car ride home, but it forces our brains to preemptively search our days for the positive, while at the same time filtering out smaller, unimportant annoyances (such as the gorilla walking across the screen).

Using the science behind video games and selective perception, we can become master thinkers of positivity. When we practice seeking out the positive in our lives and actively expressing gratitude with those closest to us, we will become skilled at weeding out negativity. In this way, when a negative thought pops up, our minds will swiftly prune it, and move on to more positive thinking. Through this we can achieve happier, and therefore more successful, lives.


[1] Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage, pg. 88

[2] Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage, pg. 90-91


[4] Esther Jungreis, The Committed Marriage, pg. 22