BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. A few minutes ago you heard Tom Bissell describe his experience playing Grand Theft Auto, wrestling with the game creator for the soul of the character called Niko. But Bissell also described another game, where the soul you’re wrestling for is your own.
TOM BISSELL: There's a game called Far Cry 2 that takes place in a contemporary African civil war. It's extremely beautiful.
[FAR CRY 2 SOUNDS] And yet, it is just the most unrelentingly savage game I think I've ever played.
[GUNFIRE] Most games that are violent give you the gun, push you in the direction of the bad guys and say hey, go kill all those guys. They're bad. You'll be rewarded. Good job. Far Cry 2 does something really confounding. Going through the game, quote, "getting better at killing," the game kind of introduces slowly that you're actually not helping things, that, in fact, you're kind of the problem. Everything you're doing is just making this conflict worse. So by the end of the game you're just a wreck. [LAUGHS] You're progressing through the game because that's what the game's asked you to do but it's also throwing all of this stuff back at you that's actually shaming you a little bit for being a participant in this virtual slaughter. And I love that about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does it give you the option of say, joining a U.N. peacekeeper force —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — or a, a diplomatic delegation?
TOM BISSELL: [LAUGHS] It absolutely does not. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
TOM BISSELL: [LAUGHING] No, no, it doesn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Games are so expensive and the business so risk averse, it’s very hard to make a game like Far Cry 2. Clint Hocking was its creative director. Now he’s creative director of LucasArts.
CLINT HOCKING: It’s not like people jump at the chance for me to make a game that’s sort of meaningfully about civil war in Africa. People aren't super excited about that, and it takes a lot of trust from the people that I'm working for, and I have to put up or shut up because it’s a big risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two years ago, Hocking made waves at the 2008 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, when in a speech he exhorted the assembled to stretch beyond the conventional shoot-'em-up. He asked, why can't we make a game that means something. What was the game that inspired that heartfelt rhetorical question of yours?
CLINT HOCKING: I wasn't inspired from a game that did it, I was inspired from a game that failed to. I think the better bullet point from my rant there was to say, why isn't Call of Duty about duty or why isn't Medal of Honor about honor? Medal of Honor is about mapping pixels over guys and pulling a trigger. It’s not really about honor, in any meaningful way, and I was frustrated by that. The Medal of Honor is a pretty prestigious and important thing that we value fairly highly, and it kind of trivializes it to make a game that’s about just blowing away waves of faceless dudes, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clint Hocking’s Far Cry 2 is a game that does not trivialize, that puts the player in the thick of a complex scenario. Therein, says Ian Bogost, lies the real potential of the medium. Ian Bogost is a video game designer, critic and author of the upcoming How to Do Things with Video Games. He says that because games can dispense with narrative and plunge you into a system, you can experience the unintended consequences of processes and policies. Games can teach us in ways that novels and journalism can't about how the real world works, and doesn't work.
IAN BOGOST: When you play a game, what you’re really doing is enacting some role inside of a simulated world that has particular rules. We're not necessarily looking for a simple answer when we play, but rather to see the consequences of different approaches. Kind of coming to grips with that ambiguity in the world is something that we would do well to, to embrace. If you think about a, a traditional game, one that doesn't have anything to do with the computer, a game like Go or chess, what makes those games last for millennia is that you can't find the bottom of them. There’s always something that doesn't get revealed, that you have to defer into the next session. And as you experience more and more of the world as a system, then you realize, you know, there aren't really good answers, ever. Instead, there are a complexity of interwoven perspectives, and I'm never gonna get to the bottom of them. It sounds, you know, maybe nihilistic but I don't mean it to. It’s, it’s the, the sublimity of realizing there’s just never gonna be a simple solution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think this will result in a better world?
IAN BOGOST: The optimal situation would be one in which we realize that we've been cheated, that we've been, we've been told these simple versions of what’s really going on in the world for years, for decades, and we will no longer accept it, that we will always want the more complicated story. That’s what I think has the potential to change the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bogost is interested in what he calls “persuasive” games, games that by their rules, their systems, their unintended consequences, can increase the understanding of people and policies and, by design, advocate for positive change. But beware, because as games draw many of us into the worlds of their creators, games also increasingly intrude into our own worlds. Last February, at the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ annual D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, Carnegie Mellon professor and CEO of Schell Games, Jesse Schell, painted a picture of the future.
JESSE SCHELL: And what will that world be like? Well, I think it'll be like this: You get up in the morning to brush your teeth and the toothbrush can sense that you’re brushing your teeth, and so, hey [BELL TONE], good job for you!
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] Ten points for brushing your teeth. And it can measure how long, and you’re supposed to brush ‘em for three minutes, and you did. And so you get a bonus for that. Hey [BELL TONE], you brushed your teeth every day this week, another bonus. All right, and who cares? The toothpaste company, the toothbrush company; the more you brush, the more toothpaste you use. They have a vested financial interest. So then you go and you get on the bus. The bus, why am I taking the bus? You’re taking the bus because the government has started giving out [BELL TONE] all kinds of bonus points to people who use public transportation, and you can use these points for, for tax incentives. And you get to work [BELL TONE] on time, good job. You, you get a, a special bonus. So then you go to lunch and you've had Dr. Peppers all week, and so you know you got to have another Dr. Pepper ‘cause you get 10 points [BELL TONE], 10 points [BELL TONE], 10 points [BELL TONE], 10 points, and then you'll have another one [BELL TONE]. You know there’s a special with Dr. Pepper this week. If you have five Dr. Peppers in a week [BELL TONE], 500 bonus points, so you definitely have to take advantage of that. And then you've got a meeting at another building that’s a half a mile away. And you could take the shuttle over but you decide, I'm gonna walk because the health insurance plan that you’re on [BELL TONE] gives you bonus points if you walk like more than a mile each day, and we can sense that easily, you know, through your digital shoes. And if you get your heart rate up [BELL TONE] above a certain, a certain amount, then you get more bonus points from your health insurance company. So then you’re going shopping on the way home, and man, this is like a place you can get a lot of points, and it’s really complicated so you let your like your app figure it out. It like looks at all the point systems you have, it looks at what you want and then it tells you which ones to buy [BELL TONE] in order to get, ooh, wow, a lot of points, just because I make good choices shopping. And then you get home and your daughter’s like, oh, I got my report card. And you’re like [BELL TONE] oh, good job. I mean, you’re getting 2,000 points from the state for getting’ such good grades, and [BELL TONE] [LAUGHS] you’re getting 5,000 as a parent from the Obama bonus for the good parenting bonus, which you’re excited ‘cause you can use that as tax relief. And then you say, hey, wait a minute, wait a minute, did you practice your piano? And she’s like, yeah, I practiced my piano. Well, what score did you get? It’s like, oh, well, I got 150,000. A hundred and fifty thousand, that’s the best you've ever had on that particular [BELL TONE] sonata. That’s 9,000 points given by the Arts Council for your scholarship fund, so go you. Right?
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] And then you go and watch television, and like I don't even want to talk about this. There’s just [REPEATED BELL TONES] points, points, points, points, points, points, points, because there’s eye sensors, right, that can tell when you’re watching the ads, certain ads especially, ‘cause you’re going to get points for ‘em. And your remote has a little screen on it and with a little camera, so you can kind of live chat with other people you know are watching the show [SUCCESSION OF BELL TONES], and you play all these games, and you get all these points while you watch television. That'll be very natural. And you get to thinking about how, wow, is it possible maybe that - since all this stuff is being watched and measured and judged, that maybe I should change my behavior a little bit and be a little better than I would have been? And so, it could be that these systems are just all crass commercialization and it’s terrible, but it’s possible that they'll inspire us to be better people, if the game systems are designed right. Anyway, I'm not sure about all that but I do know this stuff is coming. Man, it’s got to come. What’s gonna stop it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week I asked Jesse Schell how he felt about all that. Is this a future that you look forward to, where there is a potential distraction around every corner, a lot of which are just ads?
JESSE SCHELL: I certainly don't look forward to all of it. There’s going to be a lot of parts of this that are going to seem quite devilish, because so many people are going to be competing for our attention. I often think of it this way: The 21st century is going to be a war on the attention of humanity. Where civilization focuses its attention, I mean, that’s what defines what the civilization cares about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Way to shift the responsibility, Schell. You’re saying that the games that consume a quarter of America’s entertainment dollar, yet a big chunk of the population would never consider playing, will define what our civilization cares about? Well, that doesn't bode well, unless you actually believe that being a druid wandering around in World of Warcraft 20 hours a week can actually make you a better person. And who could possibly believe that?
JANE McGONIGAL: I'm Jane McGonigal, I'm a game designer. And I've been making games online now for ten years. And my goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life, as it is to save the world in online games.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Jane McGonigal at this year’s TED Conference in Long Beach, California.
JANE McGONIGAL: Right now we spend three billion hours a week playing online games. Some of you might be thinking, that’s a lot of time to spend [LAUGHS] playing games, maybe too much time, considering how many urgent problems we have to solve in the real world. But actually, according to my research at the Institute For The Future, actually the opposite is true. Three billion hours a week is not nearly enough gameplay to solve the world’s most urgent problems. In fact, if we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] No, I'm serious. [LAUGHS]
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] I am. Here’s why:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She showed the audience a photograph of the face of a gamer gaming and described what she saw written on that face.
JANE McGONIGAL: The sense of urgency, a little bit of fear but intense concentration; the crinkle of the eyes up and around the mouth is a sign of optimism and the eyebrows up is surprise. This is a gamer who’s on the verge of something called an “epic win.” Now, it -
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] Oh, you've heard of that. Okay, good. So an epic win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. And when you get there, you are shocked to discover what you’re truly capable of. And this is the face that we need to see on millions of problem solvers all over the world, as we try to tackle the obstacles of the next century. When we're in game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again. In real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don't feel that way. We feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we're playing games. Whenever you show up in one of these online games, especially in World of Warcraft, there are lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away. But not just any mission, it’s a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game, but it is on the, the verge of what you’re capable of, so you have to try hard. There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft. There’s always something specific and important to be done. And there are also tons of collaborators ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission. Now, the problem with collaborative online environments like World of Warcraft, it’s so satisfying, we decide to spend all our time in these game worlds. So, so far, collectively, all the World of Warcraft gamers have spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of Azeroth. Now, to put that in context, 5.93 million years ago was when our earliest primate human ancestors stood up. So when we talk about how much time we're currently investing in playing games, the only way it makes sense is to talk about time at the magnitude of human evolution, which is an extraordinary thing. But it’s also apt, because it turns out that by spending all this time playing games we're actually changing what we are capable of as human beings. We're evolving to be a more collaborative and hearty species. This is true. I believe this. So consider this really interesting statistic that was recently published by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University: The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. For children in the United States, 10,080 hours is the exact amount of time you will spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation, if you have perfect attendance.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] So, we have an entire parallel track of education going on, where young people are learning as much about what it takes to be a good gamer as they’re learning about everything else in school. So the big question is, what exactly are gamers getting so good at, because if we could figure that out we would have a virtually unprecedented human resource on our hands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She had pondered that question long and hard and had come up with at least four potentially world-saving characteristics of hardcore gamers.
JANE McGONIGAL: The first is urgent optimism. Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER CHUCKLES] Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now. Okay. Gamers are virtuosos at weaving a tight social fabric. There’s a lot of interesting research that shows that we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they've beaten us badly. And the reason is it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, they'll stay with the game until it's over. And so, playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation, and build stronger social relationships, as a result. Blissful productivity, I love it. You know, there is a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week. It's because we know when we're playing a game that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they're given the right work. Finally, epic meaning. Gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions. They have compiled more information about World of Warcraft on the Internet than any other topic covered on any other wiki in the world. They are building an epic knowledge [LAUGHS] resource about the World of Warcraft. Okay, so these are four superpowers that add up to one thing. Gamers believe that they are individually capable of changing the world. And the only problem is they believe that they are capable of changing virtual worlds and not the real world. That's the problem that I'm trying to solve. We did a game called Superstruct at The Institute For The Future, and the premise was a supercomputer has calculated that humans have only 23 years left on the planet. You know in Jerry Bruckheimer movies you form a dream team? You've got the astronaut, the scientist, the ex-convict, and they all have something to do to save the world?
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] But in our game, instead of just having five people on the dream team, we said everybody is on the dream team, and it's your job to invent the future of energy, the future of food, the future of health, the future of security and the future of the social safety net. We had 8,000 people play that game for eight weeks. They came up with 500 insanely creative solutions that you can go online if you Google "Superstruct" and see it. So I'm going to wrap up now, and I want to ask a question. What do you think happens next? We have all these amazing superpowers, blissful productivity, the ability to weave a tight social fabric, this feeling of urgent optimism and the desire for epic meaning. When I look forward to the next decade, I know two things for sure, that we can make any future we can imagine and we can play any games we want. So I say let the world-changing games begin. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can link to McGonigal’s and Jesse Schell’s unedited talks from our website Onthemedia.org. Meanwhile, on this New Year’s weekend you could embrace the future, because you can't stop it. Consider the words of Nicholson Baker: “Outsiders underestimate the importance of learning how to fail at something very complicated, over and over again, and then finally make it,” the very essence of gaming – and civilization.
JACE HALL SINGING “I PLAY WOW”): I don't live my life for money, fame or chasing your carrots And while people like to hate, discriminate and be mean In my world, we work together to defeat the Lich King Doesn't matter if you're black, white, ugly or fat Everyone be kickin’ booty in the World of WarCraft I play WOW I play WOW I play WOW Turn it up, say it loud I play WOW I play WOW I play WOW Turn it up, say it loud I play WOW…
[SINGING CONTINUES/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman, with more help and much gratitude to departing intern Nerida Brownlee, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs and chief druid in our guild. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. Happy New Year! I'm Brooke Gladstone.
JACE HALL SINGING: I play WOW I play WOW I play WOW Turn it up, say it loud I play WOW You could say I'm a fanatic, or even addicted Say my habits are bad, my silly life is conflicted But if it makes me happy, why should I quit this? The world brings me down, WOW makes me uplifted Every moment with my guild is a moment I cherish Call me a nerd, call me a geek but I’m no longer embarrassed…
[SINGING UP AND UNDER]
*** [END] ***