Blog Post #1.5: Help Us, Gaming – You’re our only hope?

I didn’t sign up for this week to be an official post, but I couldn’t keep a response to Thursday’s “readings” to myself:

McGonigal’s presentation is exciting, innovative, and optimistic. And once you’ve sobered up from the drinking game involving the word “epic”, you might really start to think about the weight of what she’s suggesting: Gamers, given the right game, might be the only ones capable of finding the solutions to worldwide problems that have defied the most overpayed politicians and “experts” for years. I want to think that this solves (potentially, anyway) everything. But somehow, I’m not convinced.

About 15 minutes into her 20 minute lecture, and an epic number of “epic”s later, McGonigal shows off a few of her games. Some of them are really interesting, and introduce unique game styles. But I fail to see how they’ll be catchy enough to effect the kind of mass change she’s under the impression is imminent. For a few of them, I couldn’t actually tell what the “game” element was. And though it might make for more compelling numbers, implying that a WoW-sized supply of people-hours exists to “invest” into these games is hopeful overestimation at best, and intentionally misleading at worst. McGonigal ignores the “rabid fan” feeling that must be induced to get that kind of output, and therefore doesn’t address how to induce that feeling in what might be termed “productive” games. Besides, online games like WoW are worlds apart (no pun intended)  from “sign up on this site and then take photos of how you conserve energy”-type initiatives. I’m not deriding the effort, I’m just saying we can’t act like this is a simple matter of switching consoles or game titles to harness what currently amounts to squandering 3 billion hours of human potential per week. Maybe I’m limited by my view of what constitutes a “videogame”, but reading faked reports and then behaving accordingly sounds a lot like a game you’d play with your imaginary friend. It helps save the world, sure, but it isn’t the kind of immersive, potentially-addicting experience that we associate with games that attract the harness-able hours of play.

Before you cite the article on protein folding videogames as a better example of positive, productive gaming, let me say that I’m more inclined to think of that as a potential medium for the change McGonigal advocates. But even that comparatively massive online multiplayer is fraught with problems in a real-world, problem solving context. While I applaud the people behind the game (and those playing it), and am fascinated by the as-yet unharnessed potential there, I can’t ignore some fundamental issues with resorting to games (or really any intrinsically-limited/predefined product) to solve empirical or experimental problems. In the simplest terms: While it makes a lot of sense to get people to solve folding patterns for proteins because we “think” in fundamentally different ways than, say, our computer competitors, and therefore solve certain aspects more efficiently, there are limits to what we can actually discover within the confines of a game. For this protein folding game, for example, let’s say that you’re told that certain amino acids don’t have a charge (Serine), and that charged side chains prefer to form favorable interactions (positive close to negative, and vice versa). Within the confines of this game, you would never be able to discover that Serine side chains, in certain exceptional families of enzymes, DO carry a charge, and that this affects the correct folded pattern of the protein. If you were to input a folding pattern that reflects the REAL state, the computer would score you lower, because it doesn’t actually know that this is possible – it takes real-life experiments to uncover this fact.

So I guess my question is this: If the kinds of games that are harness-able are limited, and what can be harnessed is inherently limited by virtue of being a game, is gaming really the resource of our collective future.. or are we kidding ourselves?

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One Response to Blog Post #1.5: Help Us, Gaming – You’re our only hope?

  1. cstabile says:

    Well, I can’t say that I disagree with you. I wish that WoW players would take some of those person hours and go out and fix their communities and use the money they spend on subscriptions to do good works. But that’s a lot like saying I wish that my taxes funded education instead of warfare — it’s something, arguably, over which I have very little control. But let’s take the generous view of McGonigal (and again, iris can argue with this in class on Tuesday). Let’s say she’s taking an extreme point of view to make a point: people in the US by and large live privileged lives in which many can afford to seek pleasurable experiences. What if we could borrow from the world of videogames to make parts of our work and political lives more pleasurable and thereby motivate grade schoolers to love math and science and art and culture in equal amounts? What if we could turn some of the more repetitive tasks our culture needs to get done into tasks that afford a modicum of satisfaction? And maybe we don’t have to choose between computers and humans (e.g. your Foldit criticism), but can use the best of both?

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