McGonigal the Harmless Utopian

As soon as I saw the title of this week’s group of readings, I knew I would want to post for this discussion.  Is technology “better or worse” for our culture? Is it a positive or negative thing? As I was happy to hear in discussion today, we are being counseled away from making such binary judgments. Technology has many multifaceted influences on culture and culture is a hugely broad topic, difficult to define and subject to endless confounding variables. I knew that no matter what the readings had to say, we could steer a rational middle course if need be. So here is my attempted attack on and defense of McGonigal’s TED talk:

Jane McGonigal believes that video games can change the world for the better. This is certainly a refreshing perspective, given that the only two opinions I ever hear about video games are “They’re mindless fun” and “They’re turning us all in to hooker beating school shooters.” I had always been skeptical that video games had any influence on culture at all, but her statistics forced me to reconsider. I hadn’t ever realized the sheer amount of people who play video games and the massive amount of time that has been spent playing them. Such a staggering quantity of people and time must have some impact on us as a culture. But what sort of impact is it? Can it be measured or defined? McGonigal contends that the impact is the emergence of millions of gamers who have been shaped by video games into ‘virtuosos’ of ‘urgent optimism,’ ‘social networking’, ‘blissful productivity’, and ‘epic meaning’.  This was for me by far the most interesting contention of the TED talk. I had to agree that video games must have instilled some sort of qualities into the players, but were they the qualities McGonigal describes? Urgent optimism OR a pessimistic rejection of the need to deal with the real world?  A network of people happily collaborating to solve complex problems OR just another community of people interacting as they normally would but with the added factor of anonymity fueling a deluge of sexist, racist, homophobic, and generally negative hate speech across the internet? Blissful productivity or mind-numbing repetition of pointless tasks? Commitment to pursuing an epic meaning or delusionally ascribing importance to an artificial world? In my opinion, the answers to these questions probably fall all along the spectrum. Some people may be made ‘better’ by video games some people may be made ‘worse’. My guess at this moment is we are probably skewed towards the ‘worse’ but we don’t have to be!

And this is why I feel I must defend McGonigal: Because even if video games may make us worse she believes that they CAN make us better. They have the potential. Technology has no agency. It is a tool. The presence of a hammer does not actively force us to pound nails into wood. Video games are a medium of human expression, they do not express themselves. I have often heard it argued that video games are art or that they are not art. In response to this I have always said that though I do not believe I have ever seen a video game that could be described as art I do believe that video games have artistic potential! It is all a matter of how we CHOOSE to use the medium. To make the point in another way: Up until now we have primarily chosen to produce violent video games but these video games do not express violence themselves, we express violence through the video games.  We could express other things as well. McGonigal the exuberant optimist believes we can use the medium of video games to express things that build our culture in more positive ways. And though I don’t think it will be as easy as she seems to think, I believe that it could be done. And so if McGonigal is a utopian with her head in the clouds she is, at the very least, a harmless one. And I think she is worth listening to, because though games may not do for us all she believes they do, maybe someday they could.

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One Response to McGonigal the Harmless Utopian

  1. cstabile says:

    For video games and art, check out Dear Esther, or The Path, or Playstation’s Journey or The Unfinished Swan (and also keep in mind the music that’s being produced for videogames). As you’ve probably guessed, I totally agree with your trying to avoid the binary approach, but I think that it’s also important to think how tools and media shape us and our social practices. The cultural practices that grew up around early cinema created different modes of interaction than going to the theatre; the consumption of radio and then television in homes changed cultural practices as well, closing off older modes of interaction and creating different ones. Even as we use them and indulge in the belief that we therefore control them, tools do alter our relationship to our social world.

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