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More on the Games We Play

Sunday, July 11, 2010 Leave a Comment

After some good comments from Ian and Steve regarding our last post, Playing Ball, I came across another great TED video regarding the structure and impact of game play.

Speaker Jane McGonigal designs video games that empower players to change the world. When you level up, the world levels up with you.

The idea of video games being a force for good may be strange - Iowa State University recently posted a study pointing to their deleterious effects, hypothesizing extended play may lead to ADHD.

But a recent study from Jayne Gackenbach reveals that game play may actually lead to more vivid, effective dreaming - a fascinating possibility, given Jonah Lehrer's recent musings on the role of dreams.

And whether dreams are good or bad, by the age of 21, the average American will have played 10,080 hours of video games. If that number sounds familiar, it's because it's also the number Malcolm Gladwell posits as the amount of time needed to achieve expertise in anything.

So America is producing a vast number of young, expert gamers: now what do we do with them? This is a variation of the question Clay Shirkey posed with his idea of the Cognitive Surplus - how do we make good use of the 3 billion hours a week we spend playing online games?

McGonigal believes that our gaming experts share certain skills and values they've honed over their 10,000 hours, what she playfully calls super powers:

  • Urgent optimism - the desire to tackle a challenge immediately, with the reasonable hope of success
  • Blissful productivity - gamers actually enjoy taking on increasingly difficult challenges
  • Collaborative social fabric with fellow gamers
  • Epic meaning - players really want to save the (online) world
How to harness those powers? McGonigal has created a series of games that involve players in real world changing role playing: a game where players must survive a world without oil, another where players try to avert the predictions of the Global Extinction Awareness System, a third that's about to launch where you level up through social innovation.

If these games are successful, they would represent a profound investment of Cognitive Surplus in real world change. And now the question is, given our musings on Playing Ball about the structural overlap of video games and theatre, how can theatre empower its players in a similar way?

I think the recent Laramie Project's 10 year anniversary event is an example of how this can happen - though local empowerment and national connection, Tectonic was able to use the natural strengths of theatre to affect social change.

And another, perhaps even more pressing question - what if instead of video game experts, the average American 21 year old had 10,000 hours of experience in the arts? How different would our country look then? Is such an audacious goal even possible?