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.