Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Jane McGonigal's sermon on Productivity

On Sunday I went to a talk organised by the School of Life. They called it a sermon, it also took place in a what I think what used to be a church hall, and there were hymns. One of the hymns was Video killed the Radio Star, but we did actually have to stand up and sing along. It was all a bit random really in quite an enjoyable way and the reason I went was so I could hear Jane McGonigal talk about Productivity and games. 

She started off by talking about how a lot of our ideas about what it means to be a productive member of society are based on a combination of protestant work ethic (God wants us to be busy) and the rise of capitalism. Which seems to ultilmately lead to a lot of guilt when we end up doing things that don't seem to produce anything. So in this light, playing games for hours on end is really just a colossal waste of time, right?

Well, maybe not. After getting to write down a to-do list and then make it into a paper plane to throw into the audience, she went on to talk about the research she's done and how four things seemed to keep coming up in relation to question what do games produce; whole hearted engagement, hope for success, opportunities to develop social bonds and a sense we can be part of something bigger than ourselves. But if that's not enough for you, her findings actual map on quite well to research being carried out that focuses on positive psychology - the sort of psychology that focuses on how we can be happy rather than on all the things that can go wrong. According to research that will be published next spring (in Dr.Seligman's new book Flourish) we need the following:

1) Positive emotion (Pe)
2) Relationships (R)
3) Meaning (M)
4) Achievement  (A)

And just to make it easier for us to remember, Jane got some audiences members to spell out that acronym for us (thanks to GrahamBM for the Twitpic):

We all then engaged in a round of massively-multiplayer thumb wrestling to illustrate how playing games can achieve all four of those things. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing massively-multiplayer thumb wrestling, you're missing out ;-) Basically, though her argument is that by games can actually help solve wider social problems by increasing PeRMA. Through productive engagement in activities we find meaningful and that make us feel good, we can cement our social ties and feel part of something bigger. For those interested in these ideas more and about games how you could designe games that explictly address social issues keep an eye out for her book "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" which is out early next year.

There was a short Q&A session after the sermon, where one person asked how games were different to drugs. I thought this was a pretty good question as you do hear about how games are "addictive" and I guess, like drug taking, the activity is often be seen as completely unproductive. Jane responded by pointing out that drugs tend to be quick fixes, that take a toll on our bodies and end up leaving people feeling lower than before. In contrast, research has shown that the positive emotions received from playing games tend to spill over into other parts of our lives. Also, apparently there is some sort of gamer tipping point, where after 21 hours of play a week, most players realise that they aren't getting any more from the activity. (Note to self: I really should find what research she is referring to). Somebody also asked something about using games in education and Jane was keen to point out that she wasn't trying to gamify every activity but that even so, understanding how and why games appeal could influence certain underlying educational principles - which effectively sums up my own research. All in all it was a really enjoyable morning, and what better way to end than by drinking tea and eating space invader biscuits :-) (thanks to Katy Lindemann for the putting up the Flickr photo)

how much do I agree with all this? Well, quite a lot really but maybe not entirely. I really do think Jane McGonigal is doing an awesome job getting inspiring games out there and in talking positively about games. I think that games can definitely increase PeRMA and like that there is actual research backing this up. I'm not sure how much that will convince people who don't play games though, and I don't think it will convince them to play games. Especially, for those who start talking about how they heard about players in China or Korea who died because they didn't leave their computer for days, and about how it would still be much better for children to go outside and play. I'm not denying that for some people at least, games can become a problem, but like any activity you enjoy doing, surely there's nothing wrong with them being part of a balanced well-rounded life? I also think that for a lot of people who take games seriously, probably for a lot of people who call themselves gamers and see games as a social activity to share with friends, gaming is a major source of PeRMA and that's why they like it. I think what people don't realise is that even when you're playing something on your own, this can still feed into your social relationships if you have friends who are interested in what you're doing.

I suppose what I'm not sure about, is whether everyone who plays games gets the same benefits? So the aunt you get to play Wii Sports at Christmas, I can see how she would enjoy having a go, how it's a shared family experience and how the activity makes sense in that context even but will she really feel like she's achieving anything? Maybe that has more to say about how we much we value our experiences but when Jane said something along the lines that she has never met a pessimistic gamer, who didn't think they could succeed, I'm not sure I'd agree they don't exist. I mean maybe they would call themselves a gamer, but I've seen plenty of people put off from even trying something because they don't think they are good enough. And, I have given up on games myself when it's just gotten too hard... I definitely haven't finished all the games I have - what does that say about my ability to achieve things? Jane mentioned signature strenghts, but what if I'm noticing weaknesses instead?!

Maybe I'm taking it a bit too far, I do finish some games at least, I suppose the ones I get the most pleasure out of, so perhaps that's enough. But I am still curious about different types of players and how often people actually finish their games. The two main things I want to take with me from the sermon though, are to rethink my ideas about productivity and the fact that there is research out there about the positive effects of game-playing. Plus, I don't have to feel guilty about not writing my thesis yet, as there are plenty of activties I need to do first, including (though obviously not limited to) playing games, cos they increase my PeRMA quotient and make me flourish ;-)

Update: I forgot to add a link to the Gameful site - after thanking her for the talk and telling her a bit about my research, Jane suggested that I check it out once it launches. It seems to be a resource for anyone interested in making and using games that have a positive impact on people's live. You can find out a bit more about it on her blog here.

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