Why Gaming Won’t Save The World

In this TED Talk Jane McGonigal presents the idea that gaming can be used to change the world. People are playing games for billions of hours. Kids growing up today spend so much time playing games, they are virtuosos at it. Therefore, we can use the incredible amount of skill they have built up and direct it towards world-changing activities for the betterment of everyone.

The talk itself is insightful, and the research Jane is doing at the Institute For The Future is very interesting. I especially enjoyed the part of the talk where she discussed Herodotus’ story of the Lydians using dice games to ease famine possibly being true. It at least rings true considering the use of video games to distract ill people from their pain and suffering.

Regardless of that Jane’s talk seems to gloss over many obvious factors. Mainly she completely fails to deeply analyze the mechanics of the games themselves. The sad fact is that games can not change the world, at least not in the way she presents.

In the talk, Jane says that in games people present the best version of themselves. Players will never quit until their goals are achieved. Not only that, but they give their strongest effort, and are ready and willing to collaborate. If you ignore the griefers and shitcockers out there, this is largely true. What she doesn’t discuss very deeply are the reasons behind these behaviors.

The simple and obvious reason is that games have no true failure. If someone tries to be a hero in real life, and they fail, there are permanent negative consequences. In the real world, you risk losing your money, possessions, freedom, health, and the health of those you care for. It’s a dangerous world, and many mistakes can not be undone. This is the cause of the anxiety people feel in the real world that they do not have in the game world.

In the gaming world there is a reset button. Even if you fail, you can keep trying with no repercussions other than lost time. In Mario, you don’t feel much anxiety trying to jump over the gigantic pit because you have extra lives. If you’re down to your last life, then you actually do feel some anxiety because failure means having to start over from the beginning again. When games do actually have negative consequences for failure, players get upset and play something else.

I think the reason she misses this is because she focuses on World of Warcraft, a game with no consequences. Death isn’t even a real consequence in WoW, or other modern MMORPGs. It’s just a momentary obstacle that can be completely reversed. Take a look at some other games out there that actually have harsh consequences for failure. How about some old NES games that have no continues, passwords, or extra lives? How about Steel Battalion which would erase your save data if you failed to eject on time? These games are obviously ludicrously unpopular.

As for the topic of virtuosos and 10,000 hours of practice, I personally don’t buy it. Measures of talent are strictly relative. How many people out there have played over 10,000 hours of golf or tennis? Now how many Tiger Woods and Roger Federers are out there? How many people in South Korea have played that much Starcraft? What percentage of them are professionals? I know I personally have played many thousands of hours of video games, but you don’t see me sponsoring PC hardware like Fatal1ty. The first person to ever play the violin was a virtuoso in their time, though they would be terrible by today’s standards. Being a virtuoso simple means you are better than everyone else. Not everyone can be great. That’s what makes greatness great.

This fact directly interferes with the factor of epic purpose. Every person who plays Zelda to the end will defeat Ganon and save the world of Hyrule. In the real world, there is only one champion, and it’s probably not you. Even if you collaborate and give your full effort, odds are you will still fail to be exceptional in the real world. Tons of people around the world dedicate their lives to sports, music, and other things from a young age. A ludicrously small percentage make it big. Strong effort greatly facilitates great achievement, but does not guarantee it.

For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine that everyone actually can be a virtuoso. We’ll pretend that we can create an army of Steve Vai’s by practicing enough guitar. If that is true, then being a virtuoso at World of Warcraft is like being a virtuoso at the player piano. If an activity has no possibility of failure, then either every human being is a virtuoso at it, or none are, regardless of how much practice. It’s meaningless and unremarkable to be a virtuoso at an activity at which you are guaranteed to succeed. If every scientist got Nobel Prize, it would lose all meaning.

Let’s take this same exact TED Talk, and replace all of the World of Warcraft examples with Counter-Strike. People are not ready and willing to collaborate in Counter-Strike, often prioritizing personal kill ratios above the objectives of the team. They will not work hard towards their goal, often switching servers when faced with a superior opponent they can not beat. People are quick to cheat their way to victory because true victory is too much work, if it’s even possible. Most players quit and never try again when they can not achieve success with minimal effort. These are the same people that quit in real life. They are the boomerang generation running home to mommy because college is too rough. Sorry, I don’t believe that these people can save the world.

If you want to really change the world with games, you need games that mimic the real world. These are known as simulations. The military uses them to train people for various things, most notably flight. If you play a racing simulator for 10,000 hours as a child, you do actually have a good chance of becoming a professional race car driver. The thing is, an accurate simulation is just as difficult as driving a real race car, and will not attract many players putting in many hours. Tons of people play Mario Kart. Relatively few have even heard of Forza or Gran Turismo. If you could get people to play simulation games as much as they play Bejeweled, then you could change the world. Sadly, that will never happen because simulations are simply not fun to most people. This is why rhythm games have ludicrously simplified instruments. They make rhythm games with real instruments, and almost nobody plays them.

I do think that making the real world more like a game can save it. Make it impossible to fail at life. Give straight A+ grades to every student just for showing up to class. Remove all negative irreversible consequences from everything. Guarantee success for anyone who puts in enough effort, regardless of skill or talent. Do all that, and an army of gamers will revolutionize the real world. Then again, does such a utopian world really need changing?

Until then, I think this talk is actually kind of harmful. A lot of people who are otherwise wasting their lives away will use this to validate that time wasting. Some may falsely believe that they are saving the real world while saving Azeroth. Rather than changing the world with games, it may just be giving people another excuse to play games when they could be saving the world.

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2 Responses to Why Gaming Won’t Save The World

  1. gweipo says:

    Your points are completely valid, however I do think we could take some of the positive aspects of gaming (I’m not a gamer, but I am excited about why people get addicted them) and apply them to education, but in a positive sense – leveling up, collaboration, knowing why what you’re doing is important and epic etc…

  2. You have several points that you bounce back on. And I would like to speak to one of the main points you make in breaking games like World of Warcraft into useless interaction.

    There are elements in the gameplay (in many major titles) that evoke and awaken the need to develop fast and tactical responses. Stimulation of the brain in a game like World of Warcraft can come from number crunching (stats, health, etc.), teamwork and group building (guilds, dungeons, etc.), economics (auction house), and so on.

    To say that these are not usable or real world reflective would be laughable. It takes a sharp mind to be successful, truly successful, in World of Warcraft. You need to work as a team to even get to the “big bosses” and even then, it would take many attempts to achieve full armor and weapon sets – or the “best” items. And it’s nearly impossible to complete every given quest in the game (available quests even). The game centers around community – thus, my final point.

    The concepts of building a better world – our world – stem from the core of community building. You will need the heroes of Azeroth (as the main example), and their unique skillsets in economics, diplomacy, team-building, mathematics, problem solving and strategy – if you do in fact intend on creating a society that is “utopian”.

    Your points are valid, but I think you lack the deeper vision to see value of the individual skills games can force children, young adults and even adults to develop.

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