There is a lot to learn from games — about motivation, engagement, work, collaboration, and even the macro systems that define our behaviour. First things first, though...
Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles
(McGonigal quoting Bernard Suits)
It makes sense when you think about it, but it totally threw my sense of what games are about. Despite my own experience of gaming and play, I thought of games as playful recreation, as escapism or fun - perhaps at best a trojan horse for learning. But not at all...
Games are work. Engaging and unnecessary work, sure, but they're still work.
We have a seriousness bias in our society, which banishes games to the realm of frivolous leisure. All the while, gaming is the most engaging, challenging and productive activity that many people ever undertake. McGonigal doesn't go much into our weird social biases, but she does note that play and serious work aren't the opposites we make them out to be. At a psychological and behavioral level, the opposite of play is actually depression.
So, with a few of my own myths highlighted and busted, I read on wanting to know more about what games are and how they function, across different areas I am interested in.
McGonigal describes four key traits of games - in other words, what makes them work:
- feedback about progress
- voluntary participation
As a self directed agent, motivation and engagement in my own work are an ongoing challenge.
McGonigal got me thinking: can I turn my task list into a set of voluntary missions? Can I create feedback loops that create a satisfying sense of progress on a day to day basis?
I can imagine my whole task-planning approach being redesigned according to game principles and operating very differently, with a much greater buy-in for the work on a task-by-task basis. No more procrastinating on Twitter or in my inbox.
I can also imagine a system of voluntary missions helping to map much better pathways through life. I don't really know what this would look like IRL, but I do know that in my RPG gaming experience (including those without 'right' ways to go), creating a pathway does not come with the stress and nagging doubts of real life. I imagine the unecessary nature of the challenges decreases the stress and pressure of picking the 'right' one - as does the capacity to return and take the other pathway if things don't work out (in many games, at least).
I'm wondering whether real life also has ways of blinding us to decisions about what we can do now, compared to what we need to hold off until a later date when we have levelled up and are ready for it. It seams like game worlds enable a much clearer mental map of possibilities, and it is much easier for us to identify the 'adjacent possible', without being attached to that which is not (yet) possible. In my experience, the biggest challenging with making something happen is loosening the grip on the wonderful big ideas, and spotting the opportunities in the present ('the adjacent possible') to make progress towards them.
The mechanics of engaging work apply just as readily when people are working together as alone. Perhaps even more so.
The book reinforced a few things I already knew: clear goals are important; ideally, people will voluntarily opt-in to a shared goal (in particular) and participation (in general), and explicitly acknowledge clearly defined shared goals to ensure engaged participation.
It also reinforced something I have come to feel but haven't etched in stone yet; goals are a much better anchor than purpose. Clarifying and agreeing a shared purpose is impossible and unnecessary, because everybody brings their own motivations and purposes for participation. The lumpy space of 'purpose' can be a challenge, but that does not mean it is bad. As long as people have genuine buy-in for achieving a shared goal, motivations and purposes do not need to be welded together.
What I really like from the idea of collaboration as a game, is to take a step back from the seriousness of 'the work', to have a clearer conversation, and use game concepts to get specific about the goals and rules of the shared work (aka game). I look forward to the opportunity to facilitate a process for people that agree that a 'game' might be the best way for them to do the 'work'.
Saving the World
The last third of McGonigal's book was how games can Save the World. There were interesting ideas about games as a means for mass-participatory problem solving.
These are all good and well, but new problem-solving methods that don't shift the old systems only get so far. They certainly don't Save the World from the currently unsustainable and damaging socio-economic-ecological system that we have established... which continues to create the biggest and scariest of our problems.
So I was a little disappointed McGonigal didn't take her ideas further into system-shifting ideas, especially since I think the opportunities are so clear.
My first thought is about how we might all live our lives. A more sustainable global system will require, among other things, deconstructing consumerism at the individual level. So far, (video) games have exploded as lucrative consumer products, just one more cog in this unsustainable system. But it isn't that much of a stretch to imagine a world where games perform a different function - not filling our recreation time, but replacing our production time. Games are work after all!
It doesn't even matter if these games are productive (in today's terms), because our current systems are so counter-productive and excessive, that in the absence of over-consumptive behaviour, we don't need to make so much stuff - and we certainly won't need people for it. Many authors write about a near-future where human input to production becomes superfluous (as we are replaced by robots), causing a break down in the work-leisure consumption cycle. When we no longer need to be whipped like slaves to make what the system needs of us, I can imagine voluntary work (i.e. games) making a positive alternative possible.
We may not be that far off - as they say, the future is already here (it is just unevenly distributed). I would be very interested in analysis of the innovative workplaces we admire and envy (like Valve, Enspiral or Google) through the lens of games, and see how close we already are. I can certainly imagine the whole of my own personal occupation being a series of games, missions and side-quests - once I've nutted out how to make that work for me.
The second observation is that we are all already playing the game of life... except that we didn't chose to do so. The world we are in, and the systems that we have set up to make it that way, give the context for our participation... or in other words, they define the game that we play. Because we are embedded in them, it is easy to forget that our systems are arbitrary, with no inherent meaning, and they do not need to be that way... there is no reason that we shouldn't change them, and if we do so, then everything changes.
This is a bit of old truth from systems thinking (e.g. Dana on leverage points), but reading about games made me look at it anew.
It made me think about the goals implicit in our society... be successful, make money, be liked, own things, be happy, be comfortable...
These are the kinds of implicit goals that govern our society. It might not be easy... but they can be changed.
It made me think too about the rules in our society... do a job, vote, voice your dissent on social media, write a letter to the editor, follow the law, obey your superiors, use your non-job time to consume, leave everything that is not your job up to somebody else...
Hmmm.... do you want to play this game? I don't want to play this game. It's a shit game.