Though I don’t agree with Jane McGonigal’s presentation on how gaming can affect the real world, I think her talk represents one of the growing trends among young adults and youth today – the need for myth. Every culture needs myth: simply put, we may say that myths are ways of explaining the world and interpreting it. The idea of a myth does not mean something necessarily false or true – it might be a metaphor or illustration, or it might be a straightforward definition. For most of human history, these myths were transmitted in the form of oral culture – stories, fables, or tales told to explain deep principles about the world we live in.
More recently, movies have been and continue to be a way to communicate myth. These days we are seeing the rise of video games as the next great medium for communicating and even experiencing myth. What I mean by experiencing myth is the idea that every good myth has some story element to it, some way of incorporating the listener as a participant or potential character in the story. Think about it. The last movie that really resonated with you or spoke to you did so because you identified with something about the story. It struck a chord with you.
Video games become popular as they allow you not to just play the game, but to participate in its world. It’s no longer about just moving a character around, you identify with it, develop it, and hopefully succeed with it. Even sports-themed games have the opportunity to develop a team, a player, a franchise. First-person, shoot ’em up games are similar.
Jane talks about the contrast between a guy who is about to have an “epic win” and what we often feel about our own lives. She shows two pictures – one of elation and confidence, the other of a sign saying, “I’m not good at life.” She makes the right observation that we are not motivated to do something that matters, that we are not confident, feel defeated, and cynical about life.
She notes that the sheer amount of time that gamers put into games (~10,000 hours) is making them good at something. That is, something is drawing them to the game world over the real world. Four values describe this ‘something’:
1. Urgent optimism – the passion and urgency to do it now. They believe they are capable of changing the fantasy world.
2. Tight social fabric – the shared experience one has with someone you game with whether physically or virtually.
3. Blissful productivity – we are happier working hard.
4. Epic meaning – gamers want to be attached to awe-inspiring mission, building an epic story.
The fantasy world that a video game provides ensures these four values to come together with guaranteed success because it is exactly that, a fantasy world. The real world is downright disappointing, scary, and too huge so gamers retreat to this world. Real life is just not satisfying.
Although her observations are very insightful, her proposed solution is not. She concludes that since we are more willing, more confident, and more ‘productive’ in our video games, that we must play more games, and that if the games simply had more realistic elements, the same video-gaming skills could be used to solve real problems.
I find this solution to be problematic for several reasons.
1. She overlooks the fact that our addiction to video games reveals the deeper need for myth, a myth that has largely been dismissed by our naturalistic, materialistic worldview. The popularity of video games (and its subsequent social withdrawal) seems to be the result of our own doing. In breaking down everything phenomenon into its component, mechanistic parts, we have lost the sense of myth.
2. Her solution that we take the genre of the video game and simply fill it with more realistic details rests heavily on the optimism that humans can make a better future if they treat it as a myth. She ignores the deep-seated factors that make the real world so disheartening that gamers would retreat to a video game in the first place.
3. No matter how detailed the game, is it possible to truly simulate the complexity, unpredictability, and sometimes senselessness of the world we live in?
4. Who is going to waken the gamers up to reality? Do we just continue to deceive them into participating in reality without them knowing?
What McGonigal is offering is really the call to an epic story. She is calling gamers to be part of a myth, and instead of making that myth rooted in fantastical, escapist realms, we must call them to live out a true myth that is rooted in the real world of sin, suffering, hope, peace, and love. The Gospel is such a myth (and a true one at that), and it is not based on the optimism that we can make the future, but that the future is precisely in the hands of the one who calls us to partake in it.
I am grateful for McGonigal’s talk because it reminds me that we all have the desire for an epic adventure, hard work, development along the journey. This is nothing less than discipleship – taking up your cross, denying yourself, and following him. Let’s pray that gamers recognize there’s a real adventure waiting for us if we’d only break out of our fantasy world and see.