Jane McGonigal has some provocative ideas about the potential benefits of video games. Her TED talk is a good introduction to her thinking, which can be summarized as follows:
- Young people in countries with strong “gaming cultures” (think U.S. or South Korea) put some serious hours into gaming (especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft) — hours roughly equivalent to total secondary school education.
- The massive amount of time invested in virtual game worlds causes a permanent shift in psychological makeup, generally for the positive.
- The qualities developed in these uber-gamers include a sense of “urgent optimism,” the ability to “weave a strong social fabric,” the enjoyment of “blissful productivity,” and the experience of “epic meaning” (she explains all of these terms in the TED talk linked above). All in all video games create “super-empowered hopeful individuals” (at least in the context of their games worlds).
- These positive qualities can be harnessed and used to solve real-world problems, via the use of “world-saving” games that promote social awareness and include real life actions (one example is a “peak oil” game designed by McGonigal that encourages players to make changes in their real lives that will reduce their real life oil consumption).
I found McGonigal’s talk to be thought-provoking and refreshing. I think she may be on to something, but overall I find her views to be Panglossian. McGonigal sees the millions of hours we collectively spend in game worlds as an escape from real-world problems and suffering. She seems to overlook the possibility that video games themselves might be a causing real problems.
Well-designed video games can be so addictive that susceptible types (myself included) can be pulled in to a degree that will appear, to any dispassionate outside observer, to be excessive, destructive, and possibly demented. More so than other forms of entertainment (novels, movies, magazines, etc.), it is easy to lose entire work-weeks to video gaming.