McGonigal on Gaming

I think we have to be skeptical of McGonigal’s arguments. For all of the upsides she see’s to playing video games, there seems to be an equally problematic downside. Take for instance McGonigal’s endorsement of Chore Wars, a game where a person has an avatar which chooses to pursue certain ‘adventures’ which are in fact chores around the house. The person’s is rewarded for completing adventures or chores in real life, thus giving people a virtual incentive to keeping cleanly. McGonigal thinks that this is an ingenious way that video games change our view of reality in such a way as to make us better functioning individuals. But I think there are obvious problems with this method of motivating a person to do chores.

There is firstly the problem of making too big a deal of minor accomplishments. Video games have a self-interested reward system. A person’s successes in video games lead naturally to victory in the game. “Chore Wars” tries to use this self-interest to motivate chores; that is, in the game doing chores translates into victory. But making personal victories of minor every day activities seems to make them more significant then they really are, and by virtue, dilute truly meaningful accomplishments. There has to be a hierarchy relative to motivational force. Some tasks should clearly be more celebrated than other tasks, and as much as epic celebrations are taken from the completion of banal tasks, so much is lost from our truly significant successes. We lose the motivation for meaningful achievement, by make-believing ordinary success is worthy of personal reward.

Also, there is a problem regarding the effect of this type of motivation on a person’s character. For it seems that a mark of a good person is their willingness to act in ways which in no way serve their self-interest, yet video games as said, motivate a person to action by appealing to a person’s self-interest. Because of this, a person who completes chores in order to succeed in “Chore Wars”, seems to miss half the reason that someone completing chores is praiseworthy, for if they are only doing it for victory and not at all to maintain a standard of health, or to allow others more free time, then it doesn’t seem that the person is really grasping why he or she should do chores. To draw this point out consider the following example; if we need video games to make video games fun then why stop at chores? Why not make “Raise Your Child Wars” where parents who changes the baby most often is rewarded with a level-up? The obvious answer to this question is that parents shouldn’t need video games to be motivated to take care of their child, but the same could be said about people maintaining a state of general cleanliness. It is better for a person to understand the value of an action, and thus be motivated toward it, rather than contriving a contest in order to find the motivation.

Both of these problems have to do with the use of self-deception at play in “Chore Wars”. Chores are necessary tasks, whether one views them as such or not, and by treating them like voluntary tasks worthy of great reward, a person misses engages in a measure of self-deception which may have negative consequences in the long run. Of course, “Chore Wars” is only one instance of McGonigal’s myriad of examples meant to show how beneficial video games can be, but I think my point applies to the complete set. McGonigal’s purpose is to show that buying in to video games wholeheartedly can yield positive psychological consequences, yet to take any sort of lesson from video games, is to engage in self-deception to some degree, since virtual reality signifies nothing of reality. And it certainly does seem as if there is something praiseworthy about finding motivation, confidence, and reason to cooperate with others without appeal to virtual reality. McGonigal’s arguments misses this entirely.

Below is a link to McGonigal being interviewed by Stephen Colbert. Colbert does a good job articulating the obvious objections to McGonigal’s premise, and her replies are, to me, less than convincing. In the interview, Colbert half-seriously calls video game play escapism, but I think this misses the mark. What McGonigal is suggesting is that we use games to meliorate our view of reality, particularly our individual places in reality, and this is no brand of escapism; it is worse, a brand of self-deception. Success in video games does not change a person’s character, the same way that calling a chore an adventure does not make the activity any less a chore than it was before. McGonigal seems to think that video games can be used to fool ourselves into thinking that reality is better than it really is, but I’m not so sure that such self-deception is a reason to b play video games.


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