Thursday, May 5, 2011


The first book I’m putting on my summer reading list is a new book with the wonderful title “Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”. The optimism of the title was expressed enthusiastically by the author, Jane McGonigal, in a recent radio interview. She described how games can change behavior, treat depression and anxiety, and tap into skills that young people have developed through the games they’ve already played. Instead of just shooting, games can be designed that engage problem solving skills, creative thinking and shift emphasis from competition to cooperation. There is a realm of possibilities here that we probably haven’t begun to imagine. The author describes new games that develop our minds and abilities, and open better opportunities for learning in a venue where anything can be simulated. This raises the fascinating question of where we could go that we can’t in reality, and by the repeated training through technology, developing powers we humans don’t currently have. Anthropologists have pointed out how the brain jumped in size after we started using tools. They provided a new level of involvement with physical reality that included building, modifying, weighing and counterbalancing. Each new physical act brought with it new metaphors for thinking about building our future, modifying our plans, weighing our alternatives and counterbalancing risks.
Given the complexity of the new tools in our midst, it seems reasonable to expect another jump in the capacities of our brains. It might give us a chance to cultivate values that could lead to a more harmonious society. This may be the most important area where imagery can foster a more positive evolution in our human minds. We can reshape the foundation that guides thought from a model based on separateness and competing ideas and values, to one that shows the interconnectedness of everything and our participation in intelligent organization seen in everything around us.
Video and computer games offer the possibility of expanding human consciousness.
The entertainment goals of the industry have used most of the development dollars thus far, but in the realm of education there’s plenty to still be explored. Classroom games that feature collaboration could develop the sense of pleasure we get from working together. Rewards for discovery of what’s new can help people out of old mindsets that distrust what’s unfamiliar and cultivate instead a taste for difference. The brain is already designed to support novelty seeking, producing dopamine to stimulate even more interest. The visual nature of screen based media opens the way for development of visual reasoning that would build on abilities favored by video games, discerning the significant detail, the inconsistency in a picture, the anticipation of the next step in a pattern, which could lead to skills in perceiving deeper level more complex patterns. The military has long used simulation for training. It should be possible to use it to add sophistication to our ability to conceptualize.
Most video games now are spatially organized but can do all kinds of things that real space can’t. Since memory is spatially organized we might be able to introduce difficult concepts like multiple dimensions in a way that makes sense to the visual brain. One Superbowl commercial had a character walking from room to room and the wall becomes the floor in each successive room, regular gravity is ignored. And we adjust with it. There was a remarkable experiment at the end of the nineteenth century where the subject wears prism glasses that turn the entire visual field upside down. By the end of a week wearing them, the wearer saw the world right side up again, adapting to whatever it has to do to function in the world. This capacity could be used to understand deeper level interconnection in the patterning we participate in. What kinds of simulations would encourage a deep sense of interconnection to the world? Seeing everything as extensions of ourselves we would naturally care for it.
It’s a potential that can only be played out visually, finding representations that can help us see the linkages between complex systems and the constants in their functioning.
Today’s young people have been conditioned to the attitude that easy is good, robbing them of the pleasure of really getting lost in something that demands full attention. The state of flow in the peak experience occurs with the maximum challenge we can handle. Self-consciousness and time disappear in the ongoing response to feedback which keeps attention completely in the here and now of the action. When you’re deeply involved you feel most alive, experiencing the very best brain chemistry. Video games have provided a version of this experience for young people and are an ideal format for new kinds of challenges. With the rising popularity of playing with many others on line, it’s not hard to envision game designs that help us finally make the shift from a machine model of reality to an organic, multiple systems one that could in fact “change the world”.


Douglas said...

“Reality is Broken” sounds like a very interesting and unique book.
It is good for once to see an article looking at how games can change
people and the world positively rather than negatively.

One thing that has always bugged me is in modern times, shooters
and beat’em ups are king. This was not always the case, and I’m glad to see
that slowly with the new motion controls the industry is moving back to how it was.

Once, before games cost millions to make, there were many games that reached
out beyond the norm.
Games such as the Myst Sieres (Myst, Riven, Exile, Revelations), King’s Quest and Monkey Island
all entertain by using methods beyond the norm. Some told amazing or funny stories, others
challenged the mind in new ways.

As said, gladly they are starting to come back.
If you have not already, I recommend checking out the following games:

Professor Layton
Wii Sports
Art Academy
Monkey Island SE
Rock Band
Little Big Planet

And there are lots more starting to emerge every day.

Brian said...

Here is a link to a talk that Jane McGonigal gave over a year ago. It's a little dated but still inspiring.

She talks about a game where your character must live in a society without oil. Interesting huh?

I think one of the problems with making games that don't deal with guns, combat, platforming, racing, etc. is that these are the languages we've established in interactive media over the past few years. Thinking beyond that is difficult. It's like creating a new language of sorts.

Brian said...

Child of Eden and Portal 2 are also awesome new games.