Laura Jane Grace and Punknews.org

Long time, no see.

My friend Alex wanted me to write something for an online site last summer.  I did this piece during my analysis on Jane Mcgonigal (which led to Ed Champion‘s work). My prose is shorter in these pieces than I am use to writing.

Check out my article on his site.  It is still within the realm technology (so to speak). If you have any questions, fire away.

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The World Outside McGonigal’s Reality is Broken

While looking at the entirety of Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken, readers may come away from this text with two different interpretations.  At certain moments in McGonigal’s text, there comes a time when readers can agree with her and see that the world does have issues worth addressing: poverty, loneliness, hungry, neglect, apathy, etc.  These issues, although trivial to some readers, are current problems that many global citizens face.  From a point in 2014, readers may be more increasingly aware of these issues.  For McGonigal to take a different approach (inciting the power of the gaming community) is somewhat commendable. But, when McGonigal presents readers not only with the problems of the world, but also solutions (or “fixes”) to these problems, readers must go beyond her logic and question her foundations and, more importantly, her logical failures.  At this moment, a time when readers question McGonigal’s logic, a second interpretation comes to light: McGonigal’s inability to actually challenge readers with reasonable positive solutions.

McGonigal’s criticism has been addressed since Reality is Broken’s publication.  This criticism points at the logic of her claims.   William Saletan addresses how:

If reality is inherently less attractive than games, then the virtual world won’t save the physical world. It will empty it. Millions of gamers, in McGonigal’s words, are ‘opting out’ of the bummer of real life. And they aren’t coming back. Halo 3, for example, has become a complete virtual world, with its own history documented in an online museum and Ken Burns-style videos. McGonigal calls this war game a model for inspiring mass cooperation. Two years ago, its 15 million players reached a long-sought objective: They killed their 10 billionth alien. ‘Fresh off one collective achievement, Halo players were ready to tackle an even more monumental goal,’ McGonigal writes. And what goal did they choose? Feeding the hungry? Clothing the poor? No. The new goal was to kill 100 billion aliens.

Saletan suggests that gamers, or at least a mass of gamers, are not too concerned with reaching a social goal.  When playing games, they see mainly the short-term goal to a short-term problem: reaching the next achievement.  Although McGonigal sees this group of people as potential concerned citizens, she cannot separate her own views as a gamer from other gamers.  This logical flaw follows her through her book.

McGonigal inserts her own feelings and beliefs in the place of facts.  Andrew Klavan suggests that McGonigal’s major flaw is her thinking:

While she acknowledges that Halo is ‘only a game,’ she goes on to write, rather remarkably: ‘Just because the kills don’t have value doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning. Meaning is the feeling that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s the belief that our actions matter beyond our own individual lives.’ But no, actually, that’s not what meaning is at all. Meaning is when those feelings and beliefs refer to something that is true. This error consistently undermines Ms. McGonigal’s thinking.

Klavan addresses how McGonigal’s readings of games are erroneous and, in fact, her interpretations are more suited for an interpretation of art, opposed to an interpretation of reality mimicking games.  McGonigal’s goal (contributing to the betterment of reality) is not an issue, but her approach is.

On the whole of the Saletan’s and Klavan’s grievances with McGonigal’s work, they do not attack her overriding mission, but how she addresses the world’s problems as games.  If McGonigal means to be bold, to address real people living with reality’s real disadvantages, she would do something more than entertain readers with clever games.   For example, in the game Evoke, gamers have a mission where they must decrease the amount of electricity they consume (336).  McGonigal says that gamers can look to Africa and gain an “African ingenuity” as inspiration (337).  Although “African ingenuity” shows gamers how Africans use minimal resources well, it is insulting.  Their poverty is reduced to “ingenuity”.  These types of logical issues have McGonigal take two steps forward and four steps back throughout the entire book.

While she proves that she has good intentions, she is not ready to handle the logical issues of her work. Edward Champion, editor for Reluctant Habits, challenges the whole of Reality is Broken with “Jane McGonigal’s Mind is Broken”.  Although he prose is rude, he is concise and addresses many of the issues in McGonigal’s book.  When his essay went viral, McGonigal replied:

Screen shot 2014-03-09 at 7.04.18 PM

As of 2014, McGonigal has not taken him up on his debate. Which raises a new question: if McGonigal is not willing to defend herself, her work, and her ideas in the public, how can this public take her work seriously?  Until this question is answered, McGonigal is right to a certain degree: reality is broken when someone ignores addressing its problems.

Christel House, Starbucks, and Kiva: What is a “fix”?

In part three of McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, she amplifies her thesis (how computer games can fix the world’s problems) and presents readers with examples of people using games “fix” reality’s problems.  Over the course of  part three, she highlights how games like FreeRice, which is a vocabulary game, allow gamers to win rice for hungry populations.  For every one word that is matched to a proper definition, one piece of rice is donated to a charity.  On average, 7000 people are fed per day from FreeRice.[1] McGonigal tells readers another example of gamers reaching out to another (less privileged) population: a mission from The Extraordinaries games helps Christel House, a world health organization, connect gamers to students taking “life-changing standardized tests” (253).  A gamer can send a text message to a student right before test as a “pat on the back” that may install encouragement.  McGonigal suggests that this type of interaction connects gamers to other people on an empathic level.  She cites her own experience with helping a student from India and informs readers: “The good game design of the Christel House mission changed that: it made it incredibly easy to play a helpful role in a stranger’s life. I t showed me a capacity to help I didn’t know I had” (255).

On the surface level of McGonigal’s personal experience, her story is like what Zizek refers to as the ultimate from of capitalism:

Although buying coffee is an economic exchange, Zizek’s model of people forgetting that they are not actually addressing the problems of others cements itself within McGonigal’s example.  On one hand, she gives encouragement to a student in India and believes her advice is making a difference. While on the other hand, McGonigal goes back to her reality (among assumingly upper middle class Americans) as the student goes back to her reality (among the poverty stricken Indians).  McGonigal’s interaction mimics the same type of emotional reward seen with Zizek.  Both examples have the allure of people assuming that their actions are fixing the issues of the world. What McGonigal invests is less of a positive “fix” to an issue, but more of a brief relief to a continuously developing problem.   If McGonigal wants readers to actually have constructive impacts on another person’s life, she should point them to the work of Kiva, a lending service to people in need.  For McGonigal to look in Kiva’s direction, Kiva would just have to make its work and lives of people in need look like characters going through simulated situations, instead of real people living in real poverty.


[1] According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 870 million people are living in a state of malnourishment from 2010-2012.  If 7000 meals-a-day are given to 870 million people, these meals can only feed .0008% of that population (with only one person per meal).  Although these 7000 meals are helping some hungry people, it is not fixing the world’s problems with starvation.

Side note: as a person who donates through Kiva, I know that I am not fixing the problems of reality, but I am making a positive change for someone.

Kiva Account

Kiva Account

This type of interaction, although not a game, is bound within knowing the limits of reality.  Although FreeRice and Kiva can be seen as aiding to another person’s struggle with reality, what differs is use: McGonigal presents her example of FreeRice as a fix while I treat my example as a positive change.  In other words, I see the limits of my contribution while McGonigal overlooks hers.   Treating yourself and others as players in a game alienates you from your contributions and their struggles in reality.  McGonigal’s writing produces an amount of lack that makes thinkers like Adorno just as relevant now as they were 80 years ago.  She does not go beyond her own analysis of ideals and take in the genealogy of issues of social disparity and culture of the gaming industry.

D&D 3.5 Books

My D&D 3.5 Books

As a gamer, I am limited to what I can do and what the world offers me to do.  To incite positive social progress, people must be placed into an environment that goes beyond comfort and allows them to see the pleasure and despair of reality. Not a water-down simulated  version.

Jetset is Exhaustible

McGonigal continues to address how alternative realties (i.e. video games) can make difficult activities more rewarding. She addresses how she thinks that others consider traveling by airplane as difficult or as “pointless and unrewarding” (148).  She describes Jetset, an iPhone game that has players become virtual airport security guards who must get as many virtual travelers through the security line (150).  As players go to more real-life airports, their travel locations are monitored and the game rewards them with virtual prizes for each airport they visit and, as McGonigal suggests “It’s meant to improve players’ real-life experiences of a real-world environment” (151).  She later claims that “the potential intrinsic rewards of a good game like Jetset are nonexhaustible” (151).

What is exhaustible is pleasure from continuously moving towards an object of desire, an object of pleasure.  When McGonigal claims “a good game like Jest [is] nonexhaustible,” she does not realize that all things over time lose their pleasure.  In other words, people over time will lose their ability to continuously receive the same amount of pleasure from an object.  This type of phenomena is known as fantasy drive, an ability for people to continually maintain their lives through producing desire/pleasure.   Looking at the work of Lacan, Zizek shows how fantasy in many ways supports reality.  In relative terms, reality is void of desire until people attach desire to it (i.e. Through fantasy people attached desire to objects that make their reality more inhabitable. When people make it their goal to reach the next level of Jetset, they set up a temporary goal that yields pleasure until it is accomplished.).  Furthermore, a reality deprived of fantasy would feel barren.  Fantasy displaces seemingly bitter aspects of reality and focuses the mind on more desirable objects.  Like many games, there is a certain point where getting the same rewards for the same accomplishments loses its appeal.  When McGonigal claims that alternative reality games like Jetset[1] are not exhaustible, she overlooks how the pleasure from playing the some games continuously will become exhausted (un-pleasurable) to someone.

zizek and friends

McGonigal’s assertion that Jetset is not exhaustible is an overstatement because all objects of desire are exhaustible.  McGonigal should address how the idea of games can produce desire continuously if the user interaction continuously changes.  Zizek filters Lacanain drive as a process of moving towards an intended goal while never reaching it.  As Zizek notes, “the real source of enjoyment is the repetitive movement of this closed circuit” (5).  When people are placed in the repetivie movement of game play, people move closer to a goal (e.g., the next reward in Jetset), but once the goal is reached (exhausted), they will need another.  Likewise, Jetset may have several mini-goals, but it is only a matter of time before someone replaces it with another 99 cent app.  If McConigal wants to show her audience a game that is not as exhusatible as Jetset, her exmaple of WoW would work better. But, that would require her to consider parts of her argument weak or needing improved.

Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture.

Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. Print.


[1] McGonigal frames Jetset as an iPhone-only game that people play in airports. I read these requirements and thought about how the only time I could afford a plane ticket was the day after 9/11 when a round trip ticket to Texas cost $110.  Then it made me think about how my experience is only anecdotal. But, I was reminded that McGonigal uses her life experiences (anecdotal as well) as representations of a whole social group.  Her idea of Jetset becomes a social marker for people who can afford iPhones and many plane tickets. Therefore, I question who McGonigal’s primary audience is: socially considerate gamers, upper-middle class gamers, or poverty stricken gamers using Jetset to teach them how to deal with airport security that they may never meet?

McGonigal frames Chore Wars as a Vehicle for Extrinsic Motivation and Social Training

In part two of Reality is Broken, McGonigal informs readers about the alternative reality game Chore Wars, a game based off traditional fantasy role playing character skills and abilities.  McGonigal frames Chore Wars within the home setting of families and roommates.  The premise of Chore Wars transforms people into characters who get “experience points [XP], virtual gold, treasure, avatar-power ups, or points” for cataloging their ability to complete household chores (120).  McGonigal tells readers about how her and her husband play Chore Wars, which transformed their home into a cleaner environment within nine months (121).

While at one moment McGonigal’s use of Chore Wars appears to be a wonderful intrinsic force within her wife, she still supports other gamers using extrinsic rewards.  She states how:

…Chore Wars isn’t just about tracking your avatar development; it is also about earning real rewards.  The       game’s instructions encourage households to invent creative ways to redeem the virtual gold in real life.  You could exchange the gold for allowances if you’re paying with your kids, or for rounds of drinks for roommates, or coffee runs for workmates…. (121)

When McGonigal says that Chore Wars is about “earning real rewards,” she relates these rewards to “allowances,” “drinks,” and “coffee” (121).  These three things are extrinsic objects in the material world (which could be her reality, the verdict is still out on what reality is by Chapter Seven).  If Part One of Reality is Broken develops the idea of motivating people past extrinsic rewards, McGonigal should not use extrinsic rewards to support the application of her ideals at the beginning of Part Two.  The creators of Chore Wars realize how extrinsic rewards operate. In fact, McGonigal mentions how “The game’s instructions encourage” this type of behavior, but she does not realize how Chore Wars’ instructions conflict with her ideology.

 

Insight into Foucault

Insight into Foucault

On a larger scope of McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, her examples of games like Chore Wars reflect the social training engraved into society.  Foucault in Discipline and Punish demonstrates the historical methods of power exercising discipline and punishment through training.  Moving into the 17th and 18th centuries, society increased its use of training to maintain control over subjects.  Social powers are able to control the body, the physical subject that acts in reality.    Subjects become trained through schools, home life, clubs, organization and this training places them into a complex system of power relations (31).  When McGonigal mentions how Chore Wars can be used to maintain a clean house, readers begin to realize that Chore Wars is a type of social training.  For example, if parents (power) can train their children (subjects) to complete a task, they are in effect controlling how their children act.  On one hand Chore Wars may be used to get children to wash dishes and live in a clean house.  But on the other hand, Chore Wars enacts a form of training used to maintain the docile bodies of subjects.  These children are learning less about the value of keeping a house clean; in fact they are learning the subtle ways of being trained and getting rewarded for completing socially acceptable tasks.  Training subjects to maintain socially acceptable norms (clean house/rewards) is not a fault of McGonigal. It is just funny to think that she is saying anything new about how to train subjects.

Intrinsic Rewards, Extrinsic Influence, and Faulty Definition of “Hard Work”

Jane McGonigal claims that extrinsic rewards are “money, material goods, status, and or praise” (45).  She concludes that these extrinsic rewards are a “sure path to sabotaging our own happiness” (45).  McGonigal claims that intrinsic rewards are “the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections” that people make with the “world” (45).  She later claims that intrinsic rewards are based on hard work and that extrinsic rewards decease happiness[1] (46).

Although there is some validity to her appreciation for intrinsic rewards, her assertion that hard-core gamers are “opting out” of the “hedonic grind” of reality is an overstatement.  In fact, her overstatement is underscored when she claims, “Games don’t fuel our appetite for extrinsic reward: they don’t pay us, they don’t advance our careers, and they don’t help us accumulate luxury goods” (50).  When World of Warcraft (WoW) alone produces 5 million dollars daily (53), the industry behind the entertainment and gaming industries only works within extrinsic terms.  McGonigal is assuming that gamers themselves only play games for intrinsic rewards.  She is unintentionally defining gamers as being outside extrinsic rewards (praise, money, and/or status).  Her logic assumes that every single gamer is similar—motived by the same drives, living by the moral/ethical principles.  There is the possibility that when gamers leave a game, they could go back to the “hedonic grind” of reality willingly.  Although intrinsic rewards could drive McGonigal, who is a video game designer[2], she is not every single gamer and should not assume all gamers hold the same values as her.

McGonigal’s intrinsic reward is tied to an understanding of hard work.  She defines games and gamers as hard work/ers.  She argues that people crave hard work to make them happy and that “reality is unproductive” (55).  She claims that WoW is “thrilling and high-stakes: it offers battling powerful opponents you’re barely strong enough to fight” (53).  If productivity and high-stakes means a person’s ability to battle a WoW character, then McGonigal could be correct.  But, if that same person can return to the graveyard and keep performing the same monotonous actions perpetually, the only productive accomplishment could be paying for a WoW account.  The only high-stakes task could be not getting bored or frustrated.  Again, McGonigal is setting up her argument too loosely.  She develops false analogies or outright overstatements to prove a weak point.  Although her comments could be charming to one type of reader, there is another reader that questions if she understands the concept of hard work.

By the end of Part One of Reality is Broken, McGonigal cannot escape the interdependence of intrinsic and extrinsic forces.  Her argument is further complicated when she loosely associates hard work with WoW.  In unison, these factors could make some readers excited, while other readers could struggle with taking her position seriously.


[1] In short, she gives the premise of The Great Gatsby. On a side note, reading and understanding literature also fits her criteria of a game.

[2] There are the material rewards she gets for designs, publications, and conferences (unless she is like a Catholic nun who lives a life of poverty for the sake of God and the salvation of the needy).

The Logical Issues of McGonigal’s Definition and Criteria of Games

McGonigal begins Reality is Broken with separate understandings of “game” and “player”.  According to McGonigal, the idea of game relates to the phrases “gaming the system” and  “you’d better start playing the game”; she relates these two phrases to mean that people are on the brink of “abandoning” morals/ethics in order to “get ahead” (19).  McGonigal transcribes the idea of player as a person “who manipulates others to get what [he/she] wants” (19).  McGonigal’s definitions of “game” and “player” can be seen as highly negative descriptions.  In fact, she argues that “when you start to pay attention, you realize how collectively suspicious we are of games” (20; italics mine).

Although McGonigal’s understanding of these concepts can make sense, these definitions cannot represent the entirety of words “game” and “player” for all people.  When McGonigal claims that these metaphors are “our worst fears about games”, she uses this fear to purpose a new definition of games[1]. She places fear before readers, regardless of readers not possibly attaching this emotion to these words.  There is a possibility that people attach positive emotions to game or player.  By starting her book with this logical issue, readers can look for other logical issues or distrust McGonigal’s assertions.

McGonigal’s calls for a “good definition of game”, but only gives a set of very loose criteria: goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation (21).  In fact, anything can fit this definition even if it is not a traditional game.  For example, in many U.S. companies, workers have goals [complete an assignment], follow an employer’s set of rules [maintaining performance], rely on a feedback system [raise evaluation systems], and use voluntary participation [workers can always quit].  If McGonigal means that anything can be a game therefore the definition is good, she could be correct.  If she means that quality games have these criteria, then she needs to define exactly what a game can and cannot be (some people can consider a definition as something that clearly separates things or brings explicit classifications).

McGonigal’s definition of games allows her to make this claim: “Gamers don’t want to game the system. Gamers want to play the game.  They want to explore and learn and improve” (27).  Again, McGonigal assumes that all gamers share these common attitudes and definitions of themselves.  Her idealistic assumptions are not supported with empirical evidence or historical examples.  There is no doubt that there are some altruistic gamers.  But, if “3 billion hours a week” are spent playing video games, gamers could be more concerned with reaching the next level than  learning and improving themselves as humans.

In the end, McGonigal opens up a conversation about a definition of “game”, but having a few logical issues (within the first two pages of chapter one) could undermine her key points.  Her error could be fixed with a few verb phrase changes (“could be” instead of “are”).  Throughout her book, she cites herself in footnotes and draws a bridge among games, reality, benefits, disadvantages and new ideas over a narrow pool of resources.  Even for a person with a Ph.D., McGonigal is not the definitive expert given that her points can be broken down easily.  In fact, some readers could be shocked that she purposes these definitions as the starting point for fixing the world’s problems.

 


[1] Also the noun “game” is slightly removed from the verb phrase “gaming the system” and the complete clause “you’d better start playing the game”.  A noun as a metaphor can operate under different reader up-takes than a phrase or a sentence.