How Video Games Can Make Us Heroes
Jane McGonigal explains how to harness gaming energy to do good.
I've known the joy of preparing to qualify, of leveling up with magic mushrooms, of speeding the flight of an angry bird. Yet video games often leave me feeling stale and restless. Shouldn't I be outgrowing these electronic entanglements? When one of my sons catches me playing a game on my iPhone, I think of the old-school Princeton basketball coach, Pete Carril, who disliked seeing his players eat candy. Here's the line from a Sports Illustrated profile: "He would wince when he saw a member of his team eating candy. Kids eat candy; he wanted his players to be men, and men drink beer."
+10 Pole Position reference.
-5 Gratuitous mention of family.
The game theorist Jane McGonigal, in her new book, Reality Is Broken, advises me to eat candy and eat it without shame. My editor asked me to say a bit more about who McGonigal is, but I couldn't really pin her down. She seems to be one of those lucky people who delivers keynote addresses at prestigious conferences and thinks about the future for a living—near Stanford. * Let's call her a Keynotist. Anway, my desire to play games makes perfect sense, she argues, because games offer structured environments, clear goals, and instant feedback on success or failure. The real world is uninspiring and dull in contrast. We rarely have the chance to feel heroic when working at our jobs or going about our daily business. "We are starving, and our games are feeding us," McGonigal writes.
+5 Decent quote.
-10 Lame word-coinage.
That statement zeroes in on the great paradox of video games: People who are motivated to do little else will show extraordinary focus and foresight when playing a game. This power was present in video games from the very beginning. McGonigal discusses the first video-game memoir, Pilgrim in the Microworld, published in 1983, by a 43-year-old college professor named David Sudnow. He was obsessed with Atari's Breakout: "This was a whole different business, nothing like I'd ever known, like night and day … Thirty seconds of play, and I'm on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing." Again, this was while playing Breakout.
-5 Use of the word paradox.
+10 Acceptable alliteration.
McGonigal's project is to explain why games have this tractor-beam-like hold on our attention, and to suggest how we might harness this energy for real-world good. In this way, her book represents a new wedge into the video game argument. Nongamers are too quick to write them off as addictive—on par with drugs—while gamers oversell games as some kind of new art form. McGonigal asks us to look objectively at the "genuine human needs" that games satisfy. To do this, she turns to the field of positive psychology. In her view, the best games are like portable mini-generators of happiness.
-20 Use of "addictive" in article about gaming.
-5 Dubious metaphor.
She marries the two fields nicely. We want "satisfying work," and games give us plenty of shiny boxes to play within. We want to "crave the experience, or at least the hope, of being successful," and games give us reasonable challenges and unlimited chances for victory. We want "social connection," and multiplayer games like World of Warcraft have inspired the creation of tightly knit guilds that conduct missions together. And, least convincingly, we "crave meaning" or "something that has lasting significance beyond our own individual lives." Her example is when players of Halo collectively reached 10 billion kills of the game's enemy.
-30 World or Warcraft example.
-5 Halo example