Thursday, January 06, 2011

Save the world with games

Jane McGonigal claims that online games will save the world:

Much as I love games, and even in the face of my own optimism about how games can lead to positive cultural changes, I have a hard time believing that we can "fix" real life by creating and playing games.

McGonigal is a designer, and so she believes strongly, I suspect, in the power of design. In this talk it comes out as if she believes the world can be re-designed, mainly by using game design features. I think that is scary. Game worlds are tyrannical states, if we ever apply the ruthless simplifications used to create game worlds on society, USSR or Nazi-Germany will be puppy play in comparison. Think 1982, which describes a throughly designed world.

Let me state it clearly, in case my love of games, gamers and gaming makes people think I am ready to swap worlds: No, I don't think living in a game world all the time would be a good thing. I think it would be horribly oppressive, with too few options, too many detailed rules and too strong surveillance and control to be satisfying as anything other than a way to once in a while focus on something simple and relatively easy compared to reality.

Later on she says something which is positively wrong. About four minutes into the talk she claims that when we face failure in real life, we get depressed and become cynical. Then she claims we never have those feelings when playing games. But we do, we do, all the time! And then we do what's so great about gaming: We stop playing! When the game starts to feel like a chore because we just can't beat it, we leave it. She even claims there's no unemployment in World of Warcraft. Tell that to the bored guildies whining about how bored they are and why won't anybody come and play!

The problem with real life isn't that it's not designed like a game. It's that we can't turn it off and go somewhere else when we are unhappy. Games are greate because they are GAMES, they are the place we go to when we need a break from the rest. This means the real world can't be broken. The real world can be horrible, polluted, destroyed, war-ridden, but it is the measuring stick for everything. We only have one planet, and this is not a beta-test. What can be broken are our carefully designed systems. They are what brought the world into the state it's in, for good or bad. Designers, McGonigal, designers who thought they could see how it all connects and then make it better by introducing yet another patch to the system.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't learn from games. Games are after all built on pretty solid knowledge and research into how people act and interact, how we learn, what motivates us and how we pay attention. This is then skillfully adapted to digital environments. But the games are just a new way of putting already existing knowledge to good use.

Take for instant the scholar who has been almost universally adapted by game scholars in the European and American cultures: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His very interesting thoughts and research, which is being oh-so-frequently used to explain why people like games and why games are good, was not really made to explain games. It was made to explain real life, particularly the lives of people who were happy and satisfied with their work and their lives. So: The teories on why games are good were not born within games, but came from what McGonigal calls "real life." What is born in games is nothing which does not exist outside of games. Ingame, we have just removed a lot of the stuff we don't want to relate to from the world outside the arena. Games are real, just limited.

Then McGonigal goes on the show us that the amount of time spent playing World of Warcraft equals the amount of time it took for homo sapiens to evolve, and she uses this as a proof that playing makes us evolve as a species, into something more able to collaborate. Eeeehhhh, well, if you're going to measure evolution that way: How many individuals spent their time evolving during those 5 million years? Let's assume we're talking about perhaps a regular population of one million species (I have no idea how many human ancestors were alive on earth at the same time in this period, perhaps much more, pwerhaps much less). If so, we're talking about 5 million million years of evolution. We really need to play a bit more to get there. And it doesn't really help to say "this is true, I really believe it" after that statement about evolution either. Belief isn't proof, even when preaching to somebody who really wants to believe. I just can't. I keep getting these nasty flashes of cynicism that not even my ardent gaming has cured.

Jane McGonigal's TED talk is funny and interesting, and she's charismatic, good looking and smart. I am however severely disappointed with her lack of a historical perspective both on the research she is trying to apply to her talk and on leisure activities. The thing is: Society has been using games for teaching cooperation, team-work, strategic thinking, ethics, mastery and physical and intellectual development, plus a lot of other virtues depending on the game and the values of the society the games are being played in, since the very beginning. This is the argument for football as well as chess.

And around 11 minutes in came one of my big laughs, and it was shared by the audience. She quotes Edward Castronova in Excodus to the virtual world, and then manages to say: "And he's an economist, and he's rational." Cue audience cracking up. I'll not go ALL the way into that comment, but think about how today's economy is doing, and then consider how rational economists are.

Anyway: Go enjoy McGonigal's talk, but don't leave your skepticism at home. It's by being skeptic, cynical, rational and a bit disrespectful of the motives of people with convictions so strong that they tend towards preaching that we can find the interesting ideas in all the chaos being pitched to us every day.


Klepsacovic said...

I was going to argue that there's no voluntary unemployment, since there's always work to be found in a raid or instance, but the same could be said for the real world. There's always work to do, but problems finding it.

Her time comparisons certainly make no sense at all. Then there's the question of what we're really so great at. So often I'd not say it's anything creative or independent, but instead following very precisely defined tasks in endless repetition.

I do think gaming isn't given enough credit as a source of learning and ideas, but she's a bit too optimistic.

Jesper Bylund said...

If my tone is somewhat negative I appologize in advance. But I'm always critical and need to point out a few flaws in your arguments.

I also feel I need to say that I don't like, nor agree with McGonigal's view of Gamification.

To the point: she isn't saying that we should apply games to everyday life. But game development techniques, such as game design. Just like all other TED talks she doesn't go into detail but this is clearly hinted at. Also one of the first lines of explanation you'll see when you google her work.

She doesn't say anything about recreating the world as a game world. She argues that the world can be redesigned. Again the argument is for game design techniques. No idea where you got this wild tangent from.

It's 1984, not 82. And on that point a game world doesn't need to be tyrannical in structure. (See The Sims, best selling game of all time) They do however mimic restrictions, in games they are rules, in the real world they are physical reality.

Csikszentmihalyi's research is indeed meant to explain psychological observations. But that research has been used as a basis to induce flow in game players. ( see ThatGamesCompany) Basically what McGonigle says we should do to all aspects of life.

To learn more about Gamification you can read Jesper Juul's excellent blog The Ludologist:
or my own aggregate blog:

Torill said...

Enjoy the flaws :) By being this through, you managed to get your blog linked from my blog. I normally don't allow website promotion in comments, but you worked for it.

As for the rest - thanks for pointing out the error in the title.

Jesper Bylund said...

Eeh... Sorry about the self-promotion. Didn't intend for that at all. Was just fired up.