Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Can playing games make the world a better place?

Posted 27 Sep 2012 / 1

One of the very talented students I work with in the Envirolutions club, Rhett Bradbury, pointed me towards the work of Jane McGonigal, a game designer and evangelist for the idea that games can save the world. For Rhett, her work is important to his Master’s thesis in graphic design, as he is considering how to move beyond the usual goal of his field (selling stuff) to more lofty goals (empowering people, making our democracy function better). For me, McGonigal’s work is salient because it addresses indirectly the role of play in human health, both as individuals and within our various scales of social grouping. If play is important for maintaining our personal and social health, that tells us something about the role of play in our evolution.

McGonigal has two talks on TED, which are what I am basing this post on. I have not read her book, Reality is Broken, nor have I had time to check out any of the game projects she has been involved in creating, so I am only working with these two talks. The first talk was given in 2010:

TED TalksJane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world

Watching this video, one thing becomes clear: McGonigal is not afraid to be bold and extremely optimistic about her ideas. This is seemingly the prerequisite for a TED talk — your ideas need to be unconventional and unequivocal — but does her claim that it is “as easy to save the real world” as it is to save virtual worlds hold up?

McGonigal’s big idea is that we can leverage the power and allure of games to make the world a better place. She points out that currently humans play various forms of computer games for an astounding three billion hours per week. With seven billion people on the earth, that is nearly half an hour per week per person. That may not seem like much, but given how few people have access to the privileges that are still the prerequisite for most gaming (spare time beyond subsistence work, access to electricity, access to technology), this suggests that some people are spending enough time playing games to make up for the rest of the population that cannot or will not spend time on these games. I know someone out there must be counterbalancing the zero hours I spend on computer games every week. So while the amount of time being spent on gaming is not evenly distributed throughout the population, it is substantial. Is this time a waste, and can it be better leveraged for a better world?

The question of whether or not play is wasteful is central to the study of play. The answer has to be “yes” in some contexts, because the fundamental definition of play is that it is not immediately or directly functional. It may be ‘fun’ to accomplish some task, but if that task is ‘work’ — if it directly produces a benefit — it cannot be considered play (it is a common misconception that anything experienced as ‘fun’ should be considered play). So if play only produces indirect benefits, those benefits will only be worth the cost of play under certain conditions. Some of these conditions are obvious: if I spend my time playing instead of going out to do the work that is required to feed, cloth, and house myself and any dependents I might support, play is a maladaptive behavioral response to the conditions in which I live. This is why we say that play must occur in a “relaxed field” (Burghardt 2005), where all basic needs have been met and there are no imminent dangers. The concept of the “relaxed field” is important to understanding who can spend time playing games: people who find meeting their basic needs arduous or impossible are not predicted to spend much time in play. This is why the archetypal game player lives in the so-called ‘developed world’, where all but the most impoverished find that they have extra time and resources to spend playing. Most biologists who study play agree that it is the product of surplus: only organisms that have extra time, food, and safety can evolve play behaviors. Interestingly, a common feature of human parenting is the provision of a “relaxed field” for our children: up to a point, parents meet all of their childrens’ needs, allowing human childhood to be an exceptionally playful period. In fact, one can see the dynamics of the “relaxed field” by looking at the economics of childhood development: those who are most privileged in our society can extend the play of childhood well beyond adolescence, whereas a defining feature of poverty is that its stresses reduce the time period during which children can play instead of working.

McGonigal’s take on the idea of the “relaxed field” — which she does not explicitly mention — is interesting. Her paradigmatic game was played by the ancient Lydians, who spent every other day playing games in order to distract themselves from the fact that famine had reduced their supply of food. On game days no one ate, but the games helped distract them from their hunger. Attributed to Herotodus, the story may be apocryphal (although McGonigal points to evidence that corroborates the story), but whether or not it is true is not really important. As described in the story, were the Lydians in the “relaxed field”? Well, by basic standards they apparently were, because they survived the famine. Hunger may have been unpleasant, but it was not predominantly deadly. For McGonigal, the parable of the Lydians is instructive because in the face of a less-than-ideal world, games were used as an escape from the harsh realities of life. This is how she conceives of most gaming as practiced today: as an escape from the harsh realities of the ‘real world’. In this diagnosis she is not different from those who criticize games as a waste of time, although she is far more sympathetic to game players. We have created a world that meets and exceeds our material needs, but leaves us with anxieties that push us into the realm of play to escape.

Computer games are certainly not the only form of play designed to allow us to escape the social isolation and stress of the developed world we have created. I may not play computer games, and I might even be proud and snarky about that, but I certainly cannot claim that I never engage in play activities that provide an escape. If I cannot go to the skatepark, ride my mountain bike, or spend a few hours in the climbing gym each week, I begin to feel crazy. Why do I feel crazy? Because the world I live in is so stressful and demanding, and uncertainty and pressure create anxiety. That I salve this anxiety with a different form of play than others is not necessarily all that significant. What is significant is that these forms of play provide no clear immediate benefit: they cost me time I could have spent writing another blog post or publishing another scientific paper, and all they do at the time is make me feel better. So why do I salve my anxieties with play? Well, I would argue that the games I play improve my mental and physical health (notice their common theme of physical exertion), and basically keep me from becoming so overcome by anxiety and stress that I cannot be productive when I am working. So the salve may have value so long as ‘play as a salve’ is done in moderation.

McGonigal identifies the fact that we play solely for escape as a major problem. She would like to see us turn play into a more productive exercise by using play to tackle both personal and social problems. In suggesting that we take this turn, she is in some ways bringing the human animal back towards the kinds of play displayed by other animals. From what play research suggests, it appears that animals use play to better themselves and the world they inhabit rather than simply to escape. In particular, juvenile animals engage in play in order to learn about the physical and social world they inhabit, developing skills through the practice of play that would not be possible to ‘hard wire’ genetically (Spinka et al. 2001). If we are spending a lot of time playing, we should be producing outcomes that provide the same later benefits realized by animals: simply using play to escape is perhaps not wasteful, but under-utilizes the rich potential of play.

McGonigal does use the word “evolution” in this talk, but she uses it in a very sloppy manner. Like a lot of other people, she suggests that we are as a species evolving, but her use of the word just suggests poorly-specified change. It is easy for me to nitpick as an evolutionary biologist about how the term “evolution” is used, but that is not my goal: evolution has tremendous bearing on the problems that McGonigal wants to tackle, so it is worthwhile to take a moment to lay out the evolutionary environment in which games might be more productively harnessed for change. There are two forms of evolution that are relevant to human beings: biological and cultural. Most people have a basic understanding of our biological evolution, which results from millions of years in a variety of ancestral environments. Two features of our biological evolutionary heritage are important to consider in light of McGonigal’s “quest”. The first has to do with the speed at which biological evolution occurs: because humans are a long-lived species and natural selection can only change our overall ‘gene pool’ over successive generations, we evolve biologically very slowly. If we are ‘evolving’ significantly in this generation, it cannot be biological evolution that is producing that change (although if some horrible plague overcame our species, that might come close). The other aspect of our biological evolution to consider is that we come predisposed to certain characteristics because of our genetic heritage. One such predisposition is joy in play: we are an extremely playful species, and apparently play served our ancestors well in their environment because an enjoyment of some form of play seems to be a human universal. There is no such thing as ‘human nature’ writ specifically, but we have predispositions and particular potentials based on our biological heritage.

Another predisposition is to be extremely cultural. What does it mean to be a ‘cultural species’? Well, humans (more than any of the few other species that can be considered ‘cultural’) exchange immense amounts of information about how to behave. Some behaviors allow us to modify the environment around us, leading to the immense proliferation of not just ‘idea culture’ but also ‘material culture’. Computer games are an end product of this material culture, and an interesting one at that: we are so advanced in our ability to manipulate the material world that we have gained the ability to build virtual worlds that are external to our brains (which — via imagination — are the original vessel for our virtual simulations). Culture evolves. How and why culture evolves is controversial, but the fact that it evolves, and evolves at an incredible pace, is obvious. As the second form of human evolution, cultural evolution presents both promise and peril. While being able to manipulate our environment has allowed us to meet our basic needs with a facility greater than any other species, it has also created a dilemma. As culture increasingly defines our environment, it also has the potential to drift significantly from the environment in which our ancestors evolved. Our biology cannot keep up with this rapidly-evolving cultural environment, and so there is the potential that we can become ‘mismatched’ to our environment.

I would suggest that some of the problems that McGonigal identifies as pushing us to escape from reality are the result of such mismatches. In our very recent evolutionary past we never spent so many hours indoors, so many hours isolated from others, or so many hours doing high-stakes mentally-demanding activities. As McGonigal does a good job of portraying, we are frustrated by this relatively novel real world (that — ironically — we in fact created), so we escape into worlds that allow us to experience “epic wins” that we can no longer gain in the real world. Perhaps our ancestors experienced “epic win” moments in their real world that we somehow miss but might also be better off missing. It is likely that the slaughter of a competing tribe or the hunting down of a dangerous predatory cat would have been “epic win” moments for our ancestors. So going back to our early environment is not necessarily just impossible, it is also undesirable. What we need to create is a world in which “epic wins” that would have been both safe and satisfying to our ancestors — say the joy at a bountiful harvest — are recreated in our new cultural environment. We need to grasp the reins of our own cultural evolution to ensure that the world we create is hospitable to our biological selves.

McGonigal has some great ideas as to why games might allow us to tap into our playful potential to make a better cultural world. They are clearly and nicely elaborated in the video, so I won’t outline them here. What I do want to look at are her attempts to convert games from tools of escape into tools of transformation. In her talk she describes three games: World Without Oilthe Global Extinction Awareness Program, and Evoke. Each of these games attempts to exploit the major benefit of play: they allow individuals and social groups to use imagination, practice, and improvisation to better themselves. What does it mean to “better themselves”? Well, this depends on the game and its goals. It seems as though each of these games will allow players to change their cultural perspective on global challenges: this is personal transformation through play. But there is also an interesting potential social dimension to these games: because they are interactive and require large-scale solutions to social problems, they also could serve as an incubator for new cultural ideas. These ideas have the potential to change not just individuals, but the whole of society.

I really hope that these projects — several of which are no longer up and running — have been well-documented and mined for data. In order to support the idea that games can be transformative, McGonigal and her collaborators need to produce results that at least suggest this potential. Personally I am more convinced by the personal transformative potential of these games than I am hopeful that they will produce massively innovative social solutions. This opinion reflects my assumption that the world does not lack clear solutions to its problems, only the collective will to address these apply these solutions. Undoubtedly personal transformation of the right type could produce a shift in collective will. What should be clearly acknowledged is that McGonigal is attempting to affect cultural evolution at a massive scale, and I appreciate this aspiration. Only cultural shift on a massive scale will preserve the benefits of civilization which allowed us to enjoy so much play in the first place.

The more recent talk, from this year 2012, presents an interesting shift in McGonigal’s work:

TED TalksJane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life

As you can tell, this work is much more centered around personal transformation for its own sake (as opposed to for its impact on the larger society). Clearly this reflects in part a shift in McGonigal’s own life: dealing with the very challenging aftermath of a traumatic brain injury, she turned her game solutions towards personal health. This is a very smart talk: I found her connection between deathbed regrets and the under-realized potential of play to be really compelling, and her “Genie’s wish” approach to taking time out to play is a very powerful rationale for avoiding the temptation to be directly productive all of the time.

Whether the kind of transformations people can make via games like SuperBetter will translate into the kinds of larger cultural changes we require to save the world is questionable, but perhaps this is not the goal of this particular work. I cannot fault McGonigal for taking on both challenges separately.

McGonigal’s work intrigues me, bringing out both my optimistic and pessimistic sides. I think that she is onto something profoundly important by emphasizing the value of play in both the biological and cultural realms of our evolved nature. I agree that playful ‘game-like’ solutions to social problems have a lot of promise. I think that changing people’s ideas and identities through play is entirely possible. Perhaps where I depart from her optimism is in the form these games will take. I am very skeptical of the potential of virtual worlds (such as those produced by World of Warcraft, Second Life, and various Will Wright simulation games) to be converted into problem-solving exercises in the real world. I get the major assumptions that underly this optimistic hope to shift gamers over to solving ‘virtual real-world’ problems: 1) that solving problems in a gaming context does not feel like work; 2) that interactive games build social solidarity and allow for collaborative problem-solving; and 3) that millions of people are willing to spend billions of hours playing these games. But what I think McGonigal pays too little attention to is the very canned nature of virtual worlds. All of these games are appealing — as she points out — because they constantly dangle the player in front of a problem that is just a little bit harder to solve. They are designed with the player’s enjoyment in mind, and only those games that are enjoyable survive in the very competitive game market. The real problems of the real world are not enjoyable, and they do not present themselves in progressively-more-challenging increments: they are here, and they are at the level of difficulty dictated by our cultural evolution, not some game designer.

Change our way of thinking through playing games? That I will buy.

Transform perspectives to potentially change our collective will? Maybe, although there are many other forms of play pushing in the opposite direction (will playing against climate change really ever be more appealing than playing agains ogres?).

Solve the world’s problems by producing new ideas within a virtual world? That might be a bit too optimistic.

A Major Post, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Development, Emotion, Evolutionary Psychology, Happiness, Health & Medicine, Human Evolution, Mismatch theory, Phenotypic Plasticity, Play, Psychological Adaptation, Psychology, Radio & Podcasts, Social Networks, Subsistence, Web

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