Saturday, September 10, 2011

Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken

This is going to be another post that is about baseball without being about baseball- it's a book review about a book that doesn't mention baseball once. "Reality is Broken" is an attempt to pitch games as The Future. Jane McGonigal believes that games have immense potential for changing the world, and that writing off games and gamers as time wasters is no longer possible as generations are raised playing games. I have no idea how she feels about baseball, but I know how I feel about baseball, and I know how little I know about any other games. McGonigal is not referring to baseball players or baseball fans, or even football, basketball or chess players or fans. She's referring to players of games like Glitch and other (mostly online) MMOs.

But I'm going to start with baseball because I can. And because as the season winds down, it's also winding up. I mean, the A's are out of it, sure, but my backup team, the Phils are playing better all the time and breaking records daily. The intensity picks up as we get closer to the post-season, and while I'm preparing for hibernation, it's hard not to get excited when each game starts. I coordinate my day to listen to both the A's and Phillies games if possible, and I've written about this baseball addiction before. I posted a video of the A's playing their typical shoddy-ass style baseball as evidence of how devoted/addicted I am. McGonigal has a name for this self-torture that comes along with an addiction to games, and she's a fan of it. If I were forced to watch that video as work, or worked and saw something equivalent to that video, it would be "negative stress." But because it's a game, and because I'm choosing to participate (as a fan), it's positive stress, or eustress. When we're in this state, she writes, "we're confident and optimistic... this optimistic invigoration is way more mood-boosting than relaxing." McGonigal is really referring to gamers, not game-watchers (fans) like me, but there is something about the intimate experience of listening to a season every single day that suits the definition.

The comparison goes a step further. George Will's "Men at Work" opens with a quote from Warren Spahn, one of the best lefties of all time: "Baseball is a game of failure. Even the best batters fail about 65 percent of the time." Calling it an outside chance that the A's will finish winning half of their games this year is a stretch. The fact that the Phillies have won almost twice as many games as they have lost is phenomenal. This is not unique to baseball. If games aren't hard, they aren't rewarding: they don't provide the eustress. Gamers, according to McGonigal, spend 80 percent of the time failing. This obviously doesn't stop them from doing what they're doing (she quotes immense amounts of time worldwide spent gaming), and a recent study found that according to psychophysiological measurements, gamers had "positive emotion peaks" when they made a mistake. What happened, the researchers found, was that the players were failing "spectacularly, and entertainingly." I can relate to this as a baseball fan: when my team screws up, although I express outrage, indignation, disbelief and ironic belief, there is a sort of surge of adrenaline or excitement that makes the game more fun and interesting. I don't think that the players feel this way, though.

And here is where games part from sports, and from being a sports fan. When the gamers made mistakes in the study, and had fun, it was something about "the combination of positive feeling and a stronger sense of agency [that] made the players eager to try again." I have no agency when I watch or listen to a baseball game. The players have a sense of agency when they go to the plate and strike out or hit into a double play, and I'm sure they want to try again. But I'm not sure they find it fun or interesting to fail. Frustrating, embarrassing, etc. While this part of McGonigal's argument applies: "The more we fail, the more eager we are to do better;" the next part is unique to gaming: "The right kind of failure feedback is a reward. It makes us more engaged and more optimistic about our odds of success."

So I'm going to leave baseball behind now, and talk about the book, and how McGonigal believes that gaming is the future of social change. (This is either very good news for you, or very bad news for you, depending on whether you loved or hated the previous discussion of baseball.) First, McGonigal defines games as having the following four traits, and what these traits lead to that is missing in (first world) life:

1. A goal, which leads to a sense of purpose for players.
2. Rules which unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking through placing limitations on the way to achieve the goal.
3. A feedback system that provides motivation to keep playing, as well as promise that the goal is achievable.
4. Voluntary participation, which establishes common ground, and makes the hard work safe and pleasurable.

If we go back to baseball for just a second, we see that it fits well into this definition of a game, and can see how the definition works to make baseball so fun (and awful, and addicting, and such a relief from the "real world.")

After defining games, McGonigal asks readers to do their best to withhold judgement on games and gamers. She knows that even gamers judge themselves for "wasting time" playing MMOs online in attempts to achieve virtual goals, or instead of doing other things. I was able to suspend disbelief with this part of her argument, mostly. But I had a harder time when she moved into a discussion about "positive psychology" which is crucial to understanding why we should accept games and gaming as a reasonable use of time and potential world-changers. According to McGonigal, positive psychologists believe that "we are the one and only source of our own happiness:"
When we set out to make our own happiness, we're focused on activity that generates intrinsic rewards- the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us. We're not looking for praise or payouts. The very act of what we're doing, the enjoyment of being fully engaged, is enough.
And games like MMOs give us this kind of fulfillment, whether we're succeeding at them or failing and falling off cliffs. Good games provide enough feedback and enough room for creativity that we feel successful. "Good games," she writes, "are productive. They're producing a higher quality of life."

If this sounds hokey to you, you're not alone. Millions and millions of people are spending millions and millions of hours not to decompress, not to avoid the "real" world, not because they like shooting things or because their parents don't want to educate them (I'm not saying any of these things are "the" reason), but because they've found the way to happiness: intrinsic self-reward. McGonigal says she expects disbelief- positive psychology is new, gaming is new, who's going to believe this? And maybe she's right, maybe I'm being a skeptic. She certainly convinced me with some of her examples (coming soon). On the other hand, I feel better when I'm reading than when I'm on the computer, and I feel much better when I'm outside. Her response to this would be that the way to get people outside would be to create a game. My response would be "why do we need a game to get outside? I should just GO outside! Back in my day..." Her response to this would be "If games make people happy and get people outside, why not use them?" This is hard to argue.

Some of McGonigal's examples of "good games" are really excellent. A few years ago McGonigal fell sick after a concussion. She just could not get well, which is not uncommon with victims of concussions. After a few months of not improving, she designed a game where she was the superhero and friends and family members had roles as supporting characters. There were achievements and levels that she had to achieve, and she improved rapidly as she "leveled up." There is no scientific proof that the game caused her to improve, but as she explains, she felt better after starting to play "SuperBetter," so it doesn't really matter whether the game helped her heal or not- feeling better helped her heal, and the game clearly had an effect on this. Another extraordinary example she cites was in England when there was a scandal over MPs putting their personal expenses on the government tab. In response to public outrage, the government did what governments do: they released information in a way that was meant to discourage public understanding: millions of scanned documents. A UK newspaper, the Guardian, decided to crowdsource the investigation into the illegible documents, and turned the project into what McGonigal calls "the world's first massively multiplayer investigative journalism project." People came and played in amazing numbers for the "emotional rewards of a good game," as the project was designed to give rewards in real-time as well as making the game feel social. In the first three days, 20,000 players analyzed 170,000 electronic documents. This amazing project had political results: 28 MPs resigned, and 4 MPs were charged criminally. MPs had to repay over a million pounds, and the expense codes are being rewritten.

Clearly, gamers have something to offer: political reform came quickly and swiftly- much more swiftly than if paid people sitting in offices had had to read through all of the documents. McGonigal goes on to propose other games that address climate change, oil usage, etc, but they seem exceedingly hypothetical. She repeatedly brings up the idea of the whole world coming together to play the same game for one day, which seems ludicrous: if we could all play for one day, couldn't we all get along for something slightly larger? On the other hand, everyone plays games. It's possible we *could* all start with tic-tac-toe or something tiny, and then realize the power that was harnessed from everyone, regardless of place, politics, resources, etc playing together and then move towards bigger things. Games clearly have a larger place in life than we've given them, as does play. We've ruled out play as something for children, something that we grow out of. But as more and more people spend more and more time gaming, McGonigal is right: the potential needs to be harnessed for something more than shooting virtual monsters.