Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I Want To Believe: Jane McGonigal's PAX East 2011 Keynote

By 9:15 Friday morning, the line for the keynote wound three-quarters of the way down the convention center’s west wall. Which is saying something, because you can fit an entire city block inside the Boston Convention and Exposition Center.

The atmosphere was buoyant, despite the miserable blanket of rain and fog hanging over Boston. Teenagers wearing paper Plants Vs. Zombies construction cone hats mingled in impromptu Magic: The Gathering games in circles on the floor. Now and then a Professor Layton or Ryu would glide by, high-fiving the convention center police and Enforcers managing the line. Two guys in queue ahead of me, Seattle natives, enjoyed some good-natured pre-coffee bitching. “Weather here sucks ass,” said one, without a trace of irony. Behind me a gray-haired woman with a nose ring texted on her Android, fitted—naturally—with an R2D2 case. A PAX volunteer, a member of what I’d later discover was called the Cookie Brigade, circulated through the crowd, selling baked goods to raise funds for the Child’s Play charity.

9:15 AM and nary a Dickwolves shirt in sight.

An Enforcer approached my section of the line, motioning us all back against the floor-length windows so more people could squeeze in. “Gonna have to make friends,” someone in the crowd joked. “That’s okay,” the Enforcer deadpanned, “PAX is for making friends.”

Before I could comply, the line was lurching its way into the Main Theatre.

Jane McGonigal: Rock Star, Cool Eighth Grade Teacher
Jane McGonigal occupies an interesting position in the industry right now. She’s one of academia’s most highly visible proponents of gaming, yet she also inspires a certain degree of cynicism. Her new book, Reality Is Broken, outlines her eager conviction that gamers are a powerful force for good. I can see why it’s hard to reconcile that outlook with, well, Dickwolves. Sometimes, all you can hope for is that Reality Is Alright.

Which is why Penny Arcade’s choice of McGonigal as keynote speaker this year was such a coup. McGonigal is known for her upbeat, peppy style and positive messages; what better way for Gabe & Tycho to dig themselves out of the PR hole they’d spent the last several months digging themselves into? I’ll admit to some initial skepticism about the speaker selection, but as McGonigal would prove in her keynote, it was maybe the best move Penny Arcade could have made.

This isn’t to say that I was fully on board with her approach. When she had the audience stand up and let out a team-building scream to open her talk, I began to wonder how long it would be before the trust falls started. But the thousands-strong crowd, which seemed to be mostly teens and young adults, ate it up. McGonigal was a rock star from the moment she stepped on stage.

Before launching into the meat of her presentation—which, I’m sorry to report, was nearly identical to her TED talk and subsequent book tour appearances—McGonigal worked the crowd with references to The Great Wil Wheaton, Dr. Horrible ray guns, and “epic wins.” It went over well, but I couldn’t help but feel McGonigal came off as cloying for the first twenty minutes of her keynote. There was even, I shit you not, a THE CAKE IS A LIE moment. Perhaps a lot of my reaction was due to her tone: Her voice went up? At the end? Of each phrase? She sounded more like That Really Cool Science Teacher You Had In Eighth Grade than, you know, a Ph.D. designer with interesting things to say about games, psychology, and society. Given the makeup of the audience, I can’t fault her for aiming her talk at a younger crowd. But she also sounded—a lot—like she was selling a book. Which she most certainly is.

The Springboard Effect
Each of the two(!) titles McGonigal invented for her speech—first, the placeholder, “The Death-Defying, Life-Changing, Epic Monster Keynote,” and later, the super secret title, “The Top Secret Science of Why Games Make You a Contagious Vector of Awesome”—were, if actually reflective of her content, pretty damn groan-inducing. Fortunately, it didn’t take her long to launch into her argument about why gaming can make us better. And some of the research she discussed was remarkable. Here are a few highlights:
  • A half-hour of co-op gaming has been shown to make people three times more likely to volunteer their help or cooperation with real-world tasks. Co-op gaming, McGonigal argues, sets up a cognitive framework in our minds that carries over into our daily lives.
  • Playing a game as an attractive avatar for only 90 seconds can result in up to 24 hours of improved self-confidence. I’m not sure exactly how that works, but the implications about self-image are fascinating.
  • Games can inspire us to try new activities and revive dormant skills outside of the game world. According to a study of 7,000 music gamers McGonigal described, 67% of Rock Band and Guitar Hero players were inspired to pick up and learn an actual instrument after playing with the plastic ones. And 73% of players who were already musicians before playing the games were found to spend more time playing their real instruments after playing the video games. (Count yours truly among them—I was inspired to pluck out every bass line on Revolver on my crappy Yamaha after playing The Beatles Rock Band.)
  • Gamers have increased activity in their subconscious minds. People who game regularly compose the largest population of lucid dreamers, able to exert a degree of agency and control within their dreams. (Again, yours truly raises his hand.)
  • Games can reduce or mitigate psychological damage. According to the U.S. Army, soldiers who gamed three to four hours per day while on active duty had significantly lower incidences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological ailments.
Armed with this powerful data, I found myself nodding along as McGonigal explained her view that games are not “escapist,” but “returnist”: They give us the ability to experience and try out ideas and skills in a play space, so that we can return to the real world with what we’ve learned. McGonigal calls this the “springboard effect.” As a former educator, I was totally, pardon the pun, on board.

Unfortunately, that’s when Dr. Jane took us to space.

Dr. Jane’s Space Talk: I Want To Believe
The optimal state of being, McGonigal argues, is something called “eustress.” It’s the same kind of tension and heightened awareness we experience with normal stress, except that instead of fear, we perceive it as motivation. We use it to overcome obstacles and attain our full potential. We experience eustress when playing games, McGonigal says, and we ought to promote that state of being.

Besides, eustress makes us react more positively to the people around us. Our positivity rubs off on them, and their positivity rubs off on others, until there’s a pandemic of good vibes infecting the world. Being happy makes us successful, McGonigal argues, not the other way around. As much as I agree with that outlook, I think McGonigal’s connection to games and game culture is tenuous at best. As she talked, I began to feel my inner Dana Scully creeping up, casting a skeptical eye at McGonigal’s gregarious Mulder.

Near the end of her talk, McGonigal made a salient analogy to the first Spider-Man film. When Peter Parker first obtains his powers, he wastes his time competing in a WWE-style cage match. (Favorite part of the keynote, by the way? The dude who shouted out “BONE SAWWWWW!!!” when the Spider-Man slide came up.) That’s the place game culture is in right now, McGonigal said. We’re wasting our potential on stupid spectacle when we could be doing much more good. Great power = great responsibility, and so forth.

I like this comparison a lot. There is a lot of willful stupidity in game culture. Too often, that stupidity flares up into hatred, and, occasionally, violence. I agree with McGonigal that we need to channel the productive power of gaming into more positive outlets. The problem is that she’s passing that buck to someone else.

Well done, Mr. Vonnegut.
And that’s why McGonigal sometimes sounds like she’s on Planet X. There’s a stark contrast between her vision of a better world through gaming and the actual hard work of getting there, and I don’t know that she has any kind of answers for how we get from Point A to Point B. For instance: When McGonigal clarified that we don’t get any positive benefits from gaming when we act like assholes (her word!), or when we play with other people who act like assholes, she got a huge round of applause. I clapped real hard for that, too. I’m not precisely sure, though, how we convince others to not act like assholes.

Intuitively, McGonigal’s argument that each gamer can be a nexus of positivity is at odds with the reality of decades of culture: Um, we’re kind of well-known for being insufferably hyper-critical about everything. “Gaming unleashes our natural ability to be more,” McGonigal said. Judging from the positive response that line got, the crowd on hand believed it. But given the rampant sexism, homophobia, racism, and downright idiocy across the industry, from producer to consumer, it is really difficult to imagine the majority of people having vast positive potential. And even if they do, they’d better have a hell of a teacher if they’re going to channel it.

This disconnect between theory and reality was perfectly exemplified in McGonigal’s closing activity, in which she exhorted the massive crowd to stand up and join hands to set a world record for biggest “thumb war.” It was a fun idea for celebrating the opening of this gathering of nearly 70,000 people to celebrate gaming, sure—but comically ignorant of one of the rules Penny Arcade themselves set out: Don’t spread your germs everywhere, so we can avoid another, you know, PAX Pox.

I want to believe in what McGonigal is saying. I like the idea that people ought to learn what positive effects gaming (in moderation, as McGonigal argues) can have, so we can finally dispense with the silly cable news schlock stories on how games corrupt our youth. I like the idea that there are ways to counteract the cynicism and ennui that pervades an industry largely tailored to the tastes immature human beings and governed by meaningless Metacritic scores. And despite not entirely agreeing with her, I’m glad Penny Arcade recruited her to kick off what could have otherwise been a very tense event. But like Dana Scully, it’s going to take more than a monologue to convince me. “Epic” or not.
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