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Gamers will not save the world

February 1, 2011
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This post is a direct response to the recent Lagomorph post, Gamers Save the World?, which itself was a reaction to the following TED talk by Jane McGonigal:

In addition, I am also commenting on another critique of McGonigal that was linked in the Lagomorph post’s comments: The Dwindling Difference Between Play and Work: Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken.

OK, Jacob, here I come to rain on your parade!

After more time musing on this since our email exchange, I’m becoming even more deeply skeptical of McGonigal’s premise.

I don’t agree with the critique you linked that Games are not a medium. They are, which means that there’s a lot more going on than just the direction McGonigal wants to take, and her attempt to claim the entirety of gamerdom into her project is deeply problematic. The 3 billion person hours invested in gaming each week are not a unified productive activity the way, say X person hours invested in an engineering project or public health campaign are. That actually strikes me as coming from a rather privileged perspective.

What McGonigal’s designing and putting out doesn’t dovetail with the vast majority of gaming, either. She’s creating online environments where there’s a lot of participant empowerment (judging from what I’ve seen based on her talk) and which are designed to encourage that and provide direct feedback to encourage that. That’s not what you’re getting from most computer games.

To start with the worst possible example of evil game design, consider Farmville, which is the premier offender when it comes to creating a game designed to cause addiction, anxiety and to compel the player to just keep playing and to try to recruit others without actually providing any sense of fun.

Cultivated Play: Farmville:

Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again.

Farmville is also pretty scammy:

Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell

Typical scam: users are offered in game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey. Four simple questions are asked. The answers are irrelevant. When the user gets to the last question they are told their results will be text messaged to them. They are asked to enter in their mobile phone number, and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they’ve done that, they’ve just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription.

Note that Farmville is being played by more people than World of Warcraft. So much for those billions of person hours being invested in gaming, eh?

Let’s continue to consider casual online gaming. I have, myself, done a ton of casual gaming over the past decade as a means of stress relief. The kinds of games I go in for include word games (such as Bookworm and Word Challenge), tower defense games and various puzzle and side scroller games.

These are all the equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle. They’re engaging. They require some problem solving ability and they let you get into the flow of playing them pretty easily. In fact, it’s so easy for me to dive into these that I have a real problem sometimes with my using them as a means of distracting myself when I’m feeling anxious about getting some sort of work done at the computer. I’d go so far as to say that games of this nature have contributed to a severe downturn in the amount of reading I do both online and off.

That said, I can’t say I don’t enjoy puzzling games or that I don’t benefit from the mental workout they can provide. But these games have a strict game structure, with a goal and a set of rules to manipulate. They aren’t going to contribute to real world brainstorming (although they can help you learn logic and problem solving skills).

These games also aren’t social. Like I wrote above, they’re the equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle.

OK, that’s another chunk of McGonigal’s 3 billion person hours eliminated.

So, now we can move onto MMORPGs. World of Warcraft is the obvious example here, although there’s plenty of others. Now, I can’t really comment much on this genre/medium as I’ve never found much appeal despite efforts to engage with them. Now, this is a genre (along with Real Time Strategy) that McGonigal is putting a claim to. However, I am skeptical about this as well.

There certainly are a lot of interesting things going on in the MMORPG world, but I don’t think McGonigal’s model really grasps what’s going on within them. The main commercial ones that have the largest user base provide a structure that allows a lot of directed and cooperative gaming opportunities (as well, I presume, as opportunities for enjoyable solo play as well), with incentive systems for that as well as in-game economies and the like (the better to monetize the gaming system, my dear!). And that does let folks go online with friends near and far and kill some monsters together and shoot the shit (pardon my lack of proper jargon here with regard to the ins and outs of MMORPG strategy and tactics). And these opportunities are the gaming bits McGonigal seems to think give one the chance for the EPIC WIN.

But, dear gamer, those activities are hardwired into the gaming environment. They don’t provide the players with much of an opportunity to tell their own story and drive the game in directions they find interesting. It’s a strategy and tactics game with built in rules and win-conditions (even if there isn’t a game-ending win condition). There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what McGonigal is talking about.

OK, MMORPG gamers, you’re probably sputtering at me right now because there’s a huge element of these gaming environments I haven’t touched on. You’re right! There’s a ton of player-driven drama and storytelling that’s possible in these games, and which I’m sure goes on all over the place. I remember my time on MUDs and MUSHes and know well the great hijinks that are possible.


That kind of play grows out of an environment where a great number of real people are able to interact together and improvise and build on each others’ ideas and actions. The actual interactive portion of these games that define your combat ability or skill at basket weaving do not have a direct, first order contribution to this. There is an influence, since the kinds of avatars you have available to you and the kind of things you can do to affect the coded game environment (as opposed to the social environment) are going to mediate one’s experience very strongly. If you’re playing a strongly graphically oriented fantasy RPG with the choice of Elves, Dwarves, Humans and Goblins for your avatars, that’s going to reify the games milieu pretty strongly. You can present yourself as a replicant on the run from blade runners in such a game, but you’re going to have to be pretty compelling to get your fellow players to go along with it, and you’re still going to be stuck using a club to beat on rats to level up as far as the game engine itself is concerned (at least until you can afford to upgrade your gear, but you’re still not going to be able to buy a fancy ray gun or a flying police car).

Not every online world straitjackets you so strongly. There’s plenty of places where one can build the environment one wants and design one’s online persona to exacting standards, but then we’re moving on from games to varieties of cyberspace such as Second Life, not that there’s an absolute and discrete line between the two. However, I would posit that a truly ludic space requires that the participants have the power to define that space themselves.

The likes of World of Warcraft can be said to be a ludic space by those lights, but only as a side effect of being a large social space that allows various people to get together and play together. This play is influenced greatly by the milieu imposed by the hard coded rules of the space, but the actual play takes place despite those rules. Even if the powers that be cooperate with the gaming population and reify some portion of of the socially constructed world created by the participants into the actual code that creates the game and the virtual space within which it is played, the actual ‘play’ is still coming from the players themselves and will remain, as such, subject to wild flights of fancy that the game’s hosts will be hard pressed to control.

I submit that McGonigal’s approach to games is directly in contradiction to what gaming is and to what makes it valuable. She is approaching games as a means to an end, when they are an end in themselves. The value of play is play itself. It can certainly have other benefits as far as developing mental and physical skills, but if you start to focus on play as a means to an end it ceases to be play. I hesitate to say that it then becomes work, since to my own thinking contrasting work and play as discrete opposites is a mistake. Instead, let me say that making play a means to an end can drain all the fun out of things pretty quickly. The consequences of this can vary. Often this sort of thing just results in a party nobody goes to except for the host. In other cases, the party might just get highjacked into something that the host did not have in mind (as per the kind of socially generated play I discussed going on in WoW).

McGonigal may have some success in making games/cyberspaces that appeal to some people. I haven’t tried any of her designs. However, I’m quite comfortable predicting that they will not scale and that they will remain a small niche of gaming at best. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of my favorite games and gaming experiences are also the results of niche gaming cultures.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 2:00 am

    Not sure why the pingback didn’t pick up, but I’ve responded over here:

    Viva la discussion!

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