‘The opposite of play is depression,’ and other theories on gamification

Jane McGonigal speaks at eTech in 2009. (Courtesy of Ed Schipul via Wikimedia Commons)

CW: Mentions of depression

In “Ender’s Game,” kids play war games under the expectation that they are training. In reality, they are fighting a war. Without knowing it, they commit xenocide.

What are the real stakes to the games we play? Dr. Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, and C. Thi Nguyen, assistant professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University, spoke at Pomona College and Scripps College, respectively, on the sociological and philosophical implications of gamification.

McGonigal’s book, “Reality is Broken,” joins the debate about the future of our world in the hands of generations of gamers. On one end, if people migrate entirely from the real world to the virtual, society is not expected to be able to endure, and a degradation or collapse might be imminent. On the other, as people synthesize learning in the virtual and real worlds, they might engage, coordinate, collaborate, and communicate in enhanced ways that could make us better than before.

McGonigal argues for the second vision. Speaking on the event “How Video Games can Change the World” at Pomona’s Big Bridges Auditorium, McGonigal stated that “all of the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness — our attention systems, our reward center, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory center — are fully activated by gameplay.”

In this state, we think better, are more positive, make social connections, and build personal strengths. “Gaming,” she said, couching her arguments in a comfortably inspiring catchphrase, “can help us become ‘super-empowered hopeful individuals.’”

Recent research on play corroborates her claims. Video games, as high feedback environments, fire up the hippocampus to learn and process information. They engage the caudate and thalamus, which grow with anticipation and help us stay engaged. Play, it is being said, is the opposite of depression.

McGonigal pointed to shifts in gaming culture, where gaming in the proximity of others is becoming more popular. Within a few minutes of playing, both players start to sync up in odd ways: making similar facial expressions, breathing at a similar rate, adopting similar heart rates, and feeling more empathy for the other person.

“Try this simple thought experiment,” she said. “What would happen in your workplace if you could apply just some of the insights from gaming? When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us, and people work hard and love even mundane tasks.”

McGonigal recommended, very enthusiastically, what she calls the “game transfer effect”: to “play for 10 minutes, then tackle a real-world challenge.”

Nguyen, author of “Games: Agency as Art,” is concerned about parts of this framework.

“Game attitude is an all-consuming instrumentalizing attitude. You have one goal, you instrumentalize everything else, everybody else, everyone in the game you use,” he said. “If that attitude leaks outside of the game, that’s terrible. I am less worried that games will make serial killers, and more concerned that games will make uncontrolled Wall Street capitalists.”

The attitude of instrumentalizing everything in the game as if it were disposable has the potential to leak into the way we interact with and control the world. Speaking on “Games, Gamification, and Autonomy” for the Scripps philosophy colloquium, Nguyen argued that “games are the art form of agency because they shape the experience of agency.”

The experience is not necessarily about the game’s visual display, but about the aesthetic experience of acting and doing. According to Nguyen, games offer more sharp experiences of agency and functional beauty because they are designed to. Game designers determine in-game values and goals, abilities of the in-game agent, and the environment that the in-game agent operates in.

Ingrained in here is, of course, something more hopeful and more insidious: While games with disposable ends communicate modes of agency and can help us develop our autonomy, these behaviors are not isolated to disposable gaming experiences.

Nguyen offers a game: When encountering someone at a party who has a braggadocio habit of name-dropping celebrities they’ve met, try to see how many names you can get them to drop. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook can become games too, where our experiences may become ends that can be manipulated for the purpose of maximizing likes/follows.

To what extent, then, do the games that we participate in consist of choices we are able to make?

Nguyen is, ultimately, optimistic. “Games are good when they’re games,” he said, adding that people can take any activity as a game if they do it for the sake of overcoming obstacles rather than for achievement.

What distinguishes games from regular life is that they let us inhabit a world that’s ”easier to make sense of,” where the values are “clearer, simpler, and easier to apply,” he said. Games can oversimplify, but they can also teach us that we are capable of submerging ourselves into alternate modes of thinking, acting, and deciding, and that we can put them all away when the game is over.

“Games teach us,” Nguyen concluded, “that our agency is notably fluid … that we can create an archive of agencies … we can experience different ways of being.”

Blake Plante PO ’19 is an English major. He is most commonly spotted scribbling into an all-weather notebook at all events.

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