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What flying and gaming have in common—and what they don’t

what-makes-video-games-enjoyableIf you are mentoring potential pilots, or considering doing so, you might want to think about the concept of making aviation “sticky”. The gaming industry has figured out how to keep people engaged for long periods of time, getting personal satisfaction and fun from games.

As a pilot you know that flying is deeply rewarding and just plain fun.  I believe the reason that we enjoy flying so much is that we are hardwired to enjoy any activity that makes us become more adept at using our capabilities.  And flying uses nearly every aptitude we have—physical coordination, 3-dimensional problem solving, emotional control—you name it.

While flying develops skills that allow us to do very special things that can only be done with a combination of an aircraft and a pilot, you might be surprised to learn flying has a few things in common with computer gaming.  Gamers seek engagement, goals, and “significance” in computer gaming.  If you mentor folks interested in flying, you may want to think about the powerful draw of computer gaming and how flying appeals to the same needs.

The U.S. has 170 million gamers, many of whom spend from 20-40 hours a week playing games.  What’s going on here?  How can these folks get so deeply involved?  As it turns out, the fun from both gaming and flying revolves around three important concepts:  failure, flow, and fiero.

Failure is an important part of keeping you in the game.  One of the things that makes gaming so capturing is that it keeps you in the game by providing very difficult, but eventually achievable, goals.  It is like going to a carnival and trying to throw a basketball through a hoop.  The trick is that in the carnival the hoop is just enough smaller than normal that the basketball bounces out nearly every time.  If on the first try you could get the ball in the hoop, the game would be over.  You’d go on to another game.

As a mentor you will want to explain that a very important part of learning to fly is coming to terms with the concept of failure and the satisfaction of overcoming it.  Many people quit flying soon after starting because they feel like failures. Often, this is because the bar is set too high. Games can be tweaked so that you get just the right amount of failure mixed with success to keep games engaging. This is something we need to consider when teaching folks to fly. Every lesson needs successes to match failures. Focusing a flight lesson solely on difficult and failure-prone tasks can lead to feelings of frustration and a loss of confidence that the tasks will ever be mastered.  I think it is important to explain that, yes, flying is difficult, but that is one of the reasons it is so much fun.  It makes you grow in your capabilities.

Flow describes the deep engagement that gaming can provide.  Gamers lose all track of time, and awareness of anything else.  This state of absolute absorption and concentration tends to distract you from all the problems of the rest of your life as you “flow” with the game.

Well, pilots universally report that when they’re flying is the one time all of the other problems in life go away.  In order to fly well, flying requires the same total concentration that leads to flow.

Finally, fiero is the satisfying, exhilarating feeling we get after we triumph over a major challenge.  Everyone who has soloed has experienced fiero. You have it when you simply can’t help but pump your fist in the air and let out a big Woohoo!

If as mentors we understand what keeps folks “in the game”, and how flying satisfies those needs, we have tools and a vocabulary that can help us attract people to aviation and keep them flying.

While flying and gaming might appeal to similar needs, there is a huge difference.  Gaming is an escape from the reality of life, but flying is a real and genuine part of life with real world benefits, not just to pilots but to others as well.  You can’t find a better passion for someone to have.


  1. Scott J. Smith

    There are many more comparisons you could make, and gamers who focus on aviation-related simulations and games are an ideal audience for flight training institutions and solution providers. Understanding what drives gamers helps understand how to market to those who obviously have an aviation interest. I liked reading about taking that understanding and applying the psychology to people who might consider “giving up” during setbacks when training.

  2. John GUERIN

    Terrific analysis given that there are so many gamers. Think of the lines at the Stores on Black Friday for games. In the meantime. We have too few young people filling a log book. There is one big difference. Cost. For less than $500 a person can get the latest and greatest game. That’s affordable to even lower income folks. Flying has become very expensive to learn, (even with simulators) and very expensive to stay current. It’s now a hobby for the upper middle class. And it’s more regulated than ever. And last but not least. We must always recall what Dick Collins wrote many years ago. We should ever forget that when we fly, we are doing something at a lethal height and a lethal altitude.

  3. Christopher F Kemp

    Great Article J & M.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I think a lot of us love the challenge of being in the game of flying. I think most pilots are controlled thrill seekers who need mental and emotional stimulation. We like the ups and downs of success and failures, the roller coaster ride of learning. I’ve talked to a lot of seasoned (old) GA pilots who still love learning about aviation, get a ‘kick’ out of boring holes in the sky, and will sit down for hours to share their aviator knowledge and wisdom.

    Love the ‘flow’! I’ve told many people, my escape is ‘up there.’ All my life concerns go away. Piloting requires living in the moment, and living in the moment relaxes and energizes your brain… just ask Eckhart Tolle ;).

    Thank you and KIng Schools for doing so much good for so long for General Aviation!


  4. Peegee

    Hello, I am airplane and helicopter pilot ; My last fly on Bell 47 twenty yrs ago . I pilot some others helicopters and R44 on FSX during many years : I made the pitch with CH throttle in vertical position on the left side of my chair ; Propedals ; joystick ; One year ago… the day of the end of the world… the weather was OK. I see a beautiful red R44 on the airport… The instructor said OK for 30 mn… I have alone alls commands on left side : The test was OK… I said I have not fly durind twenty years but the instructor will not see my logbook… He said “That is just imposssible”. I reply “Impossible is not french” of course because we are here and safety, after a very good fly. The end of the world was not coming.
    Excuse my bad american, because I speak it no often. In fact, when we fly on FSX in very good conditions, seriously, we are able to fly a real helicopter in good and safety conditions… but, of course, not alone on board… because we are serious.
    Many thanks to John & Martha King and to King Schools, the better for ever.
    “Peegee” Page Georges. (Also on light aircraft and OVNI sometimes…)

  5. Safdar Khwaja

    A huge difference regarding gaming is the lack of costly consequences upon failure. So a gamer would immediately try a hammer-head and high stress maneuvers, without sweating. There is no respect for the laws of physics, or your own health. Such inconsequential thrill seeking keeps them engaged, for endless attempts, as they increase their skills, at minimal hourly cost.

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