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Et in Arcade Ego

Friday, March 25, 2011

Could video games develop some skills that can solve real-world problems? Probably not.

I recall an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in which nearly the entire crew of the Enterprise fell victim to an addictive holographic game whose purpose was to render them helplessly subject to suggestion. The addiction seems to have been formed by stimulating the brain’s production of endorphins. It is all a plot to take over the ship—and, presumably, eventually the entire Federation—and it is run by a Ktarian ship’s captain of sinister beauty.

I am thinking of this episode because I just watched a video of a talk given at the recent TED conference by a disarmingly charming and quite unsinister young lady from California. She works for something called the Institute for the Future and designs games that she wants everyone—and I mean everyone—to play. In her ebullient, engaging way she paints a picture of the future just as grim as one under Ktarian overlords.

(The TED conference, if it’s new to you, is a love-fest for the technology and futurism crowd, devoted to parading the very latest Big Ideas before an audience that is, in critical distance, not unlike that at a Justin Bieber concert.)

She asserts that these underemployed, endorphin-addicted fantasists with pretend friends are ‘super-empowered hopeful individuals.’

She tells us that, at present, players of online games pass a total of 3 billion hours playing each week, a depressing statistic. Then she tells us she wants to raise that number to 21 billion hours a week. That would come to three hours a week for every man, woman, and child on Earth. More than that, actually, because I can tell you right now: someone else will have to pick up my three hours.

Her idea is that game playing develops some skills that, if properly (meaning deviously) directed, could solve real-world problems. One of these skills, she tells us, is developing a “social fabric.” We like people better, she says, after we have played a game with them, even if they have beaten us. Two words: Bears/Packers. Three more: Yankees/Red Sox.

This “social fabric,” let us remember, is being woven mainly by young men sitting alone in basements, day after day or night after night, in lieu of going out into actual, you know, society. It is not so much a fabric as a mist: the barest acknowledgement of others’ existence for the moment only, and lacking the depth of connection one might feel with a guy one has seen two or three times in another line at the unemployment office.

Players of online games pass a collective total of 3 billion hours a week at them.

And so with the other skills she attributes to the blank, pasty complexioned face she uses as her representative gamer: “urgent optimism,” “blissful productivity,” and “epic meaning.” I told you she is from California.

“Urgent optimism” means that gamers always think they are on the verge of winning—not unlike 65-year-old women playing the slots in Vegas. There are your endorphins, right there. “Blissful productivity” means... I’m not sure. She tells us that the average World of Warcraft player spends 22 hours a week at it while holding down a half-time job. I’m guessing the job is not in management, sales or, um, production; that is, I’m guessing that whatever the job is, not being at it is, comparatively, bliss.

As for “epic meaning,” what she describes lies somewhere between monomania and mass delusion. The world’s second-largest wiki, she tells us, consists of 80,000 articles about World of Warcraft. It is, that is to say, a huge body of knowledge about something entirely imaginary. (Any resemblance you may think you see to the world’s largest wiki is entirely in your head, and I didn’t say it.)

We like people better, she says, after we have played a game with them, even if they have beaten us. Two words: Bears/Packers.

In summary, she asserts that these underemployed, endorphin-addicted fantasists with pretend friends are “super-empowered hopeful individuals.” Her ambition is to turn the rest of us into the same evolved species so that, together, we can begin imagining that we are solving the world’s problems.

“Evolved,” you ask? Oh, yes. Here is her argument: Since the introduction of World of Warcraft, its players have invested a collective 5.93 million years in making the stockholders of Activision Blizzard very happy. And 5.93 million years is a decent approximation of the length of time that has elapsed since the first hominid stood erect. So, you see? Of course, by that logic, the high school class of 1962, which has spent a collective 16.3 million years sleeping since graduation, are even more evolved. We should probably all have those big bulbous, hairless heads that science fiction has so often predicted. (Some of us have at least mastered the hairless part.)

“Reality is broken” is her premise, and I have no doubt that typical gamers would agree. There’s no arguing with the premise, for the simple reason that it is meaningless, except perhaps as a way of avoiding the fact that reality is hard. But it has a certain buzz value, and it got this PhD holder in “performance studies” her 20 minutes onstage at TED, where every idea is a Big Idea.

In related news, the company that makes the Guitar Hero games has announced it will no longer produce them. To which I say, Who cares? Who needs a video game to play air guitar? Just give me a coupla shots of rye and put Travis Wammack’s “Scratchy” on the old record player and stand back!

Robert McHenry is the former editor of Encyclopedia Britannica.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also wrote about “Culture and Its Discontents,” “The Creedalists” who always insist upon their own views, and the origins of Social Security in “A Man and His Plan.” Newt Gingrich and Kamal Kepar discuss “Medicine in the Facebook Age,” Roger Scruton says many Internet users are “Hiding Behind the Screen,” and Paul Rubin explains “Ten Fallacies about Web Privacy.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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