On Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal 2

You can first my first post about Reality is Broken here.

Second Critique: The Role of the Game

This is more of an elaborate analysis of the way that McGonigal thinks about the way that games shape human interaction.

We have to begin here with a quote from the book. McGonigal offers three ways that Wikipedia works like a “good MMORPG”

First, Wikipedia is a good game world. Its extreme scale inspires our sense of awe and wonder, while its sprawling navigation encourages curiosity, exploration, and collaboration.

. . .

Second, Wikipedia has good game mechanics. Player action has direct and clear results: edits appear instantly on the site, giving users a powerful sense of control over the environment. This instant impact creates optimism and a strong sense of self-efficacy. It features unlimited work opportunities, of escalating difficulty.

. . .

Which leads to the third key aspect of Wikipedia’s good gameness: it has good game community. Good game community requires two things: plenty of positive social interaction and a meaningful context for collective effort.

While all of these things can be good, they also illustrate why McGonigal has a problematic view of the way that games operate. Only 12.64% of Wikipedia contributors are female. I think this means something about the idea of the “good game world.” It means that the idea of “good” is not based on inclusiveness or equality, but rather how well it works; “good” is synonymous with “efficient” here. The idea of a “good community” becomes skewed as well–I can’t think of any kind of good, healthy community that creates a hostile environment for women so much that they don’t participate in it. Of course, there are a number of reasons why women are not participating in Wikipedia, and the response to my argument is always going to be that women will “play” if they want to, but that ignores the issue at hand: why isn’t Wikipedia doing anything about it?

I believe that McGonigal would argue that Wikipedia doesn’t have to do anything, and that the panoply of “good experiences” that Wikipedia offers its community is good enough. The idea of modeling after that with no reflection rubs me the wrong way, which happened the entire time I was reading the book.

Related to this issue is the way that McGonigal uses Michael Tomasello’s experiments with children to illustrate how cooperative games work. Her introduction to the work:

In fact, the ability to make a good game together has recently been identified by researchers as a distinctive human capability—indeed, perhaps the distinctive human capability. The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, author of Why We Cooperateand codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has spent his career devising experiments to investigate what kinds of behaviors and skills set humans apart from other species. His research suggests that the ability to play complex games together, and to help others learn the rules of a game, represents the essence of what makes us human—something he calls “shared intentionality.”  Shared intentionality, according to Tomasello, is defined as “the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions.” When we have shared intentionality, we actively identify as part of a group, we deliberately and explicitly agree on a goal, and we can understand what others expect us to do in order to work toward the goal. Tomasello’s research reveals that, in comparison with humans, other intelligent social species like chimpanzees simply do not appear to have shared intentionality. They don’t have the natural instinct and ability to focus their attention on the same object, coordinate group activity, assess and reinforce each other’s commitment to the activity, and work toward a common goal.

The anthropocentric ideology here is pretty sad, but there is something interesting going on. What could possibly prove this thesis of “shared intentionality”?

In one of Tomasello’s key experiments at the Max Planck Institute, children between the ages of two and three are taught to play a new game together—either a dice game for the two-year-olds or a building-block game for the three year-olds. Then a puppet controlled by another experimenter joins the game and plays it incorrectly, according to its own made-up rules. Tomasello and his colleagues report that children immediately and universally object to this bad game behavior and attempt to correct the puppet, in order to keep the game successfully going—even though they haven’t been instructed to do so. This behavior was more “vociferous” among the three-year-olds, according to the published findings, but clearly widespread among the two-year-olds as well. We are able to make a good game together—and we are inclined to do so from nearly the moment we are born. We have a hardwired desire and capacity to cooperate and coordinate our actions with others, to effectively immerse ourselves in groups, and to actively cocreate positive shared experiences.

I read this example in an opposite way. McGonigal sees it as proof of the human desire to work together–we just want each other to get along and play the game together. The sad reality is that it is absolutely the opposite. We want to exclude those who do not get along. The process that McGonigal describes is precisely the kind of oppression that Ranciere writes about in his work; children, from a very young age, attempt to overcode minority opinion, suppress the visible, and create homogeneity. Sure, this is all apparent–it is a human desire to oppress others, to commit violence on their person, to exclude them violently from community.

The horror that we are force into facing here is that this is the same phenomenon that creates Wikipedia as a group that excludes women, and saying that it is a “good game world” legitimizes a toxicity that I find appalling. The thrust of this post is The Role of the Game, and I propose that the role of the game should be widely different from what McGonigal wants it to be.

McGonigal wants games to reflect how we are–she wants games that maximize our potential as human beings. She wants games that make big communities that do the things we do already on a small scale; she wants games to rescue us from the poverty of isolation.

I think that games should show us how we need to be. We don’t need macro scale humanity; we need games that displace us, that displace our subjectivities. I think that every game needs to fight the goal-minded, linear existence that McGonigal praises. We need more Minecraft and less Call of Duty. The power of games are not that they lead you, carrot-on-stick, to an end; the power of games is that they give us the ability to think outside of who and what we are. Doing goals as an orc warrior does very little for me when the entirety of my existence is shaped around goals–in reality, there is very little difference between a World of Warcraft quest and office work.

So we need games where we can be anyone and do anything. We need openness and equality. We don’t need to make the real world more like games. We need games that reflect a new world, a new existence outside of us. That’s how you fix reality.

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4 Responses to On Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal 2

  1. Larry B says:

    As a radical and animal lib activist, I of course agree with you on many things, but I do think you mischaracterize McGonigal’s argument a bit–and it might lead potential readers to never get an important lesson. The book admittedly smuggles in the mainstream episteme that someone with mainstream politics inevitably has, but it is really a strategy guide for how to achieve certain ends efficiently. If your ends are to create a world more compassionate to animals, you can use the principles she outlines to design an alternate reality game that can be the means.

    I think that if you wanted to be more constructive and actually help animals and activists, you might have focused on critiquing the strategies she outlines themselves. For one, we should recognize that for most people who are sympathetic to the animal lib cause, activism is not intrinsically rewarding. Most people do not like protesting, and even those of us who do it regularly think we should do it more. We might use the information in the book to design a social-networking game that creates intrinsic rewards for protest and action) which I happen to be doing the concept work on right now).

    For instance, considering that picketing KFCs doesn’t ever seem to get them shut down, many activists become discouraged and the campaign attendance rates often drops off. But what if activists were accumulating experience points for ever protest, every demo, every letter to the editor, which would allow them to level up their and get new abilities in their online activist community? We would feel a better sense of accomplishment. And we could better track exactly how large the scale of our efforts is by looking at the total statistics of different activist groups.

    I think we should use McGonigal’s research to our advantage–you know our enemies are.

    • kunzelman says:

      This is really just a fundamental disagreement about methodologies. McGonigal’s book, at the root, asserts that the neoliberal strategies of the past are applicable, and desireable, in games. McGonigal advocates directing the desires of players toward “good” goals, producing what she calls epic actions, and that those actions can be directed toward what she thinks of as positive goals, like increasing education, market value, etc. What you are putting forward is ultimately, for me at least, a “master’s tools” kind of argument. Gamification arrests desires and puts them in the hands of the game designers, and worse, addicts the player to that system. I’m not sure that it is an ethical form of game design. I am not sure that I am as concerned with the end result of the games that are designed this way, since most of the games McGonigal has created had good intentions and results, but rather that I think the purposeful manipulation of actions and desires toward the goals of the designers is ethically suspect.

      At the end of the day, I don’t want to give people experience points for protesting. I think the ethics are problematic, and the obligation created by “treadmill” games as applied to protesting leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. McGonigal, and the design ethic espoused in Reality is Broken, is essentially one of creating “game designer overlords” who want to world to be shaped by the games they design. I’m wary of that project.

    • Patricia Cameron says:

      I come from background of animal activism as well, focused on direct service to animals in need. You mention that “picketing KFCs doesn’t ever seem to get them to shut down” – my question would be what are some actions that might be more effective? You also mentioned that people “do not like protesting.” My experience is that was just about all some people wanted to do – it’s relatively easy, it gets some attention, it gives you a glow of feeling righteous, it doesn’t cost much etc. It also gets tired pretty fast and delivers no benefit to animals. So again, what actions would make a positive difference for animals?

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