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Breaking news: Video games will save the world. Plus, the moon is made of tapioca

February 16, 2011

Jane McGonigal: Reality is broken and I can't find my comb.

Far be it from me to disparage another person’s vice — I’ve admitted a weakness for the Syfy Channel more than once — but apparently it’s not enough to tolerate video games as a harmless pastime. We now must accept that, like milk, they do a body good.

I’m responding here to a HuffPo piece by Jane McGonigal, “author and video game designer,” who has written a book called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

Noting that half a billion people play games at least an hour a day, with young people racking up 10,000 hours (or as much time as they spend in school) by the time they turn 18, McGonigal asserts that this not time wasted, as it would be on such trivial pursuits as playing outside, volunteering at an animal shelter or, oh I don’t know, reading some books.

No, McGonigal crows, “more than a decade’s worth of scientific research” shows that gaming induces powerful emotions, sharpens social interactions, instills personal confidence, strengthens bonds to family and friends, and teaches the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Let me pause to say right here –you saw this coming, right? –that this is all pure balderdash. I’m not condemning gaming. My nephew spends an exorbitant amount of time playing World of Warcraft, and he’s a fine young man who’s doing well in college–he has an actual girlfriend!

But the notion that playing video games is a better way to bond with family than, say, going on a picnic, or visiting a museum, or attending church, or simply sitting around the dinner table chatting is just ridiculous. It’s the kind of argument that could only be made by someone with a vested interest –mmm…video-game designer, eh?

I’m not saying playing video games might not provide some marginal improvement in certain cognitive or social skills, but what it would make really make you better at is playing video games. It’s like lifting weights at the gym, which demonstrably increases strength but mainly makes you better at — what? Why, lifting weights at the gym. If you want to translate that strength to, say, a sport, then you have to get out of the gym and practice the freakin’ sport.

But doesn’t McGongial say she has scientific evidence that we are on the brink of a video game-induced Age of Aquarius, with sympathy and trust abounding and the mind’s true liberation and all that? Well, yes, she does, and maybe the science in her book is convincing, I don’t know.

The “scientific evidence” she quotes in her HuffPo essay, however, is of the subjective variety. People who play video games become happier and better at all kinds of things, including playing musical instruments, taking tests, being helpful, etc., etc., etc.

How does she know? She asks people! These are self-reported results! Researcher: “So, Chad, after playing Guitar Hero for 23 hours this week, did you practice on your real guitar?” Chad: “Yeah, dude, I practiced way more than I would have without the inspiration of playing video games!”

Another satisfied customer. And when this subject participates in a dietary study, or a study of budgeting, he will accurately report how many calories he consumed or how much money he spent. Riiiight.

Again, I’m not attacking video games, only McGonigal’s absurd claims. What most disturbs me, though, is her assertion that “reality is broken.”

“The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not.”

Really? The exact same thing could be said of crack cocaine. I submit that McGonigal is ignorant of a few basic aspects of the human character — chiefly, that reality cannot be broken. Only our response to it can be broken. This is a truth recognized by mystics, philosophers and artists since the dawn of time.

“It is better for you to be free of fear lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and a rich table and be full of trouble,” said Epicurus. Or St. Paul: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” And Will Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves…”

McGonigal asserts: “The fact that so many people of all ages, all over the world, are choosing to spend so much time in game worlds is a sign of something important, a truth that we urgently need to recognize.”

Yes, it’s a sign that video games are powerfully addictive — and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. So is my primary choice of entertainment, books.

There’s nothing wrong with video games, that is, so long as we don’t confuse, as I fear McGonigal has, the virtual reality of gaming with the “real” reality where we live and breathe and interact with actual people.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean Piccoli permalink
    February 16, 2011 3:38 pm

    I wonder if she thinks the inverse is also true, that if you’re not playing video games you’re broken, too.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2011 4:00 pm

      She’s thinking through a scrim of self interest — as who doesn’t? And of course she’s wrong.

  2. PJ Parrish permalink
    February 16, 2011 3:45 pm

    Confession: I played Angry Birds the other night. I will never get that hour back. I feel so cheap and used…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2011 4:02 pm

      Let your conscience be your guide. By the way, my cousin is in town, and the first thing she did was shake me by the shoulders and ask: “WHEN IS A NEW PJ PARRISH BOOK COMING OUT?!?!”

      • PJ Parrish permalink
        February 17, 2011 11:21 am

        July. The publisher kept moving it around the sked to “position” it better. I think that means they were waiting to see if Borders paid them.

        Seriously, tell you cousin it’s our first stand alone thriller (sans Louis, who is resting) called The Killing Song. It is, I say with all modesty, our best yet.

  3. Dexter permalink
    April 26, 2012 6:26 pm

    I know it’s been a while since you posted this article, but I would personally like to see a change in the focus of video game design into one that hones the creativity of gamers and utilises thinking for something productive. If gamers are willing to play good games and learn complicated gaming systems as long as the game is entertaining and challenging enough, then why not have games designed that involve gamers solving issues that are not just virtual?

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