Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Better at games than at life?

A reader sent me a link to the TED talk of Jane McGonigal about Gaming can make a better world, in which she observes that gamers show "blissful productivity" and "urgent optimism" when playing games, and thinks that we could solve real world problems if we applied those traits to real world problems. I do agree with some of her observations: The same kid who gave up on his math problem for homework after the second attempt and fail will then cheerfully wipe a dozen times on the next raid boss and still keep going. By showing greater persistance and being better motivated he ends up being better at games than at life. But I'm not so sure that is always transferable into real life. If the kid kills the boss mob on the thirteenth attempt, will that motivate him to persist on his math homework, or will it motivate him to avoid homework and stick to games where he can achieve greater success?

This talk is a more optimistic version of a story you usually hear the other way around, in versions like how playing violent video games will make kids violent. I don't really believe either version fully. I think the people looking at the influence of video games on real life underestimate the players' ability to make a sharp distinction between virtual and real. There is a real difference between the real world and the virtual world in terms of risk and uncertainty, and that difference has a strong influence on how people react in these different worlds.

That is not to say that you can't learn soft skill while playing video games, especially social multiplayer online games. For example it would be perfectly feasible for somebody to pick up some basic management skills while leading a guild in a MMORPG, and then later apply those skills in real life after having been promoted to a supervisor position. But that is more about learning a few tricks about what works and what doesn't work, and not so much about acquiring some attitude in a video game and then carrying it over into real life.

Video games are safe environments, and players are aware of that, and react to that absence of risk accordingly. Jane McGonigal's observation of optimism in gamers stems from the gamer *knowing* that there is no risk. You *know* that dying in World of Warcraft is just a minor inconvenience, thus persisting after several deaths isn't all that much of a burden. In the real world there is more risk, and even more importantly there is more uncertainty. This is why Jane McGonigal observes that when facing real world failure we are more likely to feel overcome, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, frustrated, or cynical. Not knowing about the potential consequences makes us even feel even more anxious and fearful.

Let me give you an example: My parents are both over 70, and while I grew up with computers from as far back as the ZX81, they only bought home computers for themselves after they retired. So now every time I visit them, I spend several hours solving their computer problems, and those problems are trivial for anyone who is comfortable around computers. Like they start the computer, and a little window pops up from Windows or some application like Java or their Antivirus telling them there is an update available, and whether they want to download and install that now or later. And my parents are terrified, don't know what this is about, can't decide whether to click OKAY or CANCEL, and end up telephoning me for help. They aren't sure if that popup is supposed to be there, have read stories about how accepting all such invitations to download and install stuff can lead to you installing viruses and trojans, and are afraid of the consequences they don't understand of making that decision. Me, and most of you probably, aren't so afraid of computer applications, because we know more about the possible consequences. If I have a problem in lets say Excel, I'm not afraid to click through various options I don't understand until I find the one that does what I want. If that fails I can always reload the backup file. It is understanding the risks that enables me to treat that real life problem like a game, in a playful, optimistic, and ultimatively productive way. But that doesn't mean I can apply that same attitude to the rest of my life, like lets say my tax declaration, where I'm much less aware of how that is supposed to work, and more fearful of the consequences of messing up.

Thus I believe that in real world situations where the *real* risk is low, the application of methods from gaming can work, for example by setting up a better structure for motivation and rewards. Lee Sheldon at Indiana University set up his courses to give experience points instead of grades, and has students leveling up instead of graduating. The consequences of getting less xp for your paper, and thus needing more for the next level, are actually more transparent than the consequences of getting your paper graded 'F'. By making the system easier to understand, the fear and uncertainty are diminished, enabling people to approach the real world problem of studying with a more playful attitude.

But that isn't a catch all solution. Poverty, hunger, war, global warming, and other problems that Jane McGonigal mentions aren't easily tackled with the same approach, because the risk and uncertainty are real, and can't easily be dispelled. We can't just go like she says and turn 11 million World of Warcraft players each playing on average over 20 hours per week into the equivalent of 5.5 million real full time jobs and solve all the worlds problems with that manpower and gaming enthusiasm. Just because somebody is fearless and optimistic when facing the Lich King doesn't mean he will be fearless and optimistic when tackling real world problems. It is more likely that this fearless leader who killed Arthas last night through much persistence will feel overwhelmed today by some minor real world problem like his car not starting in the morning, his kid having a fever, or him having problems setting up a shelf from an IKEA flat pack.

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