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Friday, July 09, 2010

The Game of Life - What's Really Going On

I watched an interesting speech by game designer Jane McGonigal on the TED website this morning over breakfast.  McGonigal believes that games are more than just an amusement, but are actually a powerful tool for teaching.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers-The Story of Success"  makes the case that anyone can become a superstar if he or she devotes 10,000 hours of intensive study to a single skill or subject.  Anyone!

A couple of interesting facts here.  From fifth grade to high school graduation you spend about 10,000 hours in class.  At the current rate, in countries with a well-developed technological infrastructure and above average standard of living, the average child will spends 10,000 hours playing on-line games by the time he or she reaches the age of 21.  According to Gladwell this will make them superstars.

The question is, at what are they learning to be superstars.

McGonagal cites 4 traits that on-line games develop. 

1. A sense of urgent optimism:  In games you are always on the verge of succeeding at something, perhaps of winning big. At the very least, the solution to whatever problem is presented to you in the game is right around the corner.  You know the problem can be solved, so the game encourages you to be optimistic.

2. The ability to weave a tight social fabric:  Gamers choose their companions in the gaming world who share their goals and values and who are trustworthy, reliable and who have a skill to contribute to the task at hand. The gamer learns to find friends who are a philosophical match and to provide them with positive reinforcement to remain part of the group.

3. A sense of "blissful productivity":  Psychologist  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (me high, cheek sent muh high eee) called this experience flow.  It's the feeling you get when you are doing something that you know how to do well that you also enjoy doing.  Very often persons experiencing "flow" or "blissful productivity", as McGonagal calls it, lose track of time or awareness of what's going on around them.  Athletes get this when playing whatever sport they play. Runners experience it as a "high".  Practitioners of forms of meditation experience it as part of their rituals. Sportsmen and gamers get into the rhythm of the contest and lose all sense of the world around them. This is a very addictive experience and people go back to it looking to reproduce that transcendental experience with almost the fervor of an addict looking for the next drug hit or alcoholic for a booze binge.

4. Epic meaning:  In the game there is a sense of some connection to a wider world or a greater meaning.  Athletes get it by setting "world records". On-line gamers get it by completing a level, saving a planet or rescuing the princess. My son once set a district record in the 100 meter sprint. Yesterday he described that one race in vivid detail down to the reaction of his coach and teammates on the sidelines. He set a record that goes into the books forever.  However small such a thing might seems to a disinterested observer, it is a big thing to those participating in the game. As humans we have a powerful need to tell our story in such a way that we are the hero of our own story and that our actions have meaning beyond our immediate mundane lives.

I believe that McGonagal's observations about gaming point to an even larger truth about what Douglass Adams called "Life, the Universe and Everything Else".  There's more going on here than you might think. Turns out the reason games are so good at honing these particular skills, may explain why Christianity is so successful at improving the quality of human beings. 

More on that tomorrow.....

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