Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gaming, Creativity, and Society

I read a great deal of random stuff, and as part of that randomness, I'll occasionally peruse one of my wife's copies of Fast Company. It's a magazine dedicated to the amazing creative glory of capitalism, and tends to feature cool young people who've got the latest bleeding edge idea or product.

The June, of course, stale...highlighted the 50 most creative people in the business world. Among them were several gamer types, and the one with the most prominent picture was a Ms. Jane McGonigal, who does appear to actually be the free-spirited daughter of the Hogwarts instructor.

She's not so much a game designer in the classical sense, but rather, a games theorist and practitioner. Games include a whole variety of forms of play, not just those in the virtual world. In the words of her Fast Company interviewer:

She believes if people could experience the same emotional and physiological benefits in real life that they receive from gaming -- elation, adventurous thinking, focus -- people would be as engaged in their work and global issues as they are in World of Warcraft. However, for all the creativity that games can trigger, McGonigal concedes that they are only the first step. "Games are getting people to agree on a common goal and engage with that goal collectively for large amounts of time," says the self-styled happiness hacker. "But it's not like it's a magic button. They still have to do the problem solving when they get there."

She seems an endearing enough sort, but I'm not sure that gaming is quite so entirely positive. Yes, we learn through play. Yes, play trains us for the world. But gaming and organizing our lives around alternative or virtual realities may be, as Marx would put it, mainlining heroin for the masses.

Human beings are natural and collective problem solvers. It's what we do. More often than not, we mess up, but once we've cleared away the debris of our failed efforts, we organize again. It's that yearning for meaning thing. We find purpose in overcoming challenges, and in doing so together. That's what deTocqueville noted about us Amurricans at the very beginning of this fragile little experiment of a republic.

But gaming can be..well..a bit onanistic. We all know of the horror stories of young Koreans who forget to eat and die after a four day gaming binge. Or of pale pasty folk whose entire lives revolve around complex tables and throws of the dice. There are more subtle versions of this threat. Gaming can consume and redirect that desire to work towards a goal. Instead of providing the conceptual tools we need for the hunt or the harvest or the 2010 iPhone 3-GSXR or global hunger, we can become hermetically sealed away from reality in our gaming communities. Our creative energy and efforts can be consumed in a gaming phantasmagoria, leaving us nice and drained and ready for our life as a complacent cubicle drone.

I think the points she makes aren't inherently wrong. Gaming Gaming can help us organize our thoughts and think strategically. It can certainly be used for training and indoctrination, or the U.S. Military wouldn't be putting so much effort into getting kids and soldiers alike to play America's Army.

But it ain't all virtual butterflies and flowers.