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28 November 2015

Video games will shape how we understand the world

Gaming is frequently touted as an escape from the world - but it can also be a guide to it.

By Tim Martin

People who completed the classic video game Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991) would see a line of text flashing on the screen after the credits rolled. “OK, that’s it, turn off your computer and do something constructive,” it read, as a jaunty tune played in the background. If players took no action, the text was replaced with 50 suggestions of constructive things to do. These ranged from the innocuous (“wash your car”, “cook dinner”, “take up photography”) to the light-hearted (“sing Welsh folk songs at the bank”, “bathe your iguana”) and the slightly barbed (“talk to a member of the opposite sex”).

Even for players with healthy relationships, supper in the oven and the cleanest iguana in town, this sarcastic farewell might have caused a tremor of unease. The Monkey Island games were works of comedy, but few games before or since have taken such a direct approach to one of the most distinctive things about their medium. More than any other form of popular entertainment, games can be distracting, demanding and hard to put down, and the disappointed-parent tone imitated by Monkey Island’s the creators was unmistakeable. What have you missed out on, it wondered, while you’ve been locked up in here playing on the computer? Go outside! Engage with life! If you want to do something constructive, you won’t do it by playing games.

I was reminded of Monkey Island while reading SuperBetter: a Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient – Powered by the Science of Games, a book its author, Jane McGonigal, describes as a method for bringing the “psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games” not just to the daily tasks of life, but to mental health and physical well-being, too. McGonigal is a designer at the Institute for the Future think tank in Palo Alto, where she makes large-scale applications that attempt to harness the time, energy and passion that increasing numbers of people put into video games. SuperBetter is the latest of these, a self-help method that began life as a smartphone app McGonigal wrote to help herself recover from severe concussion and ended up being installed and played, its creator relates, by more than 400,000 people. The app encourages people to frame the challenges of their lives as levels in a game, by nominating quests, collecting “power-ups” (glasses of water, hugs from a partner) and battling “bad guys” of their own creation (the Four Devil Foods, the Regret Parade). After recruiting “allies” among friends and family, they are taught to score their daily triumphs and aspire to “epic wins” – glorious victories over challenging odds.

Citing two studies of her method from American universities, McGonigal claims that this kind of “gameful” thinking will make its adherents “stronger, healthier and happier in the face of challenges like anxiety, depression, chronic pain and PTSD”. They will also, she says, be braver and more positive in their daily lives, truer to their dreams and, rather startlingly, “free of regret”. As such extracts indicate, SuperBetter may be steeped in the vocabulary of video games but its soul is pure self-help. The message it promotes is that even the messiest and most troublesome parts of existence can be mapped as data, formulated as a challenge and overcome.

These twin allegiances jostle uneasily in the book, which struggles to integrate some interesting research on games with the rather uncontentious insights of the SuperBetter method. As McGonigal points out, some video games have proved to have fascinating therapeutic relevance: a study carried out at Oxford University found that playing Tetris after viewing traumatic imagery reduced subsequent flashbacks of the event, suggesting that some games have applications in the treatment of post-combat stress. Meanwhile burns victims who played SnowWorld, a game developed at the University of Washington, reported reductions in the pain from their injuries of between 30 and 50 per cent.

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Such studies, however, form only a tiny part of McGonigal’s method; what they teach us, she suggests, is that control over the “attention spotlight” is a “hidden superpower” that can be activated at will in case of pain or anxiety by Tetris, jigsaw puzzles, meditation or what you will. This piece of therapeutic advice, which boils down to “distract yourself with some kind of absorbing activity”, soon comes to seem more banal than it initially appears – and the same goes for the vast majority of “quests” in the book, which range from “squeeze one or more muscles as hard as you can for five seconds” through “hum for sixty seconds” to “tell someone about a dream you had last night”, each one bedecked with far-out scientific waffle about the possible neurological and physical benefits.

SuperBetter, in essence, is a pragmatic retread of a thesis in McGonigal’s previous book, Reality Is Broken (2011). There, she suggested that the things that attract players to virtual worlds – a sense of community, clear and measurable achievements, decisive victories – had implications for the development of video games and society alike. If the millions of people playing Halo could be persuaded to participate in large-scale games of altruistic problem-solving, or if real-world occupations could offer “that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment”, inner and outer realities might be transformed. “Here’s an interesting fact about games,” she writes in SuperBetter: “we almost never feel hopeless when we play them.”

But the breezy cheer of this method, and its belief in the ultimate good of personal productivity, is also the most problematic thing about it. There is little room in McGonigal’s austerely optimistic cosmology for the idea that sorrow might deepen our experience of life, that regret might instruct us, or that some efforts are inevitably futile. In an appendix to the new book, one of the scientists tasked with studying SuperBetter offers praise that seems somewhat delphic, on close examination: praising its “playful, light-hearted approach”, she goes on to say that it helps us “understand others [and] ourselves by the stories we tell” because, “instead of telling ourselves a story about victimhood or tragedy, we can tell a story about adventure and redemption”. Possibly so but, outside specific therapeutic contexts, an exclusive reliance on such stories will only trivialise complex questions. SuperBetter may help you get motivated to cook supper, feel calmer or talk to the opposite sex, but not everything in life will bend to the rules and reward strategies of a video game.

Which, presumably, is why so many of us keep playing them. Certainly the numbers are striking: according to statistics released this year by the Entertainment Software Association, the American video games body, 42 per cent of US households consume more than three hours of games a week. In Death by Video Game, the writer and games critic Simon Parkin offers an enlightening and well-informed survey of developments in the medium, attempting to explain what it is that drives people to these virtual worlds and what keeps their interest when they get there.

Parkin takes as his springboard a spate of recent deaths in Taiwanese and Chinese internet cafés in which young men collapsed after marathon gaming sessions; but, despite the rabble-rousing title, his book concerns life far more than death. For every tale of obsession – the man who set out to walk to the end of the world in Minecraft, the teenagers who move into “gaming houses” to train for games competitions – there are whole passages of passionate advocacy for the ways that games explore complex aspects of human existence and identity.

These investigations, many of which draw on articles Parkin has published in the New Yorker and elsewhere, cover a wide range. One of the developers of MUD (1978), the first multi-user adventure game and the oldest virtual world in existence, tells Parkin that his game was “a political endeavour from the start, as well as an artistic one”: its emphasis on creating and building a character reflected an ideology that its authors hoped would stand against “artificial restraints of class, gender, social status and so on that dictate that you are who you are born to be”. Meanwhile, players of the contemporary space simulator EVE Online (2003) inhabit a vast network of trade and conflict, overseeing and managing galactic affairs through a “Council of Stellar Management” as political and industrial factors struggle for dominance. One lecturer in politics at University College London explains the fascination for academics (and presumably participants) of a community that so accurately models “hierarchy, authority, rule of law, power, violence and distribution of labour”.

Games such as these, Parkin suggests, can “superficially improve on some aspects of our reality”. Their ordered systems offer clear and invariant rewards for effort which are inevitably paid when the criteria are met. As McGonigal also recognises, this sense of an ordered cosmos exerts a powerful appeal, especially to those whose experiences of life have been unjust or traumatic. Parkin goes even further, exploring aspects of creation and play that reflect more nebulous qualities of existence. He describes a couple who find solace after the death of their child in wandering the icy wastes of the game Skyrim, and meets the creator of That Dragon, Cancer, whose game re-creates the experience of living with his terminally ill four-year-old son.

Such works occupy territory far beyond the escapism of which games are often accused. Just like products of other artistic traditions, they may solicit empathy or encourage a wider understanding of contemporary problems. The game Papers, Please asks players to stand in the shoes of a put-upon border official in a repressive regime, balancing their emotional response to the desperation of refugees – a wife who doesn’t have the same papers as her husband, a couple fleeing civil war – with the demands of keeping their job and feeding their family. In This War of Mine, based on the siege of Sarajevo, players have to protect a shelter full of displaced people who must occasionally brave snipers and looters to scavenge for provisions and medicine.

Such experiences depend for their effects on a salient feature of the medium: unlike books or films, games require a player in order to function. They need to be played, Parkin argues, in the way musical instruments need to be played, and the unique engagement they require offers the possibility that creators and players may gain correspondingly unique insights from the process.

Even four decades in to the medium’s history, at a time when video games are one of the largest entertainment markets in the world, arguing their validity in such broad artistic terms remains a controversial position. Parkin cites amusing examples of social hysteria about absorbing new entertainment media: there’s an article from 1858 describing a family ruined by the mother’s obsession with novels, and another denouncing chess as “a game which no man who depends on his trade, business or profession can afford to waste time in practising”. But he also longs for the moment when the industry’s commentators move away from advocacy – “the endless articles and television programmes that, beneath the angle, exist primarily to plead the case that games matter”.

Although it does not ignore certain troubling or antisocial aspects of the games industry, his own book still falls more or less within this tradition. Occasionally it errs on the side of enthusiasm: I wondered, for instance, how many players would describe their gaming sessions as aspirations towards “glory, justice, immortality; a chance to live over and over again to perfect our path”. But in general it offers the kinds of measured and erudite perspectives that are rare in discussions of this medium.

One person who might agree with Parkin’s pronouncements on glory, justice and immortality, however, is Michael W Clune, a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, whose memoir, Gamelife, offers a fascinating glimpse of what I suspect – now that virtual experiences are inescapably a part of most upbringings in the developed world – will be the shape of much literature to come. The book tells the story of Clune’s childhood and adolescence in the American Midwest during the 1980s, of his family’s subsequent move to the countryside and of his parents’ divorce. But it is also the history of an intellectual awakening told through the medium of video games, which Clune writes about with frequently arresting eloquence and power.

Gamelife raises more questions than its elliptical, rambling form is interested in addressing – but they are fascinating ones. Clune remembers how, exposed at an early age to the Uppercut text adventure Submerged, an infamously difficult game in which the player makes decisions on behalf of a “Central Mentality” that oversees systems on a disintegrating science-fictional planet, he experienced great difficulty in processing the resulting insights. He remembers lying in bed as decision after decision resulted in his character’s death at the hands of furious citizens, trying to comprehend the game’s suggestion that death is not a final event but a stage in a learning process. “I’m a person, I thought. I’m a person who can die one trillion times.” Later experiences, such as the 2004 role-playing adventure The Bard’s Tale and the Ultima series, lead to conflicts with his Christian parents, but they allow him the insight that “fighting, exploring, hiding, looting, rescuing, speaking” can be performed “without there being a single doer to bind those actions together”. Map-based computer role-playing games, Clune concludes – the phrasing gives an idea of his occasionally flowery style – are “a spiritual device for separating action from ego” and “freeing movement from the narrow prison of character”.

Does Clune protest too much? I don’t think so, and I don’t imagine that anyone who has tried the mind-warping experiment of talking to a child under ten about Minecraft will, either. Like all art forms, video games have monotonous and undesirable or intellectually unfruitful manifestations (in one amusingly heretical moment, Clune pours great scorn on the repetitious “child labour” of Super Mario Land). Yet, as McGonigal and Parkin also recognise, the metaphors for reality they offer make up an inescapable part of how present and future generations will understand the world. Sometimes they’re just a game; sometimes they are something more. The important thing, perhaps, is knowing when to put them down and bathe the iguana.

Tim Martin specialises in criticism of books and culture

SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal is published by Penguin Press (480pp, $27.95)

Gamerlife: a Memoir of Childhood by Michael Clune is published by Text Publishing (224pp, £12.99)

Death by Video Game by Simon Parkin is published by Serpent’s Tail (288pp, £12.99)

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State