Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
When I'm talking to people about why video games matter, I like to quote one of Woody Allen's finest pieces of advice: "Eighty percent of life is showing up." More than almost anything else, showing up matters. You can't find your talent for football if you never touch a ball. You can't make friends if you avoid other people. You can't get the job if you don't apply. You'll never write that screenplay if you don't start typing.
Games are about everyone showing up. In classrooms full of students who range from brilliant to sullen disaffection, it's games -- and often games alone -- that I've seen engage every single person in the room. For some, the right kind of play can spell the difference between becoming part of something, and the lifelong feeling that they're not meant to take part.
Why is this? Video games are a special kind of play, but at root they're about the same things as other games: embracing particular rules and restrictions in order to develop skills and experience rewards. When a game is well-designed, it's the balance between these factors that engages people on a fundamental level. Play precedes civilization. It spans continents and generations. It's how we naturally learn the most basic mechanical and social skills -- and how, at its best, we can build a safe space for discovering more about ourselves.
During her talk, Jane McGonigal discusses the top five regrets that people express at the end of their lives. People don't long for money, status or marble monuments. They wish they'd worked less hard, been better at staying in touch with friends, and more fully expressed their hopes and true selves. They wish they had shown up for more of the stuff that truly matters -- and one of the things that games like Jane's do is create structures and incentives to help people focus on these things while they still have time.
Some people are suspicious of any attempt to manufacture this kind of experience -- and I can understand why. I spoke at TED Global 2010 about the ways that video games engage the brain, and in particular the idea of reward structures: how a challenge or task can be broken down and presented to make it as engaging as possible. This can seem a slightly sinister idea: a manipulation that replaces genuine experience with boxes to tick and hoops to jump through. At worst, you end up with a jumble of "badges" and "achievements" dumped on top of a task in a misguided effort to make it fun.
From exam grading to health education to professional training to democratic participation, paths towards self-realization and success in the world are often daunting and obscure: journeys only the privileged feel confident setting off along. -- Tom Chatfield
Yet the best games -- and the lessons to be learned from them -- are far more than this. The world is already full of systems aimed at measuring, motivating and engaging us. And most of them are, by the standards of great games, simply not good enough. From exam grading to health education to professional training to democratic participation, paths towards self-realization and success in the world are often daunting and obscure: journeys only the privileged feel confident setting off along.
If there's one lesson we should take from games, it's that we can make this first step vastly easier and more accessible -- and can, given sufficient care, prompt people of all backgrounds and abilities towards richer living. This isn't to say that it's easy, obvious, or that games embody any royal road towards contentment. What modernity's potent mix of play and technology does offer, though, is an unprecedented opportunity to know ourselves better -- and, in doing so, to master our regrets before they become our destinies.
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