If you're not a gamer, it’s hard to imagine why 183 million Americans spend over 13 hours a week playing video games. It’s even harder to see why game designer Jane McGonigal would claim that games are the route to solving the world’s problems. Games instill some very good habits in people, McGonigal writes in her recently published book Reality is Broken. For starters, they make people happy because when they compete against each other or against artificial intelligence, their creative juices flow. As they improve in the game, their sense of accomplishment and self-confidence rises. Complicated games also require complex moves, which further gives players the rush of overcoming a challenge. If you play in an online community, your peers cheer you on. And in many games, you partner with others to achieve a goal.
All this makes for an intellectually challenging, emotionally satisfying day. Real life should be like this, but usually our jobs tend to dissolve into dull repetitive tasks. McGonigal says this simmering unhappiness smothers our inventiveness and initiative, whereas playing a game fuels them. In others words, reality is broken and games often present the only reality that we want. If we try to solve real world problems by using games, we’ll be able to channel our idealistic quest-driven energies into something the world desperately needs: people working together to solve our most challenging problems.
The idea is incredibly appealing and McGonigal’s book is sprinkled with examples, personal anecdotes and plenty of references from psychology studies. But to me (Ayesha), it was still very theoretical. Parag plays tennis but I’ve never played a competitive sport. Once I tried to fly a fighter plane in a video game at an arcade, and I was such a disaster that the man playing next to me commented dryly, “Glad you’re not driving me home.” I walked away thinking games were just not my cup of tea. But McGonigal’s book got me thinking: maybe I was missing something.
I quickly researched the top iPhone games and downloaded the most popular one: Angry Birds. Essentially the game works as follows: you use a slingshot to launch fat red birds at round green pigs sitting in various structures in order to destroy them. It’s been downloaded 50 million times in 2010 and is one of the most mind-numbing games I’ve had the misfortune to play. I quickly discarded it after murdering several pigs, and moved on to other popular but equally ridiculous games. “This is why McGonigal is wrong,” I thought. “Games are a huge waste of time.”
I tried to remember games I’d liked as a child and memories of my father playing chess with me flashed in my mind. I quickly searched and found the chess app Shredder and began to play. Soon I was completely engrossed in the game. At one point, I made an admittedly stupid move, and my opponent (the app) commented “I don’t think that was a good move.” Another time, I could see I wasn’t going to win so I offered to resign and the game replied, “No, I’d like to continue playing.” On seeing it refuse my offer, I burst out laughing much to the surprise of my fellow commuters in the crowded 6 train, “All right, you’ll regret that you cheeky fellow!” Then I kept playing until I lost. Needless to say, I’ve since been playing regularly and really enjoy the experience. I also quite like my opponent who always plays Black. I have developed quite an affection for him (I like to call him "Shredster") and even though he always wins, it takes longer for him to check-mate me each time.
Having now re-read McGonigal’s book after tasting the thrill of gaming, I can relate much better to what she is saying. The book is exemplary: McGonigal has expressed a vision for games that even the layperson can understand and should read. One of the games she recommends is a social game called Extraordinaires, which allows you to do a good deed in as little as a minute. Now whenever I have a few moments to spare, I often tag photographs for the Louvre and I must say I feel like a good world citizen after doing it. There are hundreds of acts of citizenry you can engage in using Extraordinaires. Micro-volunteering will be a powerful way to allow the public to fully engage with the public good.
If you think you don’t like games, it’s because you haven’t found the game you like … yet.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.