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Reality is Broken: Epic Meaning

With the sixth chapter, we conclude Part One: Why Games Make Us Happy.  This last chapter in the section is about epic meaning, "Becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves."  McGonigal focuses on Halo to elucidate the concepts in this chapter.

In this chapter she admits that there are connections to longstanding issues of spirituality, philosophy, and aethetics.  In a way, nothing new is discovered in video games, there is just greater access to the types of epics that bring us meaning.

I liked this quote of Martin Seligman's that she references, "The self is a very poor site for meaning."

I didn't much like the wording of Fix #6 "Compared with games, reality is trivial.  Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions."  I think reality is quite meaningful; there are all sorts of epic tasks that require our effort and courage, but we seem to be distracted to settle for too little.  On the other hand, I do understand, see my second blogpost from back in 2004, "The Mythos of a Gen-X Male."

Games like Halo are "epic in three key ways":

They create epic contexts for action: collective stories that help us connect our individual gameplay to a much bigger mission.

The immerse us in epic environments: vast, interactive spaces that provoke feelings of curiosity and wonder.

And they engage us in epic projects: cooperative efforts carried out by players on massive scales, over months or even years.

Now, all those sound like features of Christianity to me.  How to emphasize them? 

Discussing the epic context for action, she mentions something which can reveal a dark side to video game play.  These games fulfill "gamers' power fantasies" with the "aesthetic pleasures of destruction and the positive feelings we get from exerting control over a situation."  That made me nervous.  But she goes on to right that though that may be (and have been) the case, newer, bigger games are revealing a different sort of power, "the power to act with meaning: to do something that matters in a bigger picture."  But I'm still disturbed, because the big achievement in Halo that is the focus of this chapter, is collectively reaching the number of 10 billion kills.  There are proto-Fascist dangers in all this, I feel.

In the very next paragraph after that last quote, she quotes, "Story sets the stage for meaning."  Exactly, I think.  The content of virtue ethics is the narrative of the community.  So much, then, hinges on what story we find identity and meaning in.  See Alasdair McIntyre.

In the section on creating epic environments, I was intrigued by her discussion of neolithic cathedrals and how humanity has always worked to create spaces that are both humbling and empowering in their scale.  She says that recent research is positing that these epic buildings pre-date complex societies and may have inspired them, rather than the traditional view that humanity first developed settled and complex farming communities and then began to construct major buildings.  She wonders, then, if the epic environments of the gaming world might inspire human development?

In discussing the soundscapes of the games, she quotes the audio director of Halo, "The music should give a feeling of importance, weight, and a sense of the 'ancient.'"  She writes, "The score includes Gregorian chanting, a string orchestra, percussion, and Qawwali vocals, a Sufi devotional style of music intended to produce an ecstatic state in the listener."  These discussions of space and sound are interesting to me from a worship arts perspective, and I will likely share them with our Worship Ministry as we discuss our next topic -- the psychology of worship.

One feature of the epic projects, is the collection of knowledge to help one another.  She writes about Halowiki where there are incredible amounts of tips, advice, and reflection.  It made me curious if we could develop on-line sharing of church members of simple "how to-s" in living the Christian life?  Of course, we do do that in real life conversations and interactions in classes, groups, informal fellowship, etc.

One problem with post-1980 generations, she writes, is that our culture focused too much on self-esteem.  The result is more depression and anxiety.  She writes, "We want to be esteemed in the eyes of others, not for 'who we are,' but rather for what we've done that really matters."  This resonates with the class I taught last fall on The Curse of the Self

And I'll let her speak for herself on some concluding points to this chapter and Part One:

Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. . . .  It's high time we start applying the lessons of games to the design of our everyday lives.  We need to engineer alternate realities: new, more gameful ways of interacting with the real world and living our real lives.

Reality is Broken: Social Connectivity

In chapter five we get Fix #5:

Compared with games, reality is disconnected.  Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks.  The more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as "prosocial emotions."

Okay, there's some good stuff in this chapter, but paragraph above kinda annoys me.  She later admits that better social networks can and should be built in real life and that on-line social networks help to strengthen existing relationships primarily.  But she does think that games have a positive impact for the depressed, the lonely, and others who might have difficulty making real-world connections at the moment.  And, in fact, they lead more real-world contacts.

She focuses attention on on-line games like Lexulous and Farmville.  The first of these seems to have strengthened family communications.  She goes so far as to claim that for many of the games 5 million players the "primary reason" they play "is to have an excuse to talk to their mom every day."

This works effectively because of asychronous gameplay, where players don't have to be on-line playing at the same time.

Social network gaming seems to be counteracting a normal human tendency to isolate the more prosperous we become.  Generally, the wealthier we are, the more we isolate from other people.  (Some resonance here with last Sunday's passage from the Sermon on the Mount.)

These games develop "prosocial emotions," which include things like "love, compassion, admiration, and devotion."  Clearly some of the things we talk about in church, but we discuss them more as virtues, habits, practices, skills than we do as emotions.

One of the gaming practices that facilitates social connectivity is "trash-talking."  Here are some of the things she has to say about this:

We crave the experience of teasing each other about it, in private and in public.

Teasing each other, recent scientific research has shown, is one of the fastest and most effective ways to intensify our positive feelings for each other.

First, it confirms trust: the person doing the teasing is demonstrating the capacity to hurt, but simultaneously showing that the intention is not to hurt.

Conversely, by allowing someone else to tease us, we confirm our willingness to be in a vulnerable position.  We are actively demonstrating our trust in the other person's regard for our emotional well-being.

Happy embarrassment . . . we're hardwired to feel it.

This section of the chapter is worth reading and thinking about, and I've not included every point thse makes. 

I'm not sure what I think about it.  As a guy, this is my experience, especially with other guy friends.  So, I recognize what she is describing.  In our current anti-bullying regime teasing is understood to be fraught with danger, and sometimes I worry that we will go overboard and punish harmless social interactions.  But what is harmful and what harmless?  That's so difficult to figure out.  Even in my marriage, sometimes one of us is simply teasing the other, but the one being teased takes it as something not funny.

And I have wonder about Jesus' admonitions throughout the gospels to treat others as we would be treated, to understand things from their perspective, not to judge, to do good things for others, to be compassionate, etc.  This teasing activity would put us in dangerous territory.

She also discusses the ability of acting silly to improve our social connectivity.  Right on there.

McGonigal presents the concept of naches, which is "a Yiddish word for the bursting pride we feel when someone we've taught or mentored succeeds."  I liked this idea and it fits with my approach to youth ministry.

One mild form of social connectivity is "social presence," where we share the same game space with others, but may not be actively playing with them.  Some researchers believe that this experience can help train the brain to find social interaction itself more rewarding.  McGonigal writes that more research needs to be done on this point, and that would be intriguing to see.  Research on involvement in a congregation would seem to strengthen this idea.  See American Grace, for instance, on how active church goers also become more generous and volunteer more, even for non-church projects.

She concludes that "Gamers, without a doubt, are reinventing what we think of as our daily community infrastructure."

Reality is Broken: Fun Failure

In her fourth chapter, Jane McGonigal approaches the topic of failure as a component of games and how failure is a key part of the fun.

"Wen we're playing a well-designed game, failure doesn't disappoint us.  It makes us happy in a very particular way: excited, interested, and most of all optimistic."

Now, the games I have become frustrated with and quit playing did not give me that sense she describes.  Halo, for instance, was like that for me.  As game controllers got more elaborate and movement in games more complex, I had greater difficulty, which came to a head the first time I tried to play Halo and couldn't move around at all.  I kept getting stuck between things too and by some glitch in the game couldn't move at all.  I gave up. 

The "fun failure" of games helps players develop "exceptional mental toughness," she concludes.

An interesting portion of this chapter is spent discussing optimism.  "To optimists, set-backs are energizing--and the more energized we get, the more fervently we believe that success is just around the corner."  This resonates with my own views on the resurrection and my oft-repeated phrase from Franz Rosenzweig, "Christians are the eternal beginners."

Now, a darkside of this chapter emerges when she discusses how we keep playing games when we are failing, but generally quit when we have mastered the game.  Oddly, this does not seem to the be case for traditional games likes chess or various card or board games.  We keep playing them because they are new every time.  Video games cease to be new; they do get boring; and we pass on to what comes next.  She doesn't address this point about traditional games.

She does say "This is what makes games consumable: players wring all the learning (and fun) out of them."  This is disturbing to me, particularly the use of consumable.  I don't like the consumer nature of our current economics.  The adventure of the church's ministry is clearly not something we want consumed.

A final section of the chapter discusses the success of Rock Band, particularly how failure and success are programmed.  Not only is Rock Band one of the highest selling games of all time, it has real world impact, as a huge percentage of its players have taken up real musical instruments.  It and other games like it have also been very successful at bringing back family game nights and families spend time playing the game together.  She concludes the chapter, "If you still think of gamers as loners, then you're not playing games."

Further note

There is a Pelagianism underlying McGonigal's work in the last chapter, which I just posted about. 

I'm back to reading a chapter in MacCulloch and he is discussing Augustine and Pelagius.  It is interesting the touchstones between these two, very different, books.

Reality is Broken: More Satisfying Work

Her chapters are pretty short.  The third one is about "More Satisfying Work."  Here, of course, is one of the issues I posted an article about yesterday.  Yes, gameplay is a form of "work," but blurring work and play can be a problem, some think.  I guess McGonigal does not.

Her illustration throughout is World of Warcraft.  I have never played.  I never even played a massive multi-player game.  I have played games in teams at a LAN party (remember those?).  I've also never gotten into on-line games.  There was some on-line fantasy game I played for a few months when living in Fayetteville; Jordan and Tyler, two of my youth, got me playing.  I don't remember why I quit, or even what the name of the game was.

Since World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 its players have now played a collective 5.93 million years of the game.  Stunning, isn't it.  That's about how long hominids have been standing upright.

The success of WoW is the blissful productivity it provides, "the sense of being deeply immersed in work that produces immeidate and obvious results." 

Fix #3, then, is "Compared with games, reality is unproductive.  Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work."

She concludes that the fastest way to improve someone's "everyday quality of life" is to give them a clear goal to work toward. 

Some of the other features of WoW that are successful include leveling up, resource building, teamwork and phasing.  Phasing is a game feature that is "designed to vividly show us our impact on the world around us."  Achievement in the game not only rewards the avatar/character, it has visible changes in the gameworld.

This, she writes, is "one of the things we crave most in life" -- having an impact on the world

She herself found the game engaging because she was "rich with goals."  "Every quest came with clear, urgent instructions--where to go, what to do, and why the fate of the kingdom hung in the balance of my getting it done as soon as possible."

Quest, of course, is one of my favourite metaphors, particularly applied to ministry and the spiritual life.  When I was a youth minister my Wednesday night programs were always called "TheQuest," which is why I named the blog "MyQuest." 

I'm also reminded of Kenda Creasy Dean's work on youth ministry and the church.  Youth are seeking passionate faith, which they often find lacking in mainline Protestant churches. 

So, some of what McGonigal is saying here resonates with my goals for the church's ministry to excite, inspire, and engages people's passions to enter into the quest that is Christian discipleship.

Reality is Broken: Happiness

In her second chapter, Jane McGonigal discusses postive pscyhology and its use in game design to create happiness.

In 1975 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a "science of happiness."  A key component is flow, defined as "the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning."   Csikszentmihalyi had concluded that the failure of most real-life institutions to provide flow was an urgent moral issue.

In recent years positive psychology has developed to study human flourishing, and the results of these studies are used by game designers.  So, she arrives at Fix #2: Compared with games, reality is depressing.  Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we're good at and enjoy."

So, we begin to see more distinctly one of the problems for the religious life.  All religions deal with the reality of human suffering and some, like Christianity, call for our solidarity with suffering, even, at times, taken someone else's suffering on ourselves.  Therefore, if we are to use ideas from this game theory, we must be aware of a hedonistic focus.  Can the call to solidarity, though, be part of the adventure of epic meaning.  Yes, I think so.

Prior to video games, flow was generally available only after great effort, practice, or expending incredible resources.  Video games were different, "Never before in human history could this kind of optimal emotional activation [she has in mind the actual physical process of extreme neurochemical activation] be accessed so cheaply, so reliably, so quickly."

One problem with early video games however, was fatigue and burnout.  It was discovered that they provided too much flow, therefore gamers became interested in how to design a more "continuous approach to well-being."

The final section of this chapter is about how we make our own happiness.  There is some resonance here with the self-help genre, but not as treacly.  Her conclusion, "We have to make our own happiness -- by working hard at activities that provide their own reward."

Since I'm preaching on the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus critiques activity done for a reward, I'm concerned.  In the Sermon, Jesus preaches that the good life/blessing comes from living with God and that includes things like loving others.  There are intrinsic goods that come with the virtues discussed in the sermon. 

Even she, however, criticizes external rewards as bringer of happiness.  She is looking for intrinsic goods as well, though I don't think the same as Jesus was.  She does criticizes the American way of life for putting people on the "global hedonic treadmill."  This resonated with some stuff I was reviewing today in Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change, about the gospel liberating us from "The Prosperity System."

One of those instrinsic goods is meaning.  In her short paragraph on it (I assume we'll get into more detail in a later chapter), she has a sentence that resonates with worship: "We want to feel curiosity, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales."

Game play and work

Thanks to UMJeremy for the link to this article which critiques the game-ification of work and the rest of our lives.  As I read and we, hopefully, discuss Jane McGonigal's book and its implications, let's also read this essay and keep what it has to say in mind.  Some excerpts:

And yet, there's something a little bit disturbing about thinking of games as "work"… or of work as "games". I was excited to find out that the divide between the things I do for fun and the things I do because they're work isn't so big, but if that divide were really gone, what would it feel like? Would I lose my ability to distinguish between "work" and "play?" Would that drive me nuts?


Could it be a bad thing to reduce big goals for my personal, non-digital life to the equivalent of game quests? On one hand, I'm definitely going to benefit in a substantial way from keeping at running – better health, physical fitness, and the beneficial near-meditative state that runners assume when they're pounding the pavement. Fundamentally I'm proud of myself because I'm completing runs, not because I'm posting new stats to the RunKeeper site.

But "gamification" is a concept that's here to stay; the positive view is that applying proven game design concepts to some of our least-favorite or most tedious life tasks can make us more productive and help us have fun doing it. The negative view is that we've become so dependent on designed interaction, compulsion loops and receiving positive feedback for everything that we can't just exist spontaneously, that we need to be "tricked" into achieving.

Reality is Broken: This Could Be a Game

The first chapter covers the necessary discussion of explaining what a game is.  It is the basics of game theory, but with a few things new to me, ideas that it seems have particularly arisen in response to video games.

The four basic features of a game are: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.  She quotes Bernard Suits, "Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."  Quite right.

This leads her to what she labels "Fix #1," as in one of the things we need to do to fix reality.  Here it is "Compared with games, reality is too easy.  Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us to put our personal strengths to better use."

One feature of games that is more dominate in video games is "flow."  This is the state of working at the very limits of your ability.  Video games are programmed to provide that in a way that sports and traditional games don't as easily and directly.  Because of flow, a gamer doesn't want to quit playing.  They also don't want to win either, because that ends the game.  They'd rather go on being challenged (does this explain the former high school sports star and his depression?).  She is quite clear that competition and winning are not defining traits of games or gamers.

Another feature of recent games is that the rules and goals are not explained ahead of time.  Traditionally we learned those and then played.  Now most games begin with the player not knowing those and figuring them out before proceeding. 

What makes us happy is the hard work of these unnecessary obstacles.  Why, then, does this hard work make us happy?  It seems counterintuitive that relaxation or being entertained aren't what makes us happiest, but she cites research to show that they do not.  Hard work that we have chosen to perform actually is more satisfying.  She quotes Tal Ben-Shahar, "We're much happier enlivening time rather than killing time."

She quotes Brian Sutton-Smith, "The opposite of play isn't work.  It's depression."  Depression includes "a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity."  The opposite of those are "an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity."  Gameplay, she writes, is the opposite of depression.

Interesting.  Could gameplay be prescribed as a therapy for depression and other mental illnesses? 

I've seen this work, though not clearly thought of it this way, in my pastoral care.  Often for someone who is depressed or suffering in some way, I recommend that they take on a project of doing something for someone else.

Hard work we are required to do doesn't animate like the hard work we choose to do.  So one thing she asks us to consider, "What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work."

 A final interesting addition to game theory she mentions is the experience of "fiero."  It is an Italian word with no direct equivalent in English.  It is the kind of pride and emotional high and that comes from triumphing over adversity.  It appears to be a universal emotional experience that most humans react to in exactly the same way "we throw our arms over our head and yell."  The Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford has concluded that fiero is "the emotion that first created a desire to leave the cave and conquer the world."  It is our most primal emotional rush.

Understanding games in this way, we should begin to get over some of our skepticism and mistrust of them and begin to contemplate about various activities in life "This could be a game."


I do think there are some interesting things for church and ministry to consider here.  I believe that the religious life is an adventure.  It is not about following some certain set of rules, duties, or obligations.  The spiritual practices and disciplines are not burdensome, but are ways of training ourselves that have rewarding outcomes.  I have not thought about them before according to the analogy of rules in game.  There are some limits to that analogy, of course, but it could be a helpful one.  Something of this has entered into my preaching on the Sermon on the Mount -- live this way because of the adventure of it, not because you were told you have to.

Could the concepts of flow and fiero be helpful?  Yes, I think so.  I'm going to have to contemplate them further and would love insights from you.  What do you think?  Let's talk this out and think creatively together.

Reality is Broken: Introductions

So begins a series of blogposts on Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

I first heard about her and her work about three weeks ago when some NPR show covered the release of this book and had a brief interview with her.  I then googled her and the book and found the "movement's" website.  From it I watched, and posted here, her TED lecture.  I then included that lecture in my sermon from two weeks ago.  Now the book has arrived and I've begun reading it.

Here is what I am looking for in reading and blogging and discussing it.

  1. To have a better understanding of gaming culture and gamers, which is a significant chunk of our population.
  2. To have a better understanding of current theory around game (which I assume is somewhat distinct but related to traditional game theory).
  3. To develop further my critique that the things she is saying can be found best in gaming are things which ought to be found in the church (or one's religious faith).
  4. To see if the principles of gaming might be available for use by the church in some form or fashion, from the simplest of ideas -- as a relevant metaphor in preaching to contemporary audiences -- to the bigger notion -- could we/should we develop a game or game model to further the mission of the church?

Also as a side note, I don't consider myself a gamer.  I played lots of Atari and Nintendo and computer games over the years.  Our senior year in college I wasted lots of time playing Mario Kart on the 64.  I enjoyed the new immersive games like Myst and played my friends' copies.  I've never purchased a gaming system, never feeling that I had the money.  In the late 90's and early Aughts I bought and played games like Civilization and Age of Empires and played those well into the last decade.  I quit playing them and never bought new games, though I did look and intended to buy new a few years ago.  More on that in a moment.  When I was a youth minister I played lots of video games at the homes of my youth.

In the late Aughts when finally my computer upgraded to a version which didnt' sustain well all the games I did own, I didn't have the disposable income to purchase new.  I had intended to, but never got around to it.  At the time I had a vibrant social life, was actively involved in many community projects, and my relationship with Michael was developing.  Plus social networking began to occupy time that might have previously gone to game playing. 

I do occassionally miss have some game to while away the hours playing, particularly when I have insomnia.  But I've done nothing to correct it. 

So, maybe I have a gamer side, it has just atrophied over the last half decade.

Now with my introductions, here are my reflections on hers.

She writes that "the real world increasingly feels like it's missing something:"

Gamers want to know:  Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment?  Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community?  Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment?  Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory?  While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they're playing their favorite games.

Her basic conclusion, despite naysayers, is something she thinks everyone needs to take notice of: "video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy."

As in her TED lecture, she discusses Herodotus and his view of games.  She, interestingly to me, enters into this discussion with a motto from the Institute for the Future: "To understand the future, you have to look back at least twice as far as you're looking ahead."  I wonder what my traditionalists at church would make of that quote?

From Herodotus she concludes that games can have an important social purpose.  Therefore, she thinks that games with a social purpose need to be designed (and already are).  She also thinks that we need to all start thinking like gamers and designing reality to be more like games -- more creative, more problem solving, more fulfilling, happier, etc.  This, I am very drawn to.

I am big into transforming the world.  It comes with my faith in the reign of God and our role as ambassadors of it.  I like her promise that by the end of the book "You'll be prepared to create powerful, alternate realities."

Now, I am a little amused by the near-spiritual sort of language she does use in places, such as this:

If you are a gamer . . . you have been building up a wealth of virtual experience that . . . can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what make [sic] you happiest.

She does think that gaming has contributed new evolutionary skills to humanity, that gamers have developed "world-changing ways of thinking, organizing, and acting."

Maybe the final take-away from the Introduction is this: "I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality."