A Game in the Woods

So today I was sent a link to the kind of educational game that typically makes me want to bang my head into a wall: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/26/walden-woods-video-game-based-on-philosopher-thoreaus-life/

In this case, part of my reaction is through no fault of the game itself (which has not yet been developed), but because I harbor a deep and abiding cynicism and disdain for Henry David Thoreau. As a philosopher, Thoreau has some ideas that have formed the basis for non-violent resistance (“Civil Disobedience”) and increased support for and awareness of environmental causes (Walden). In that sense, I suppose Thoreau is a good thing.

What I cannot fathom is why a game based on Walden would at all be attractive. Thoreau “went into the woods… to live deliberately.” The vagueness of that phrase aside, the idea of “living deliberately” as a game mechanic does not thrill me (which the article linked to above does indeed note). The game is designed for – it appears – exploration of three-dimensional virtual space. There are other games – Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim – that have done this, and to great effect. The aesthetics of such games alone can make non-mechanic-driven exploration autotelically rewarding.

In terms of Walden, I am not optimistic. Walden Pond itself, while beautiful, is not a vast expanse of wilderness. It’s two miles from Concord, Massachusetts (to which, I will note, Thoreau walked on a regular basis to have lunch with his friends and buy groceries while “living deliberately” in the woods, as commenter Bryan J. Maloney notes: “Will it also feature the multiple times he was a dinner guest at the houses in the area?”). It takes about a half-hour to and hour to leisurely stroll around the pond. Not the kind of space one generally deems worth virtual exploration.

And, finally, there is the purpose of the game:

The team behind the video game Walden said it “posits a new genre of play, in which reflection and insight play an important role in the player experience”. While the player travels through the virtual world of Walden, and deals with everyday life at Walden Pond, they will also be asked, the team said, to “focus on the deeper meaning behind events that transpire in the world. By attending to these events, the player is able to gain insight into the natural world, and into connections that permeate the experience of life at Walden.”

Generally speaking, I am underwhelmed when my students suggest that the purpose of something (anything) is to “make you think.” Yes, reflection should be an integral part of the way we respond to everything, games included, but there needs to be more to it than that. Think about what? And how does the videogame experience of Walden Pond (which is largely a fictionalized account of supposed real life) encourage us to consider and interact with nature? While I am a proponent of videogaming as an important critical medium, even I am going to be a cynic about using a videogame to connect with nature. Nature is outside.

Gender Games

So recently a friend brought this comic from The Oatmeal to my attention.

What is interesting about it – speaking as a female gamer who doesn’t always “suck” – is that regardless of the sexist nature of the reactions being depicted, the artist (Matthew) has a valid point. What he doesn’t mention is that when a female gamer is actually good, she is often accused of one of several things: 1) that she’s really a 13-year-old boy; 2) that she’s the “real gamer’s” girlfriend and is simply speaking over the headset; 3) that she’s a lesbian; or 4) that she’s hideously ugly and has no other reason for gaming than that she is incapable of attracting a boyfriend or friends.

To be fair, this sense is diminishing – and rapidly so – as more women take up gaming, which is why I’m going to share a story about my own experience playing Team Fortress 2 on Steam.

Let me begin by saying that while I may be fairly terrible at Call of Duty and Gears of War 3 multiplayer, I am good at TF2. Really good. Once I began playing in earnest, I was usually first or second on the leaderboard. My favorite classes are Medic and Heavy, with some Pyro and a little Engineer thrown in for variety. During the incident about to be described, I was playing Medic and leading the board by a fair margin.

I had also been called a “dude” more than once – “Hey, dude! Heal me!” – likely because I had yet to speak over the headset (as was my customary behavior, not wanting to deal with the inevitable name-calling, accusations of boyhood, or requests for photos to “prove” I was really female). I am not complaining about this assumption, since the majority of players are male and if you’re going to choose a default gender, male is most likely correct.

Then a new group joined the game. They were from Argentina. They spoke Spanish. The rest of the players already in the game (all male, except for me) spoke English. At one point, one of the Americans decided to demonstrate his Spanish skills, and announced “Yo quiero cabeza!” This prompted outrageous laughter from the Argentinians, as the American had annouced “I want head!” instead of what he thought he was saying, which was “I want beer!”

At this point, I decided to intervene: “You mean ‘cerveza,’ not ‘cabeza.’”

Silence.

“Dude… you’re a girl?”

“Yes.”

Immediately followed by, “Eres una chica?” (the Spanish equivalent).

What was amazing about the rest of the game was that they immediately got over my gender and focused on the fact that I was capable of translating requests and orders from one half of my team to the other. By the end of it, no one cared that I was a girl. They cared that I was good at the game and capable of helping them cooperate. And – amazingly enough – everyone was polite, even to one another.

My point is that while The Oatmeal is right, the opposite can and does also happen. And every time a group of guys treat a female gamer like just another gamer something amazing happens – it’s called leadership.

Work or Play

The design of the work flow is key here: the game constantly challenging you to try something just a little bit more difficult than what you’ve just accomplished. These microincreases in challenge are just big enough to keep sparking your interest and motivation – but never big enough to create anxiety or an ability gap. (McGonigal 57)

The fundamental issue here, I believe, lies in the fact that McGonigal is proposing to use game mechanics as a means of improving work life. While on the one hand, this approach has a lot of potential, it also ignores one significant component of (at least some) work: that there may not be any of the incremental steps to which McGonigal here refers. In some industries, these steps might well exist, but in some fields and occupations, the work being done does not have steps – the employee is either making things up as s/he goes along (for any one of a number of reasons) or is endlessly repeating the same task.

Certainly, there are ways of implementing this incrementalism in many workplaces, and perhaps that is the key behind “sales competitions,” but such competitions themselves often garner dissatisfaction among the employees. There are other cases in which such increments must be self-imposed, and self-imposed goals are never quite as satisfying to check off as those given to us (especially if we are willing to accept them). We can deliberately manipulate our own checklists to make them easier to accomplish, the result of which is usually a latent dissatisfaction with our progress because we know we could have (and probably should have) done more or better.

However, incremental difficulty progression is often hard to enact when one’s tasks do not get more difficult, just more onerous. Certainly, there is a sense of accomplishment to the aggregation of accomplished tasks, but that sort of accomplishment is not the same as McGonigal’s “satisfying work.”

It seems to me that this model would serve education better than it would the workplace (for many). After all, the purpose of the educational system is to increase student aptitude, and therefore the incremental increase in difficulty not only makes sense, but is already what education is designed to do (although admittedly often fails to accomplish). This is not to say that education should be conducted solely through games (although I do think games have a place in the educational system), but, rather, that game systems can be made to work for the process of education.

Utilitarianism

The term “utility” keeps coming up in my readings and research, both leadership studies and gaming. David Hume mentions “utility” in “Of the First Principles of Government.” Garry Wills mentions it in Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership. And it comes up again in Morton Davis’ Game Theory as the function that mitigates a player’s ability to behave rationally – that is, to the player’s best possible advantage.

When we think about utility, we don’t usually think about emotions or ideologies, but that is precisely what Davis aligns with “utility.” The player’s utility function is that which overrides rational gameplay behavior; a utility function is a belief or ideology that is more important to the player than winning. For some, this will be honesty. For others, maintaining a persona or perpetuating a belief system. For Robin Hood, it is “robbing the rich to feed the poor.”

Some games present us with “false” utilities: rules that we are not supposed to break and which we are punished for breaking, either with “death,” a restart, or with “negative” experience points (I’m thinking of Bioware’s Paragon/Renegade or Friend/Rival systems). In No One Lives Forever, the player dies if they shoot an innocent monkey – an odd utility, admittedly, but one emblematic of a desire to reinforce the larger utility of not killing civilians/innocents.

The thing about utilities is that they force not only single behaviors within a game system, but a whole pattern of behaviors. Players of games with “good/evil” dichotomies will often have a “good” character (with a “moral” utility) and a “bad” one (with an “immoral” utility). What is most interesting about this is the fact that gameplayers willingly change their utilities in games, even if those utilities do not reflect their own “real” utilities. And that is one of the things I appreciate most about games – they ask us to reevaluate the reasoning behind our utilities by presenting us with the option to temporarily change them and then showing us the kinds of consequences that might result from having a different utility. Are they simplistic utilities? Of course. But, then again, most temporary fantasies are.

Digital Exodus

Having recently finished Jane McGonigal’s (2011) Reality is Broken, I’ve begun noticing a new trend in the study of “virtual worlds” popping up all over the place. This past fall, I was privileged to hear Edward Castronova’s plenary talk at a conference on ethics and video games, and – more recently – I have heard from several students that they are interested in studying virtual spaces. While games and virtual spaces are not always mutually concurrent (there are games that don’t really take place in virtual space, and there are certainly virtual spaces that do not require gameplay), it seems that the phenomena of gaming and virtual space – the “Exodus to the Virtual World” in Castronova’s terms – is being linked by scholars with a problem in “reality.”

McGonigal suggests that

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.

     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. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

     And unless something dramatic happens to reverse the resulting exodus, we’re fast on our way to becoming a society in which a substantial portion of our population devotes its greatest efforts to playing games, creates its best memories in game environments, and experiences its biggest successes in game worlds. (4)

In other words, people are playing more games and joining virtual communities because the world in which they live – the “real” world – isn’t offering them the kind of lives they want to live. As McGonigal says, “Reality, compared to games, is broken” (3).

In Leadership Studies, we have long heard about a ‘crisis of leadership,’ an academic, social, and political call to action demanding not only new leadership, but a new understanding of what that leadership might or should be. It seems that McGonigal is getting at something similar here. What we need is a “new reality” to replace the one that’s broken.

McGonigal raises several interesting points about introducing gaming into the real world, including SuperBetter (a game to help people deal with or recover from chronic injury or illness), FreeRice (a really spiffy game that increases your vocabulary while feeding the hungry), and FoldIt (an even spiffier game in which humans demonstrate the ability to solve complex proteins that even supercomputers can’t). Now these games are great examples of the ways in which gaming can produce legitimate and lasting benefits to “reality.” There’s some great stuff there that I’ll come back to in the future. However, one of the things she doesn’t address is the value added by just pure gaming.

She does point out the things we gain from games that are missing in our “real” lives – reward systems, clear goals, and the important factor of choice – but what I want to get at here is the fact that games are autotelic and imaginative. We choose to play games because they aren’t reality – they are fantasy. Yes, games can make our “real” lives better, but they are still interacting with those real lives. Sometimes, we want fantasy.

I’m not talking about escapism. I’m talking about the use of fantasy to explore things that do impact our realities, and this is where Leadership Studies comes in (yes, I’m getting there). Games – especially more recent plot-driven shooters – put the player in a position of leadership. Gears of War, Call of Duty, Mass Effect, and many others ask us as players to adopt the role of a leader – to make decisions and take actions as the leader of a group. We have to consider the outcomes of our ergodic decisions (those that might influence the outcome of the game or even the scene), which – in some cases – could mean the difference between life and death for an NPC (non-player character). And in good games, we care if the NPCs die. We think carefully about whether an NPC will approve of our actions, whether they will help us accomplish our goals, and whether our choices will result in “good” or “bad” outcomes. In essence, a fantasy-run for our leadership skills.

But even if we will never be in a situation even remotely comparable to those in games (such as in an alternate medieval-style universe), we will be in or witness situations for which these games prepare us. Perhaps they aren’t perfect. Perhaps they can never be as complex as they are in reality, but they do require us to think about reality in a way that benefits us as players, but also those around us with whom we interact. Is this why we game? No. But it is part of why games were created, and what makes them important to us as a society.