Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Reality Is Broken : Happiness and Profit

Posted on | January 22, 2014 | 1 Comment

Reality Is Broken:

Before I begin I would like to say that I liked this book. What you will read below has a tone of disagreement, however, there is a lot to agree with in her book. Reality is Broken. This is a very thought provoking title, but is it true and if it is, in what context? After digesting the material in this book it struck me that there is one major hypothesis that informs McGonical’s entire argument and that is that happiness is the purpose of life. While we all want to be happy, is this the ‘reality’, do we all strive to this end goal? Looking around the world it is hard to believe that we do. There are so many other points of view concerning life’s purpose. “The wound is where the light enters you”, for example is a quote from Bill Viola who was in turn quoting a spiritual scholar that had significantly influenced him. This artist (Viola) has devoted his life’s work to exploring concepts of ‘the sacred’, which may account for his extremely low fiero inspired video game that he was invited to create by a community of game developers. One that arguably does not produce ‘happiness’. Clearly he is not of the same mindset as Jane McGonigal. He is not seeking feedback loops, rewards in an attempt to have us ‘level up’ – at least not to my knowledge.

“Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it – and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.” – Reality Is Broken

McGonical’s hypothesis, if accepted, introduces a number of questions that are not addressed in the book. Are accomplishments of this nature (fiero) in the virtual space as meaningful as accomplishments in life outside the virtual? If the virtual world is as significant to us as the real world then why bother fixing the real world, why not simply retreat into the virtual world and if it isn’t as important then what is really going on when we play inside virtual spaces. When users play Halo or Madden Football and throw their arms over their heads and yell, is it the same fiero moment as when we really play football or an even more sobering thought is it the same as when a combat soldier experiences fiero in true life combat? Having played football my entire life I can attest to the fact that there is no comparison between the fiero of the real game and that of the video game. So while they may measure brain activity, to some degree, that shows the comparative effects of both, something as yet undiscovered is clearly and significantly different. Later in the book McGonical addresses games that do involve the real world. Games from Nike that involve running, games of her own design linking rehabilitation with play and games that are used for education, the school in N.Y. These types of games begin to complicate the arguments on both sides. Where in these scenarios does the virtual world or real world start and stop? How do we define their borders? Are there borders? The Questions are endless. What is clear, however, is this idea of seeking happiness and avoiding depression.

“Nesse’s research focuses on the evolutionary origins of depression. Why does depression exist at all? If it stayed in our gene pool for so long, he argues, there must be some evolutionary benefit. Nesse believes that depression may be an adaptive mechanism meant to prevent us from falling victim to blind optimism—and squandering resources on the wrong goals. It’s to our evolutionary advantage not to waste time and energy on goals we can’t realistically achieve. And so when we have no clear way to make productive progress, our neurological systems default to a state of low energy…” – Reality Is Broken

This bio-cultural perspective seeks to apply the physiological, anthropological and evolutionary impact of human perception and cognition onto media texts and games. If we deconstruct what is written above could we not use the same approach to argue that game developers have monetized a mechanism (games) that do squander resources (time) without the debilitating effects of depression? From this perspective they are subverting our evolutionary design in an effort to capitalize on the inherent human disposition to achieve goals. This is perhaps a cynical point of view but when one looks at the amount of capital generated by this business, the astounding number of human hours invested into it, it is certainly an idea worth contemplating. What McGonical doesn’t share is any previous calculation of how many hours of game playing existed before AR. What are the totals for hide and seek, tennis and tag? Are her numbers truly as staggering as they sound?

“The ability to play is an innate feature of all mammals (MacLean 1986; Panksepp 1998; B)orklund and Pellegrini 2oo2). To play means to perform an activity for pleasure, not out of necessity, although play has survival value insofar as it trains its in important skills, from motor skills to imagination and hypothesis forming.” (Pellegrini et al. zoo7) – Embodied Visions, Torben Grodal

I am not against games. I love games and have played them all my life. I come from the D&D generation and give it credit for a number of things, including increasing my vocabulary. However, I have always remained at arms length from many narrative computer based games due to their inability to offer as many pathways as the game of my youth. That said, this innate ability to play is clearly important to human development. The question that seems most interesting to me is that if it is true, as McGonical has stated, that the game industry understands that monetary rewards do not produce happiness – but rather it is our connections with people and this concept of ‘flow’- then why are game manufacturers funding human brain studies so intensely? Is it to better understand what makes us ‘happy’ in an effort to maximize profits? As a kid going outside and playing – goal oriented or not – was free, no download necessary, no credit card, no game console, no monthly subscription, nobody made a dime. I wonder if there exists a not for profit game developer? If game designers and manufacturers really believe their happiness paradigm then one might wonder why they spend so much time creating and selling us games than playing them?


One Response to “Reality Is Broken : Happiness and Profit”

  1. nburns
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 9:40 pm

    By her definition, it almost seems the happiest people, with the most meaningful lives, work in those factories where they play ‘Second Life’ all day to earn virtual items that can be traded for currency in the real world.

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