Full Citizenship

Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives examines a variety of games and game types, but something he said while explaining open-world games (games which do not have restrictive paths for the player to follow, but instead allow the player to plot his or her own narrative and spatial path through the game… like life) struck me as particularly relevant for leadership studies.

Oblivion is less a game than a world that best rewards full citizenship, and for a while I lived there and claimed it” (5).

On the one hand, this statement addresses current concerns with the addictive (a.k.a. “time-wasting”) nature of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, which has caused the dissolution of innumerable relationships, firing from jobs, and (in rare instances) even death for those who cannot tear themselves away from the game for long enough to eat or sleep. And there is something to be said for moderation of play-time. One should actually have a real life outside of one’s life inside a gameworld.

However, I am not interested in addressing the addictiveness (or lack thereof) of gaming. For some it is, and for some it isn’t. There are many psychological and sociological studies out there that will make arguments in both directions.

What I’m interested in is the fact that Oblivion (like Skyrim after it, which had not been released at the time of Bissell’s publication) “rewards full citizenship.” “Full citizenship” is something leadership studies deals with on a regular basis; it examines the ways in which leaders of all types can encourage “full citizenship” in their followers and seeks to encourage “full citizenship” in its students. And Oblivion, if Bissell is to be believed, has managed to accomplish it with a game.

The caveat, of course, is that Oblivion has created the desire to be a “full citizen” in the gameworld, not in the real world. It has elements and aspects that encourage players to want to be “full citizens” when they may or may not feel the same inclination in their everyday lives. As leadership scholars, we would be remiss to not look at how games encourage participatory virtual lives in an effort to create participatory real lives. In essence, games have figured out how to use mechanics – rewards, quests, goals, experience points – to make people care enough to assume “full citizenship.”

We want to see progress, feel accomplishment, understand our purpose in society (I’m not going to become existential enough in this post to suggest a purpose in life), and recognize clear goals. This is something McGonigal has discussed at length in Reality is Broken, and I’m not going to repeat it here and now. But the point stands: make people care about participating by showing them the value of their participation, and they will want to become “full citizens” without needing persuasion.