Friday, February 22, 2013

Life of Game

Why do we love games? Can we achieve beneficial social change by thinking of life as a game?

I've already discussed my idea for a game that teaches computer security called hackerville. As you play, you would learn real techniques for securing your PC, your home network, your cloud data, your communications, etc.

I've read a couple of science fiction novels (the excellent "Daemon" and "Freedom(TM)" by Daniel Suarez, and the adequate "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline) with plots that use the idea of game play infiltrating "real life".

I've seen 2 TED talks (one disappointing one by Seth Priebatsch and a couple of interesting ones by Jane McGonigal) that suggest ways of improving real life through game design techniques. I can't quite decide why Priebatsch disappointed me so much. He made the idea seem trivial and manipulative at the same time. He made one good point, that school is a badly designed game (compete for 'A's and valedictory speeches). But will improving the extrinsic motivation really strike the root of the problem of school failure? I can't criticize his idea fairly, since he didn't really project his vision for an alternative game-ized education experience. But I hate the current school paradigm's tendency to frustrate the curiosity and autonomy of the students. I don't see game dynamics addressing that flaw directly. The problem with 'A's is not just that they are boring, but that they apply to subjects that may have no relevance to the present or future life of the student. If there ever was such a thing, certainly now there is no such thing as a static curriculum that a young person can learn and then feel fully prepared for a career. A child needs to learn how to learn generally, both because of the value of that skill, and because of the fragility of the value of any specific knowledge or skill.

Game detractors accuse games of providing escapist entertainment for lazy losers. While that goes too far, games do succeed by exploiting aspects of human psychology: imagination, flow state, endorphin release, etc. (Okay, I am waving my hands here, maybe someone can help me out in the comments?) I want to know how this works, so that I can avoid being manipulated by someone else, and maybe so I can deliberately manipulate myself. But games are not the only arena where these aspects of human psychology take control, this just points back to the basic idea of motivation.

Life is already a game. Capitalism keeps score with dollars, politics with power, religion with followers, science with prestige. The government churns out rules and punishments, and we play along. People love to play status games with fashion, conspicuous consumption, one-upmanship of various kinds. Advertisers and marketers use whatever tricks they can find to manipulate buying habits and public opinion. Human psychology makes us vulnerable to biases, scams, misdirections. We can struggle to gain self-knowledge and freedom, but that struggle will never end. What is unique to games? They have an imaginary back-story (could it be real?), pre-defined goals, power-ups, point winners and losers, and win conditions.

A pluralistic society will have many games, with many different ways to achieve an epic win. In a good society, a businessman will shoot for happy customers, a politician will aim for social order, a scientist will struggle for true insight, all intrinsically motivated to achieve goals that provide both individual rewards and social benefits. Thinking of life as a game may or may not help make that happen.

I have a better idea - make life like the Internet. Keep basic universal protocols simple and few. Let persons with different needs use different software, building upon the basics. Rule by consensus and always allow people to opt out or pitch in. If your app doesn't scale, it is a fail. Enable DIY infrastructure. When I figure out what the hell that means, I will make a post about it.

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