Sunday, 7 July 2013

Some musings on gaming

I am guilty at having sneered contemptuously at the idea of someone doing post-graduate study in computer games. "Your PhD is in World of Warcraft? Congratulations ..." However, having read this book and considered the sheer size of the gaming world as a human endeavour, I can see the case for doing so. Anything that engages 97% of young people and that occupies literally billions of hours of voluntary human activity each week is worth examining.

I found McGonigal's explanation of the appeal of gaming to be persuasive; gaming meets genuine human needs in a way that reality often fails to do. Her response is to argue that we ought to bring aspects of gaming from the virtual world into the 'real world'. I am not sure that I can argue against doing so. From an educator's point of view, it seems irrefutable that games engage people in a way that education does not. 

To take one example, McGonigal suggests that games spend about 80% of their time failing.  Roughly four times out of five, they don't complete the mission, run out of time, don't solve the puzzle, lose the fight, fail to improve their score, crash and burn, or die. Yet they persist. In fact, once we master a game, it ceases to be enjoyable. Fun morphs into boredom, once we pass the critical point of being reliably successful (p.68). Consider how this contrasts to education. If a student was 'failing' 80% of the time, would they be likely to persevere? Why the difference between game and school? It is a powerful and important question: what can school learn from games?

The issue that has nagged at me through reading this book, particularly the foundational work of the early chapters, is that gaming is inherently artificial. I accept that it can have benefits such as developing resilience, increasingly social connectedness, and providing an experience of purpose and mission. However, it provides these benefits (in some sense) artificially. The genuine human needs that lie underneath the appeal of gaming ought to be met in real life; gaming appears to be a shortcut or alternative route, substituting for reality. As such, it is escapist. I don't think escapism is inherently a bad thing, but I am nervous about accepting it uncritically.

Reflecting from a Christian point of view, it seems to me that the title of the book is correct - Reality is broken - but the argument of the book is too ambitious; games cannot solve the problems that McGonigal identifies. We all recognise that life is inherently frustrating, it is less than it ought be and our genuine needs, arising from our created nature, are often not met. However, it is not clear to me that the answer is to seek out another world or reality where these frustrations are less prominent.

To be fair, McGonigal does not advocate escapism. She wants games to transform the real world. The bulk of the book is a call to action to mobilise the power of games and gamers to be powerfully transformative in reality. I think  she has too high a hope. Games could help to make reality better and they could help to meet some human needs. However, it seems to me that games are more likely to be a refuge from reality than the saviour of it. In the end, games as the hope for humanity are just another form of Babel and that is a game that doesn't end well.

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