Utopia is Just Another Epic Win Away

In the last decade alone, the number of Americans who play video games has nearly doubled.  With more than 150 million playing just in 2011 - from children downloading Flappy Bird on their smartphones, to teenagers competing in Halo 3, or families playing Mario Kart on the Wii console - gaming has become among one of the fastest growing industries in entertainment.  But the public consensus on gaming and gamers is largely a negative one.  “Gamers” to the average person tend to be synonymous with “lazy”, “reclusive”, or even related to violence.  With some of the industry’s most popular sellers, such as Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, being well-known for having content strongly consisting of gore, violence, foul language, and explicit sexual references, it becomes an easy association for non-gamers to make.

Gaming, to most people, appears to be counter-productive; a virtual waste of time.  Yet, of those 150 million gaming people just in the United States alone, the average young American spends “more than ten thousand hours playing computer and video games.”  As Jane McGonigal writes in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, “to put that number in perspective, ten thousand hours is almost exactly the same amount of time an average American student spends in the classroom from the moment they start fifth grade all the way through high school graduation… And unlike their formal education, which diffuses their attention across myriad different subjects and skills, every single gaming hour is concentrated on improving at just one thing: becoming a better gamer.”

With ten thousand hours of “expertise” - the rough equivalent of an American public education - what is it, exactly, that gamers are getting “good” at?  If gaming is an activity that is counter-productive, unusable, or even worse, injurious to the people who participate in it, then why do so many people sink so many hours into playing video games?

This is precisely the question that McGonigal poses.  Her answer - “reality is broken”.  In other words, video games have become a better way at meeting our emotional needs than our own “real world” environments.  For a lot of people, on the scale of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, while the basics might be being met, their “psychological needs” are not - intimate relationships, feelings of accomplishment, confidence, a sense of connection.  Because of the setup of video games, achieving some of these needs becomes intrinsically possible.

The principles of what makes a “good game” naturally work in that favor.  According to McGonigal, any good game should have a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.  This is a pretty standard setup, so how do these tenants equate to an improvement in happiness, or overall achievement of emotional needs?  McGonigal poses that if we have intrinsic rewards in our life such as satisfying work, the experience of being successful, social connection, or meaning, we become more intrinsically motivated; a source of motivation that is internally generated, not externally, and so naturally proves to be a more sustainable mode to motivate people over a longer period of time.

By this principle, gamers who put so many hours into becoming a virtual “expert” on gaming are also practicing skills such as collaboration, blissful productivity, and connectivity.  Despite the gamer stereotype of the lone couch potato, the most played games today - League of Legends, World of Warcraft, or DOTA 2 - are all multiplayer games.  Even casual “Facebook” games like Farmville and Words With Friends are played with the average person’s real life friends and acquaintances, reconnecting or strengthening old bonds, perhaps even over massive real world distances.  Though people tend to think of this sort of “social play” as distraction, this kind of gaming in fact tends to be a part of the essential building blocks to community.

“Social play,” writes psychologist Peter Gray, in a section of his Freedom to Learn essay, How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways, “that is, play involving more than one player--is necessarily egalitarian. It always requires a suspension of aggression and dominance along with a heightened sensitivity to the needs and desires of the other players. Players may recognize that one playmate is better at the played activity than are others, but that recognition must not lead the one who is better to lord it over the others.”

Gray based this theory largely off of evidence provided by “anthropological literature”, citing that playfulness was an integral factor in many hunter-gatherer societies, and key to controlling the drive for dominance within a populace.  Even today, in competitive games like League of Legends or Call of Duty - games known for bringing out the worst in players - people display a willingness not only to cooperate with their teammates in the spirit in competition, but to suppress their drive to dominate their adversaries, even if it’s only by a small degree.  If games require voluntary participation, after all, it would be impossible to continue playing a good game if you were feeling thoroughly “dominated” by your competitor, utterly de-motivating you from continuing the game - why continue playing at all, if it’s not going to be fun?  All good gamers know how to maintain a spirit of sportsmanship among their fellow players, even in the “heat of battle”.

Similar to Gray, in her book, McGonigal refers to a tale from Herodotus, a contemporary of Socrates, who accounted a story about the ancient country of Lydia which suffered from an eighteen-year famine.  The Lydians’ solution to this plight, Herodotus wrote, was to organize a series of dice games which would occur every other day. On the “resting days” which occurred in between the festivities, the Lydians would eat; when they were “gaming”, they would not.  And so, allegedly through this process of distraction, the Lydians were able to extend their scarce resources for several more years.

If you take these accounts at face value, it is easy now to see some of the societal benefits of distraction or even competition, and how they can be manipulated to sustain an egalitarian society.  But it may be a bit of a stretch to say that games like World of Warcraft or Farmville still have similar effects on our society today.

This is where “gammification” and “alternate reality games” come into play.

Gammification is a relatively new technique, developed to apply “game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts”.  It’s used in a myriad of applications, from education to marketing, but well-known for being applied through “alternate reality games”, games which seek to engage and motivate people to achieve “real life” goals.  The belief is that when we employ principles which motivate us to participate and win “good games”, to our real life pursuits, we can similarly increase our motivation to achieve real goals, and produce tangible results.

Take a look at the massive non-profit, National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” for short.  Organized by the Office of Letters and Light, and founded by writer Chris Baty back in 1999, NaNoWriMo today is one of the largest internet-based creative writing projects to have ever surfaced.  NaNoWriMo isn’t advertised as a game - or even an alternate reality game, or ARG - but the gammification that the organization employs to its platform is what enables all of the writers who participate to meet their goal: to finish a novel.

How does it work?  Every year, NaNoWriMo challenges all of its participants to voluntarily sign up their novel for the month of November.  Their goal is to write the first 50,000 words of their novel.  The rules?  They have to do it in thirty days.  Participants are kept motivated through the entire process by flow charts which keep track of their “word count” stats, pep talks sent to their inboxes from famous authors such as John Green or Neil Gaiman, as well as a substantial community forum with hundreds of threads full of tips, feedback, instructional posts, and just chat with other writers and plan meet-ups.  In other words, a feedback system.

These mechanics might seem a little trivial or random, but it’s with this structure that NaNoWriMo has enabled 42,221 people to “win” their novel just in 2013 alone - that’s 3,520,123,164 total words that year - not even to include the Young Writer’s Program, an offshoot of NaNo made up of 12 to 18 year-olds, who separately clocked in 18,670 winners that same year.  Many other NaNoers - as the tend to be called - went on the publish their novels, of now acclaimed authors such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and many, many more.

    Organizations aren’t the only one to have utilized gammifcation to improve the success rate of their participants; applications have as well, such as the app Zombies, Run!.  Though the title may be misleading, Zombies, Run! isn’t a zombie fighting game.  It’s a fitness app.  You can download it for free and receive weekly episodes or “missions”, or you can subscribe to download missions whenever you please.  Like Endomondo and other running/fitness apps downloadable to your phone, when you turn on Zombies, Run!, it’ll keep track of running stats - your pace, time, and a GPS locator to measure how far you’ve run.  But the goal of this fitness app isn’t just to get in shape - it’s to save the world.  From zombies, of course.  Every time you download a “mission” from the app, and plug in your headphones to go for a run, an audio narration begins - a radio controller, in the nearby town of town of Abel, is contacting you through your “headset”.  You’re stranded, miles out from civilization, in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.  You’re only hope of survival - “run!”.

It can come across as a laughable premise, but in the thick of it, listening to other characters in this story address you - as one of their fellow “runners” out in the field - it creates a sense of meaning and epic scale that isn’t normally attributed with exercise.  For many, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome with running isn’t the literal miles, it’s the push to get out and do it in the first place.  Jogging in place on a treadmill, or around a circle on a track, can start to feel a little aimless.  Especially since the physical “results” of getting fit can take so long to actually manifest.  In gaming terms, exercise isn’t actually very engaging - it’s feedback system is flawed.  But with apps like Zombies, Run!, running becomes more than just fitness, it becomes fun.  If you allow yourself to be taken in by the interactive storyline, you begin to feel empowered.  As you keep running, an automated voice will tell you when you pick up virtual “supplies”, which you can use later in the app, and apply to a virtual map of “Abel Township”, trading in those supplies to “build up your base” - rebuilding playgrounds, setting up farms, and even fortifying the town walls.  The visuals of the town map change as you upgrade, and the more you improve, the higher your town’s “defense” and “morale” increases, giving the player tangible power in this virtual world - and power for good.  The more you run, and the further you progress in the story, the more established you become as an essential member of this surviving community.  A virtual hero.

    For the ambitious runner, there is an optional “chase mode” that can be activated for any mission.  If it’s enabled, at a random interval along your route, a radar will begin to “beep”, and an automated voice will alert you to a zombie in the area, chasing you, giving you second by second updates as to how close it’s getting.  If the player doesn’t put on a burst of speed, the zombie’s moans grow louder, and it will “catch” you.  Whenever this happens, the player is “forced” to drop some of the supplies they picked up on their run in order to distract the zombie and get away.  Which means less supplies which can be put to use in this virtual township whose safety who’ve been made to feel responsible for in the world of the game.

    Currently, the app has over one million people playing.  For a project that started out as only a Kickstarter, that is a monumental success.

    Even educational apps have gotten in on the gammification track.  DuoLingo is a free language-learning app that can be accessed online through their website or from your smartphone.  There are 23 language courses available - including Spanish, French, German, and even Gaelic - crowdsourced from “experts” such as teachers or specialists in any given language.  Players can add as many courses as they wish, in whatever language they please.  They begin with lessons in the “basics”, such as “phrases” or “foods”, and the player must complete a certain amount of tasks - translating or completing sentences, or speaking translations into their device’s microphone - in order to reach the lessons end, and receive their “XP”, or experience points, for the day.  Players can compare experience points with other friends, if they link their account up with Facebook, and level up, becoming a certain “percent” fluent in any language.  What’s more, once you have completed a lesson, you’ve “strengthened” that subject, but if the lessons are left alone for long enough, your “strength bar” decreases, and you’re prompted to take a refresher course.  This way, not only are learners encouraged to learn the new material, but also to keep it fresh in their minds.

    When gameful principles are introduced to real world applications like this, people become more motivated to participate in the betterment of their own lives.  They’re encouraged to learn new things, tackle new challenges, and meet substantial goals - completely voluntarily.  This is the vein that video games are starting to follow in; improvement of self-acceptance and self-actualization on a global scale.

If video games can continue to do more than just improve people’s moods and emotional needs within virtual worlds, but in our real lives, people will be more inclined to provide for others as well.  Although many of the alternate reality games mentioned here focus on personal betterment, people who are self-actualized are well-known to be more concerned with solving problems outside of themselves.  If video games are to evolve even further in order to sustain an egalitarian society - just as the ancient Lydians and hunter-gatherers evolved their games - then this is the next step in the right direction.  Video games have been shown to increase personal happiness, and in a world that is developing more collaborative, connected, socially playing gamers than any other generation, we are well on our way to evolving into an era with more “expertise” in self-actualization than any other before it.

With millions of people actualized, and motivated to collaborate for a better world, you can bet that in the next couple of decades, we will begin to see a whole new crop of ARGs which go beyond simply enabling people to accomplish personal goals.  These gamers will become the designers of a new genre of gaming to focus on finding the solutions to problems in our external world; to use the rewarding mechanics of games which have pulled in so many, and apply them as fixes that can be employed on a global scale.  A generation of people who are more empathetic, more empowered, and more intrinsically motivated to achieve something greater than just epic wins in virtual online worlds, but to save the one we call our own.

Video games are bringing us closer to a utopia today than we ever have been before.

Shai Cotten