Voluntary Work

For those who choose to go into academia, Jane McGonigal’s observation that people actually prefer work to entertainment may not be surprising. After all, we’ve chosen to enter into a discipline in which we make our own work. For McGonigal, “entertainment” means specifically passive entertainment, like watching a movie or television show, rather than more active forms (like games). She says, “The research proves what gamers already know: within the limits of our own endurance, we would rather work hard than be entertained. Perhaps that’s why gamers spend less time watching television than anyone else on the planet” (McGonigal 33). In other words, we want to be engaged by something. Television and movies – for the most part – don’t challenge us. They allow us to stare at something while the twists and turns of the plot are displayed to us without necessitating any effort on our parts. Sometimes they provide enough of a challenge that we can try to “figure them out,” but we wouldn’t have to if we didn’t want to; eventually (maybe at the end of the film or episode, or maybe, as in Lost, at the end of the series), they will answer our questions.

But games don’t do that. Yes, they will provide you with an ending, a resolution, but they won’t get there on their own. You have to put effort into the game in order to progress the narrative – you have to participate in the ludonarrative (the gameplay) in order to make the narrative move along. Sometimes, the ludonarrative is interwoven into the narrative (as in games like Mass Effect), and the narrative itself changes based on your decisions as a player. Sometimes (as in Gears of War) the narrative line is set, but you have to act in order to access the next portion. Either way, you have to do something in order to receive the next piece of information.

And when you choose to play a game – any game, whether videogame, boardgame, or sport – you are deliberately making your life more difficult. On purpose. And you have done so because you want your life to be more difficult: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 38). McGonigal suggests that we want games when our lives aren’t satisfying enough, when we don’t have enough obstacles. I would argue that we are more satisfied the more obstacles we can overcome (or at least have hope of overcoming). After all, some of us have careers that are nothing but deeply satisfying, self-created challenges, and we still choose to play games – perhaps because with games, there are no stakes. If I fail at Braid, nothing happens. No punishment is forthcoming. I can try and try and fail and fail and maybe I will succeed, but I can do so on my own time, my own way, and without fear of judgment.

So perhaps playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles without fear. And being able to overcome obstacles without fear lets us tackle the necessary obstacles we encounter, even when we’re afraid.

Viva la Revolucion!

So I have several friends who build/design games, of the table-top, videogame, and card varieties (the gents of Sancho Games, D&D writers, the maker of Chronotron, and folks who work for Sony, Irrational, and Bethesda). One of these games is Junta.

Junta – as it has been doctored (rather extensively) to transform it from a rather banal board game into an online turn-based game – is a game-based study in leadership. The premise is that all the players are government officials in a banana republic. Each player assumes a character persona through which they conduct business, engage in negotiations, and post speeches. They begin by electing a President, who selects their cabinet positions (negotiations are encouraged), proposes a budget for all the players, and so on. Players have the capacity to coup against the President if they don’t like the way things are going, and, if they win, they elect a new President. Assassinations, military maneuvers, spies, and other political machinations are the order of the day. The goal is to end up with the most money in the bank.

Popular presidents survive for a few turns before they get ousted, since presidents have the capacity to skim money off the top of the budget, and no one wants to let them take too much. Unpopular ones go for a turn before they get annihilated. Other coveted positions generally change hands frequently, especially with a regime change.

I mention this game because our most recent round has just come to a rather exciting close. The last few turns of the game (which ends when there is no more money to distribute) are always the most interesting. Everyone – and I do mean everyone – conspires with and against everyone else. Public speeches are made for and against regimes, and may or may not reflect true loyalties. Some parties will enter into negotiations with three or more factions that they can’t possibly fulfill… sometimes at all. Death threats are made. Cards and money are swapped. And the last turn is a bloodbath.

In terms of leadership, we see leaders emerge and fall, followers remain loyal to presidents or to other players (no matter what their position is in the government), other followers betray their leaders and their fellow followers. Some players make alliances that hold throughout the game. Some players play rationally – only to their own best advantage. As a player, it is very hard to see who is doing the best and why. It is easy to see who is doing poorly (and often why), and easy to see who is “better,” but when there are several “better” players, the top one is not always obvious at all. And there is a lot of attempting to convince people of your intentions… whether sincere or not.

Good stuff. (And yes, I did win.)


One of the reasons why we play games is that they make us feel good – especially when we win. Athletics – sports, specifically – are the epitome of this sensation, as they integrate physical exertion and adrenaline with the positive sensations of winning (or even of playing well, whether you win or not, although pretty much everyone would agree that winning is better).

However, one of the other aspects of this joy is the fact that you want to win a good game; we don’t want to completely destroy our opponents on the sporting field, online, or at the game table. We want to be challenged, to drag out the battle, to feel the positive stress that accompanies the uncertainty of victory or defeat. Jane McGonigal refers to this sensation as “Fiero.”

Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it – and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.

The fact that virtually all humans physically express fiero in the same way is a sure sign that it’s related to some of our most primal emotions….Fiero, according to researchers at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brian Sciences Research at Stanford, is the emotion that first created a desire to leave the cave and conquer the world. It’s a craving for challenges that we can overcome, battles we can win, and dangers we can vanquish. (McGonigal 33)

McGonigal’s anecdote about the universal tendency to “throw our arms over our head and yell” conjures up, no doubt, any number of instances in professional sports, at family game nights, and in other situations in which we’ve seen or done this ourselves. A universal feeling expressed in a universal way. But that’s beside the point (although it does have any number of interesting anthropological and psychological implications).

In a context outside of gaming, we experience fiero in any context that involves “winning” – political campaigns, social movements, major projects, and even successful production of products. Fiero is a part of our everyday lives, in varying degrees. But it’s important to remember that fiero is a part of what motivates us to become followers, as well as what motivates leaders in the first place. We want to be a part of the winning team, whether as a participant or a fan.

How We Play to Lead

One of the most central concepts behind my alignment of leadership and game studies is the idea that we can use games to achieve both an understanding of leadership, but also a certain kind of hands-on practical “experience” with leadership – as both leader and follower – within fantastic gamespace (whether virtual or simply imaginary).

In addressing videogames, McGonigal states that “Although we think of computer games as victual experience, they do give us real agency: the opportunity to do something that feels concrete because it produces measurable results, and the power to act directly on the virtual world” (60). Agency is at the core, I think, of both gaming and of leadership. In gaming, agency is required in terms of voluntary participation; if one does not willingly participate in the game, it ceases to be play and becomes work. In leadership, agency is required of both leaders and followers; without agency neither is a willing participant in the relationship and it ceases to be a “leadership” relationship and starts becoming something else (self-delusion, oppression, etc.).

Agency, therefore, is vital to an understanding of both gaming and leading/following. But what is also important to both is the idea of “acting directly on the world.” In a game, that world is composed of virtual or gameboard space; in leadership, it is the “real” world, real space. But any interaction with a virtual world is also contained within the real world – gamespace is also contained by real space. An action undertaken in gamespace can translate to real space, the way that we often use roleplay to teach appropriate workplace or situational interactions, the way that many children learn about rents and properties from Monopoly, or typing from a game like Typing of the Dead or TyperShark. These are game skills that translate to real-world skills. “Map-reading” and “hand-eye-coordination” are the two most often cited skills of gamers that can translate to the real world, but I would argue that NexGen games are offering much more complex intellectual skills to players than simple motor skills.

For instance, a game of recent note – Mass Effect 3 – places the player in the position of a military leader forced to make difficult strategic and interpersonal decisions. The player is given clues and (perhaps most importantly) time to make those decisions, to weigh the potential reactions of the other characters in the scenes, and to ultimately choose their actions and words based on the outcome they wish to achieve. This is not a different skill-set from that required of a leader in the real world – although real-world leaders do not often have the luxury of a pause button. Nevertheless, in promoting active consideration of the consequence-tree (scripted in ME3 unlike in reality), the game is creating a pattern of learned behavior of that same consideration in real world analogues. The degree to which such skills plays out has yet to be determined, but I would hazard to predict that as such games become more commonplace, we will also find an increase in consideration of consequences – and even, possibly, direct discussion of those consequences like that seen on game forums – and awareness of the possible ramifications of actions and words. And that would not be a bad thing.