Breaking Reality

I mentioned last night that there was a book called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. I’ve read it before, and I am reading it now, partially because I like the way she writes. I am also re-reading it, though, because I think that the ideas she puts forth have a lot of meaning, and could be very important for things like my treatment – and also my theoretical teaching style, should I get a teaching job. So, what does she talk about?

Largely, she talks about how video gaming, in all its forms, from World of Warcraft to Angry Birds to the tiniest Facebook game, have the potential to help us reach our potential. Games are important, especially to the people who play them constantly – when she wrote the book, back in 2010, the subscribers to World of Warcraft had collectively spent over 50 billion collective hours – or about 5.93 million years – playing it. She notes that that is about the amount of time mankind has progressed from its first ancestor standing upright. And that was 3 years ago – how much more has been played?  So what keeps people playing these games for such long periods?

Well, for one, our in-games avatars, or representations of ourselves – our characters, if you will – tend to look much cooler than us. Take, for instance, this picture of me:

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Now, contrast this with a picture of my character, a high-level human paladin (holy warrior):

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Our in-game representations are clearly far cooler-looking. But that’s just a surface characteristic. What games like this give us- and I’ll use World of Warcraft as a good example, though there are many others – are many things.

First, they give us a sense of achievement. Things happen to our characters in a game like WoW (an abbreviation for World of Warcraft); they gain levels, get new abilities, acquire new equipment, look cooler. This happens constantly, and so we feel like we are getting something out of it – but there’s always more to get. Second, we are challenged – but not unreasonably. There are thousands of quests in WoW, and as you progress through the game, each quest you get will, almost always, be just a little harder than the last – it will push your abilities just a bit further, make you pay just a little more attention, and make you feel just a little better when you achieve your goal. The quests aren’t unreasonably hard, and the game will let you know when you try something that is probably outside your capabilities.

Third, we feel like we affect the world around us. In the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, WoW introduced something called ‘phasing’ – if you completed certain quests, things in the world around you would change. Completing a group of quests for the Argent Crusade would cause a base camp for the group to be set up the next time you returned to the area – other players who hadn’t yet done those quests wouldn’t see the change, but you would, and so you felt as if your actions had consequences.

Fourth, and this was a bgi one for me, WoW was a social game. At its height it had over 11 million players around the world, divided up into hundreds or thousands of servers. Even though you almost never physically met many of the people around you, you could interact with their characters, talk to the players, and generally just feel like you weren’t alone. I joined a guild, or like-minded group of players, called Warforged, and while I never met any of the other players, I got to know a number of them online and through the characters they played.

Games can do a lot – make us feel happy, make us take risks, make us be more social. In one portion of her book, she talks about her game, SuperBetter, which she created to help herself get over a bad concussion, setting small, manageable goals for herself each day that she turned into quests that she had to achieve to fight off the bad guy,  her concussion. I’m using it now to help myself with my depression, and I think it helps. It even helps relax people – McGonigal talks about a survey of high-level executive, including CEOs, which found that 70% of them play computer games at work regularly, in breaks ranging from 15 minutes to an hour, “to feel more productive” (“Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games During Working Hours”, Leonard Reinecke. CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2009, 12(4): 461-465).

So, when I think about games now, and about how they can be used, I think about something in the first section of the book: “What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?”

Well, what if we did? It’s something to think about.

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My Life in Gaming

I’ve been playing RPGs for a long time. I think I read my first Dragonlance book when I was 10 or 11, but I didn’t actually start playing D&D until I was 12 or 13 and living in Michigan. If you’re doing the math, that’s 20 or 21 years of RPGs, though there have been some quite large dry patches. I’ve played a lot of games, and I own a lot more. So why, do you ask, am I writing bout gaming today? Surely I have more pressing psychological issues?

Well, partially it is because I was looking for a topic that wasn’t quite so depressing. But largely it is because gaming has been a large part of my life, and an important one, and has been beneficial to my state of mind in many places and times when things might have gone much worse. Playing D&D for my first time in Michigan, we started a group that I still remember to this day; there were seven of us, all early teens, and I still have the drawing that we made to represent our party. Those boys were my first real group of friends, though I lost touch with most of them after moving to Nebraska.

Gaming, for me, has always been a social activity. While I can easily spend hours reading through a gaming book – whether it is D&D, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, or any of dozens of others – it is only in playing the games with a group of others that I find myself truly enjoying myself. The group does not have to be friends, though I find that often tends to come afterwards; they just have to be willing to pretend to be something they are not (an elf, or a dwarf), be willing to roll some dice, learn some rules, and tell amusing stories. It is escapism, but it is also community.

There are a lot of signs of how important gaming is in my life – one is the collection of games I have at home, that could comfortably fill much of a room. I have the few gaming books that are with me down here displayed proudly on a shelf right next to our apartment entrance. I enjoy referring to myself as a geek, of the gaming (and other) variety. My main e-mail address, one I have kept for nearly 15 years, is based on the name of a Werewolf: the Apocalypse character I played in high school; when I helped fund the Kickstarter for the 20th anniversary edition of Werewolf, it was that character’s name, not my own, that I submitted for the credits page. Even my choices in study of literature are influenced by gaming – medieval literature is, after all, one of the big influences on the creation of RPGs.

Gaming has moved on a lot since I first started; where I first played 2nd Edition AD&D, now they are working on a 5th edition. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other RPGs have come onto the market since D&D first cam out. They come in all genres – horror, action, superhero, exploration, romance, thriller, investigation, war – and from many places. It’s not a field that makes a lot of money; few people ever become rich in gaming. But it is a market where people produce games because they love them, and that appeals to me.

I have had a lot of trouble in St. Louis finding a gaming group; part of that was my depression, but part was also that I had poor luck in finding groups that stayed together or actually ever bothered to play, and I didn’t put forth a great deal of effort to find a larger community. I don’t know if I will end up staying in Houston, but if I do, I want to become a part of the gaming community here – I tried here at the step-down, but my teaching skills were not equal to the task, though I am certainly still willing.

Gaming has always been about camaraderie, a shared feeling of victory or defeat, cooperation, and the ability to get together and tell stories about the dragons you’ve killed.  While Online gaming is a somewhat acceptable substitute, I played World of Warcraft, and various other MMORPGs, for years, and they just don’t fill that emptiness in the same way. I want to get together around a table, with someone (perhaps me) behind a DM’s screen, roll some dice, pretend to be my character, whoever that might be, and find out what stories I can tell in the future.

Oh, and killing dragons is always fun, too.