Unvilifying the video games

I’m reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, about how games (of the video variety in particular) may not be the useless waste of time and brain power they’re reputed to be.

It’s one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time.  I don’t play video games, and until I started reading the book I wished that fewer people would play them less of the time.  That wish didn’t stop me from encouraging parents to resist the temptation to forbid the playing of video games out of hand, and vilify screen time in general, but I still wished.

So I’ll say this.  If you have or know a child who likes to play video (or other) games, and you find yourself trying to get him or her to play less, this could be one of the most important books you ever read.  Not because it will necessarily change your mind about anything (so please try not to resist because you’re afraid it will do that).  Rather because it will offer you a perspective on why your child is drawn to these games that casts him or her in a much more favorable light than the video-games-are-bad rhetoric allows.

And even if you don’t know such a child, McGonigal’s insights on work, happiness, social interaction, and the way we solve and don’t solve large-scale problems make it worth the read as well.

Here’s a passage from early in the book:

“When we’re in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts, to make social connections, and to build personal strengths.  We are actively conditioning our minds and bodies to be happier. 

If only hard work in the real world had the same effect.  In our real lives, hard work is too often something we do because have to do it – to make a living, to get ahead, to meet someone else’s expectations, or simply because someone else gave us a job to do.  We resent that kind of work.  It stresses us out.  It takes time away from our friends and family.  It comes with too much criticism.  We’re afraid of failing.  We often don’t get to see the direct impact of our efforts, so we rarely feel satisfied. 

Or, worse, our real-world work isn’t hard enough.  We’re bored out of our minds.  We feel completely underutilized.  We feel underappreciated.  We are wasting our lives.

When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person.  It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end.  Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way.  It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us otpimistic, doesn’t invigorate us.

What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work.”

Indeed. Jane McGonigal’s interested in a happier, more productive world.  We mightn’t expect such a commitment expressed in the form of a book about video games, but that’s what she’s done.  It’s quite something.


One Response

  1. Your excerpt from the book really makes me want to read it even though I’m not that interested in video games and my son doesn’t play them. That must be the sure sign of a good book if it can hook you on a topic that’s not even on your radar.

    It makes me wonder what other kinds of activities have such potential to create this “concentrated state of optimistic engagement”?

    For my son, it’s making Lego creations (not following the instructions).

    I’m not sure I know what it is for me!

    I find I do experience a lot of my day as either boring or too stressful. But sometimes I wonder if that’s more a feature of my outlook than of the activity I’m engaged in. Buddhists would say that that concentrated state of optimistic engagement is precisely what we learn through mindfulness training to bring to every moment — I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet though!

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