Jane McGonagal has announced that she is devoting her life to creating games that build upon the skills gamers develop in on-line games such as World of Warcraft to solve real world problems. She's taken a run at it with such games as "World Without Oil" in which gamers try to figure out how to survive in a worldwide oil crisis and another games designed to enlist gamers to help solve problems in Africa. Her goal is to translate the energy, brains, social organizing power and productivity of computer games into real world solutions.
But who says the "real" world is the ultimate level in McGonagal's game system. McGonagal sees gaming as 10,000 hours of time we spend, just as we spend 10,000 hours of time in school learning skills that can translate to the "real world". She sees gaming as a parallel to formal education, both contributing skills that we can use at the next level - the three-dimensional world we all inhabit.
Okay before you decide I've watched the "Matrix" one too many times, hear me out. What is it about games that make for such an effective teaching tool? There are a couple of things:
1. If you die in the game or lose, you don't die or lose in the real world. You've learned your lesson and next time you can get it right. This characteristic of games led to the idea of Eastern mystics (great game players themselves) that life is an endless cycle of do-overs till you get it right and achieve something called nirvana. Nice idea, but I think they missed the point. This characteristic of games (that no matter how the game works out, you'll be okay in the real world) makes game players very brave and willing to take risks. Games then become a place where we can practice risk-taking.
2. Multi-player games encourage building alliances and partnership to win the game. It's interesting how some people will choose a noble, trustworthy persona and others will choose to give their dark side free reign. In Monopoly, for instance, I've seen people lose time and again because they were being "nice" to their fellow players instead of being the cutthroat the game calls for. Games allow you to experiment with social interaction so you can see the consequences of what you do. This is a powerful teaching tool. Even single player games are not always about winning entirely. Players often go easy on less experienced players or throw games because they want their opponent to feel good about themselves.
In sports we learn teamwork and physical skills, planning and execution. These are all things that translate to the real world or they were supposed to until school sports programs gave themselves over to a winning at all costs philosophy. Then, sports began to teach players that it was all about the money, that unless your shoes cost $200 a pair, you were less worthy than others and that personal fame and glory for your personal exploits was more important than the good of the team. That's why you see so many teams with expensive marquee players that are perennial losers.
So what if real life is a teaching experience. What if real life is teaching us lessons that, like games and sports lessons, are for use at another level - something beyond "Real Life".
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