The other day I was going through a dusty stack of projects the boys had completed in art class last year. One piece, done by the younger son and hitherto ignored, was full of text that was cut in shapes, pasted at angles, and printed out in a variety of fonts…the same word, over and over again:
“We were supposed to pick a word that best symbolized who we are and who we want to be,” my 11-year-old explained.
Sigh. Not “Nobel laureate,” “neurosurgeon,” or “educator.” Gamer.
Of course, at his age, I also loved video games—I logged whole seasons playing Space Invaders, Ms. Pac Man, Qbert, et al. (and let us not even discuss my current Plants vs. Zombies addiction). As a teen, I didn’t actually refer to myself as a “gamer” but that was only because the term hadn’t yet been coined. Even remembering my own history, however, “gaming” has become an occasionally-divisive point between my younger son and myself. I find that when I head into nagging territory, it is generally because I would like to see a greater diversity in his activities, more reading and creative play, and less gaming in front of the television…
I’ve been asking myself: How did we get to this point? Why does my son find gaming such an integral element in his personality, and should I be worried about it? I am not a Tiger Mom by any stretch, but I have placed clear, controlled limits on our game systems, emphasized books and reading through personal example and by reading nightly to my children, taken the boys to countless museums, plays, lectures, concerts…
Part of the answer lies in my son’s personality and makeup. He is a child who has battled a complex set of challenges: attention deficits, sensory-integration deficits, speech and language delays, and an autoimmune disorder that (among other issues) predisposes him to pneumonia, “cold” abscesses, and long-bone breakage. So, yeah, there have been times (surgeries, hospitalizations, protracted illnesses) when it has been expedient on the parenting-end to encourage this gaming–but as much as possible, my long-term goal has been to help him hone and develop his unique real-world skills for use in this world.
I’ve found some possible answers to my concerns in a book I recently received for free to review: Jane McGonigal’s new release, Reality is Broken. According to McGonigal, the issue might be neither my parenting style, nor my son’s challenges, but that reality is just too easy, depressing, unsatisfying, and trivial. She claims that well-designed games are like “the perfect job,” fulfilling our most basic needs for:
And, well…basically, our current reality is often lacking these core happiness components.
I can acknowledge her main point readily: my son has an amazing set of skills to go along with his challenges–he is articulate, just, sensitive, and bubbles with energy and ideas–but his day-to-day life often demands that he sit still in a chair, listen while others speak, express understanding through writing, and tolerate a troubling middle-school moral code. His skill-set and his current reality do not easily align, and under those circumstances, escapism would naturally be attractive. I begin to wonder: Is it any coincidence that I was his age when I discovered Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and the golden age of science fiction?
However, I am not sure that I can embrace the “exodus from the real world” that McGonigal chronicles and justifies in her book–particularly in its first half, where she dwells primarily on the success of video games like Halo and World of Warcraft. I cannot, for instance, celebrate the fact that players of Halo 3 have achieved 10 billion kills, or that one in every 75 people on the planet in search of “blissful productivity” is playing Farmville, or that all of the minutes spent playing World of Warcraft cumulatively add up to 5.93 million hours—the same amount of time that has transpired since man began to walk upright. To me, these numbers reek of wasted potential and anomie.
Haters, take aim and glass me (I don’t play Halo but I have read the books–and also watched its alternative reality game [I Love Bees](http://www.ilovebees.com/ “”I Love Bees” Website”) evolve). No matter how “epic” the experience, this seems a gross waste of human time and talent and too much time to devote to something that Is. Not. Real.
McGonigal legitimizes these extraordinary numbers by quoting positive psychologist Martin Seligman: “The self is a very poor site for [establishing] meaning…the larger the entity you can attach yourself to, the more meaning you can derive.” However, I am not convinced that these gamers are choosing the most effective route to happiness. After all, cults also provide individuals with larger entities for attachment and are proof that sometimes, in seeking out happiness, our emotional mechanisms misfire.
On her website, in an effort to provide practical, [scientifically-supported advice to gamers](http://janemcgonigal.com/2011/01/08/practical-advice-for-gamers/ “”Practical Advice for Gamers””), McGonigal addresses this time issue when she suggests that players try to avoid “gamer remorse” by remaining in the “sweet spot” of 7-21 hours per week:
Studies show that games benefit us mentally and emotionally when we play up to 3 hours a day, or 21 hours a week. (In extremely stressful circumstances – such as serving in the military during war-time – research shows that gamers can benefit from as many as 28 hours a week.) But for virtually everyone else, whenever you play more than 21 hours a week, the benefits of gaming start to decline sharply.
By the time you’re spending 40 hours or more a week playing games, the psychological benefits of playing games have disappeared entirely – and are replaced with negative impacts on your physical health, relationships, and real-life goals.
I would argue (and I imagine that the American Academy of Pediatrics would agree) that children should err on the lower side of that sweet spot or else risk misappropriating time resources and missing out on vital life-skills development (as well as jeopardizing their physical health)–just some of the things I worry over as a mother…
In reading Reality is Broken, I was actually unsettled to read about some of the strategies top game-designers are using to continuously engage players. For instance, in describing an online “Museum of Humanity” created to commemorate the “dead soldiers” of Halo, McGonigal states, “Halo works hard to engage emotions to subvert reality.” She then quotes a fan as saying, “They’ve made something real out of fiction.”
I’m sorry, but isn’t that the working definition of [propaganda](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda “Wikipedia Definition of “Propoganda””)? Isn’t it good that this is just a game?
The score includes Gregorian chanting, a string orchestra, percussion, and Qawwali vocals, a Sufi devotional style of music intended to produce an ecstatic state in the listener. These are timeless musical techniques for provoking our bodies’ epic emotions—and video games are increasingly making use of them.
Clearly, these games are not successful by chance; they have been intentionally engineered to engage players at primal levels. Frankly, as a parent, I am inclined to question the motivations of anything that attempts to hold my children’s minds and emotions at that level of sway…
All this would seem to imply that I dislike Jane McGonigal or did not find her book compelling–nothing could be farther from the truth. I think that she is a visionary and a genius and I hope very much that she achieves her personal goal of one day seeing a game designer receive a Nobel prize.
If she does, it will not be for “shoot ’em up” Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMPORGs) like World of Warcraft or Halo, though. It will be for work that combines her ideas on gaming with education and humanitarian efforts–games like EVOKE and World Without Oil, two alternative reality games McGonigal designed in her work with the Institute for the Future that aim to collaboratively, gamefully imagine and reinvent the human trajectory by addressing multi-decade, multi-generational problems of climate, biology, or social-dynamics. These games, almost reminiscent of brilliantly-designed educational lesson-plans, are engineered to teach children and adults planetary stewardship while promoting the development of “SEHIs” or “super-empowered, hopeful individuals.”