Thursday, March 31, 2011

Will you let me be a super hero?

Defense intelligence agency and the U.S. central command in Iraq during its military campaign "iraqi freedom" in April 2003 issued  a standard card deck to all personnel.   Why? 

According to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Brooks, a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency, such playing cards have been used as far back as the Civil War and again in World War II—Army Air Corps decks printed with the silhouettes of German and Japanese fighter aircraft fetch hundreds of dollars today—and in the Korean War.  Troops' playing cards depict most wanted help pass the time; but more critically might help a soldier or Marine catch one of the figures.

If the US Defense Intelligence finds merit in games, then it should come as no surprise that others are opening up to the potential of games to help solve serious, real world problems.  Meet Jane McGonigal, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and game designer with a PhD from University of California, Berkeley. She recently published a book entitled Reality is Broken.  She was a big hit at DICE, the gaming conference, a few years ago which is how she got to TED.   If you've got 20 minutes, I encourage you to listen and learn How gaming can make a better world.

Her call to action has raised a lot of knee jerk skepticism, such as that which was published in SLATE Magazine a few days ago  by Heather Chaplin and found here: Gamification: Ditching reality for a game isn't as fun as it sounds. mag

Bottom line?  In spite of how much games and sports are deeply embedded into our culture, or for that matter globally human cultures; we have insisted on separating them from more essential past times or pursuits. They are entertainment, or escape or for those who are inclined toward leisure, right? A professional athlete may have the luxury of being able to play sports for a living, in which case it may be their day job, but most people still believe that they are lucky enough to get paid to "play."

Play is not what you are supposed to do in school, at work or when solving serious problems, right? Games however have persisted throughout human history precisely because there is some intrinsic value in them that the casual observer often misses.  It is precisely this value that McGonigal and others like Jesse Schell from Carnegie Mellon University has written about (see The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses). 

The word game and the subject of play rarely, if ever occupy the same pedestal as commerce or religion or other endeavors more central to human existence and survival. As an educator, however,  I can appreciate the value of entertainment or as Mary Poppins would say, "just a spoon full of sugar, helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way."  Learning, working or the activities that we believe require focus and attention surprisingly can be enhanced by the use of play. 

Games come in a variety of formats and levels of complexity, and  mirror the variety of levels and formats of our daily existence. We tend to play in  environments with  rules both clearly  bounded such as the soccer field, the basketball court, the flight simulator, the Monopoly board, the chess board, the casino or increasingly a computer interactive environment.  Sure the rules in soccer don't offer any insight to those playing roulette, or basketball's defensive strategy is not very applicable to chess.  But then we do not have the same freedom on an airplane as we do in a classroom, or a corporate office boardroom.  Each environment has a set of rules dictated by the culture or norm of interaction, just like a game.  What makes it more interesting is how often we relish the freedom that comes from changing environments, or even the coccassion in which having experienced a taste we want to try it again.  In game play, practice is a given and the more frequently we play or perform the better we get.  This is the idea behind homework isn't it?  practice for improvement?  It's why int he workplace generally speaking, those with more experience are considered more valuable? 
The point is that if you've never rehearsed something, or practiced in order to improve than I could more readily accept the distinction being drawn between reality and fiction, or game constructed realities. Inherent in human development is natural curiosity mixed with natural caution. When a baby begins to make the transition between crawling and toddling, naturally adults want to bound the environment and let them test but with great safety in the form of supportive hands, removal of sharp barriers etc.

When we draw lines to separate play from reality we are merely reinforcing a norm or set of values that are conducive to social society's needs for less intrinsically valued activity.  The activity we may value is actually playful, but someone needs to help the children cross with safety or work the register at the Walmart or build the cars, the roads etc.  But are the bond traders playing or working?  Some work environments are clearly playful or allow us to be the super hero on occassion, like the firefighter who saves the kitty in the tree or rescues the child caught in the burning building.  

I don't htink it's crazy to imagine changing the world to make it be the future that we want, rather than the legacy of some outmoded idea of the future?  Why for example, if there are patches of vacant land, do we insist the parcels of property and zoning rules remain static to a 19th century notion of the future population density of a city?  We need to be more proactive in changing our environments, taking them back.  Rebuilding urban farms, that were cleared for a wave of population that has long moved away leaving abandoned properties in their wake.  Let's leverage the increasing ease with which we can escape our reality and retreat to game environments to practice and prototype a different world.  At the same time help us imagine it and work out the kinks before building the wrong thing.  
Scenario planning, and game theory has done a great deal to help insure a brighter future.  So, I'm with Jane and Jesse too.  I don't want to merely believe, but get the chance to get in a  little more practice being super heroes, and then make progress to refashion our real environments to emulate what we find exhilarating in our play spaces.  I think we can realize a vastly improved world much faster.

At the state of the Union, the spirit of cooperation resulted in a new seating arrangement.  So I'm in favor of sending in some good game designers to help the current elected officials do some game playing together and see whether we might get a little progress on some dead lock issues.  

I close with a link to Jesse's 30 minute talk at DICE from two years ago.  If you think you can escape the game world? well think again, it's here and it's only going to become more obvious shortly. 

Comments?  Reactions?

1 comment:

  1. This is why playing in one of those simulators offered at websites such as provide a great way to hone up your skills in the actual field.


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