Sunday, June 27, 2010

Epic Win! Part 1

Georgia Tech has a pretty good sense of self-deprecating humor. We take a definite pride in our nerddom, our unshowered masses, our LAN parties and crazy mad Matlab skills. The Gamer is an archetypal figure, even a Tech cultural icon. I came so very close to getting out of Tech without getting into gaming. But alas, in the home stretch, I've been sucked in.

I'm not actually gaming (yet?), I'm just into gaming. There are a several reasons I am intrigued. I'll set them out briefly here, talk a bit about the first, and elaborate on the rest in later posts.

1. The on the verge of an epic win mentality
2. The experience economy and the blur between production and consumption, and between labor and leisure
3. Network effects and increasing returns
4. Accessibility and design issues
5. Surveillance, power, media, and governance issues
6. Virtual currencies and economies
7. The psychology and philosophy of avatars and embodiment
8. Collaboration, communities, and sociological issues

I chose to discuss the "epic win" mentality first simply because it requires the least amount of background info. I recommend watching this video of a talk by Dr. Jane McGonigal called "Gaming can make a better world."

Side note, McGonigal is awesome. Her job title is Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. She did her Ph.D. at Berkeley. MIT Technology Review calls her one of the top 35 innovators changing the world through technology. She is also an engaging and energetic speaker who seems genuinely thrilled to be doing what she's doing, which is looking for ways that gaming can save the world. So I really do recommend the video.

In gaming, she says "an epic win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. It was almost beyond the threshold of imagination. And when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of. That is an epic win." She notes that
when we're in game worlds I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to help at a moment's notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long at it takes, to get up after failure and try again. And in real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don't feel that way. We feel overcome. We feel overwhelmed. We feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we're playing games, they just don't exist in games.

How do we start to explain this phenomenon? Here's how she begins to explain:

Whenever you show up in one of these online games especially in World of Warcraft, there are lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away. But not just any mission, it's a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game. Right? So, you can do it. They never give you a challenge that you can't achieve. But it is on the verge of what you're capable of. So, you have to try hard. But there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft. There is no sitting around wringing your hands. There is always something specific and important to be done. And there are also tons of collaborators. Everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.

It's not something that we have in real life that easily, this sense that at our fingertips are tons of collaborators. And also there is this epic story, this inspiring story of why we're there, and what we're doing. And then we get all this positive feedback. You guys have heard of leveling up and plus-one strength, and plus-one intelligence. We don't get that kind of constant feedback in real life.

She also states four things gaming makes people good at: urgent optimism (from always being on the verge of an epic win), trust and cooperation, blissful productivity (realizing that we're happier pursuing a purpose than just hanging out), and epic meaning (because gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions and planetary-scale stories).

So how do we harness the positive power of gaming? How can we get that best self from games to come out and play in the real world? One possibility is to design games that have real-world impact (McGonigan gives some examples). Another is to design the real world--the workplace, for instance, or schools-- to be more like gaming, at least in the positive senses. Technology can help, by giving feedback, facilitating collaboration, and even gearing tasks ("missions") towards skill levels.

1 comment:

  1. I spent a large part of my childhood immersed in video games, and all of these factors definitely make them addicting. The always having something to do, always being challenged just at your skill level, and feeling like you're working for a purpose is partially what pushed me to attack my first year at college so vigorously.