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The Meaning[lessness?] of Play

I just got back from the Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University, which is all about games used for good – education, learning, medical uses, teaching empathy, or providing complex information in an interactive way.  It was well worth attending, and I really appreciate MSU for putting it on.  However, after the conference, I have found myself split into two personalities: excited Greg and skeptical Greg, on the following question:

Gregs, this conference is about almost exactly what made you passionate about games. Is it all you expected it to be?

excited Greg: Well, it's pretty awesome. There have been some amazing speakers, like Phaedra from IBM who described, pretty convincingly I think, the way that games and game-like systems are going to seriously change business development and other types of complex systems. The analogy that really connected was comparing how one manages a complex distribution system for goods (like getting supplies to Haiti) to how Ender used a game to control Earth's defense from the Hive (see Ender's game if you don't know). In fact, a large part of my own talk is about how we are good at making effective games to develop intuition about simple systems (addition, subtraction, grammer), but not as good in complex systems (business process, electrical systems, etc.). Well, Phaedra and IBM are working on it!

skeptical Greg: harumph... folks here are always talking about motivation as the thing that makes games so special, but that's just bullshit. Motivation doesn't come from games, doesn't come from badges (also touted here), and doesn't come from activities which are mapped from reality. Motivation comes from reality itself! Motivation to save the forests doesn't come from a Save the Rainforest game, it comes from having a personal experience in the forest and choosing to deeply care. And let's be honest at what a lot of this stuff is – it's not games, it's simulations. Phaedra's “games” are huge process simulations. The work at U of Madison W is also largely simulations. It's the simulation part which is allowing us to even approach the coolness of reality in the digital world, and our response is “ooohh, look how cool this simulation is”... but guess what guys, reality is just sitting out there waiting for us to enjoy it – so stop f-ing around and let people engage it directly!

excited Greg: Well hang on there – simulations are important to allow many people to experience something that right now only a very few get to experience (like being a great leader in Civilization, or managing some huge business process for food aid in Haiti, or doing surgery on a Cow (yeah, there was a game where you get to do surgery on a cow!)). That's important so we can build empathy about other people in other jobs and so we can track that data about our game experiences which we can use to improve the experience in real life.

skeptical Greg: You've identified an important point - increasing shared experiences and empathy - but games aren't the answer. Games are not a cure-all, and if we build them to be cure-alls then we're selling ourselves short. The RIGHT solution to transfer knowledge is to get skilled members of the community directly involved in the process of education, so instead of playing a game about being a doctor, you go spend a day with a doctor who shares her experience with you, or taking part in a project with a local ecologist working on cleaning up the lake. Games are one more way that communities are trying to outsource their responsibility for transferring knowledge, skills, and experiences to the next generation. And if motivation doesn't emerge from those personal connections and experiences, then that kid sure as heck isn't going to respond to the designed motivations in an educational game either. So let's put our money into building real civic engagement and genuine personal connections which will introduce learners to the amazing world we already have, not the inferior one we're spending billions into making up.

I'm not sure who's right, but certainly as I get older the skeptical Greg gets louder and louder in my brain. I think games have a really important role to play, but I would be disappointed in a world in which games are the primary mechanism through which we are motivated.

We are learning to treat our motivations as a science on a massive scale. One could imagine meaningful games turning into what food diets have turned into – humanities desire to pin the tail on a moving and complex target system where, in the end of the day, we do as much harm as good. Or perhaps we'll hit the nail on the head and make huge changes for the good... I dunno. In any case, it'll be interesting.

PS - I'll be speaking at Ignite in Ann Arbor this Thursday the 25th - so come check it out.  It's going to be a talk about the Awesome New World based on this blog post.  Hope to see you there!

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