Jane McGonigal’s TED talk: some blindspots in an argument about how game play could save the world

My friend Jason posted video game designer and Institute for the Future researcher Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on my Facebook page.

Below is our conversation:
So I watched this video. I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of having half the population of the world working every week on wandering through virtual worlds as a kind of parallel to having colonists go off in search of a new land to live on…. (Surplus labor to the max! At least it might be more entertaining for those involved than much of the current service and IT economies.) It’s a very compelling metaphor.

But while the people of Lydia were searching for a real, material land–and therefore the evidence that they’d found a “solution” to the problem of insufficient resources to feed the population was uncontestable, the kinds of solutions people might find by playing games are not so clear cut. How do we know if the games people are playing in order to “solve problems” are good ones? Should we place so much faith in designers like McGonigal to model all the necessary complexities of the problems at hand? Also, how do her games “solve” problems?

It seems like what they do, at least now, is teach people new behaviors in order to get them to adapt to or at least understand new situations–like the end of oil. While some games allow the possibility of emergent behaviors–such as people creating guilds in WoW and other social innovations within the virtual world that were not actually intended by the designers–others merely allow users to choose between a range of options. In such games, I would think that the outcome would be more instructional than innovative: you know, if you do X then Y, etc, rather than getting people to think really creatively, outside the rules of formal game play. I’m not really sure how to encourage those kinds of emergent (innovative) behaviors other than allowing users to either form social networks, or to allow them to tinker with the design of the game itself.

Jason brought up a good point: “Except there’s nothing new to learn because risk is managed by other people and so is every potential “discovery”. All this shows is that people with no ambition get their rocks off on cheap thrills.”

I replied: By people with no ambition are you talking about the gamers? That’s an interesting proposal because McGonigal says that actually gamers are super-ambitious, the problem is just that “real life” doesn’t give them enough opportunities to exercise their ambition. My critique of this would be that, yeah, in life you have to have dreams and be self motivated, you have to discipline yourself and not rely on clear constant positive and negative feedback (like leveling up and “dying” in videogames) because, hell, that’s the way the world works, cosmically etc. To try to construct the world as otherwise is to create a (utopian? dystopian) fantasy around what are perhaps the most base aspects of human psychology: our basic reward system. Or as you put it, cheap thrills.

I’ve also been thinking: dear Ms. McGonigal, what if many of the world’s problems are actually created by the fact that so many of us are spending so much time on computers–using energy, creating markets for rare metals that must be mined and potentially conflicts over those mines, being ignorant of the toxic byproducts of production and slave factories in China, creating e-waste when when want upgrades, but also sitting on our asses and getting repetitive stress injury, diabetes and obesity and whatever else might comes from sitting in front of a glowing box all day? What if encouraging 21 billion hours of gaming per week will actually cause our downfall? The people of Lydia played dice and games that allowed them NOT to use resources: in the virtual world, we might deny our bodies, but we’re still sucking on the planet through our cyborg appendages ;) But of course, I doubt she would ever design a game that would explore that scenario as a problem.

Jason: “Can someone be considered “super ambitious” when their only ambition is for self-gratification, for known destinations(literal and metaphorical) and for goals that are designed to be achievable?

The more I examine it, the more it sounds like… a drug addict grappling with addiction than ambition.”

Me: “It’s appropriate you mention that because when I took neurochemistry in college the professor told us that one of the few things that can cause neurochemical responses as addictive as cocaine is video games.”

In short, I think Ms. McGonigal, like many of her colleagues at the supposed nonprofit research Institute for the Future, is a bit more interested in figuring out how to promote widespread adoption technologies they love (and, I wonder, have more than an emotional investment in?) than in thinking critically about the complex role that technology itself plays in constructing our societies. When we see technologies primarily in terms of the solutions they seem to promise rather than the also considering the role that they may play in producing the problems we face, we lose sight of the complexity of the world. This was one of the biggest insights in the second wave of cybernetics: we can’t simply make and observe models of the world in order to understand it, because the observer herself is also always part of the system, and the act of observing changes the world. If half of us play video games for the living, we’re going to have to adjust our model of the world in those games to take that fact into account, even if it means revealing that we’ve actually made our problems worse. At the very least, if our models are accurate in this way, we might learn something more valuable than how to attain an entirely virtual epic win.

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