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Final Thoughts on Reality is Broken: Games vs. Isms

Before it’s too late to justify doing so, I’d like to get out a few final thoughts regarding McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. In general I enjoyed it, though it started becoming a pain to workthrough by the end. I ended up dropping my pen to the wayside and eschewing my usual underlining, so as to get through it faster. McGonigal is clearly better at game design than at writing. Now that I’ve exorcised those feelings of frustration, what of the arguments? I largely found the book compelling in content and the atypical ways she utilizes and suggests utilizing games seems like they could have real world benefits, small and large. It is also clear upon reading that it’s primarily a book about ethics. My reading of it sees the book as furthering a consequentialist ethics based around maximizing happiness. Unfortunately, I think McGonigal actually misses out on what the book’s thesis could maximally open up room for. By focusing rather one-dimensionally on maximizing happiness alone, she largely misses out on examining the ways in which social struggles could be helped by games and the general nuance which ethics require.

The book’s focus on maximizing happiness immediately brought to mind Utilitarianism and as such Todd May’s The Moral Theory of Poststructuralism. He argues for an ethics based on a principal he calls antirepresentationalism, which is defined as follows:

People ought not, other things equal, to engage in practices whose effect, among others, is the representation or commendation of certain intentional lives as either intrinsically superior or intrinsically inferior to others.

The basic meaning of that mouthful, as I recall (I’ll warn I read this a few years ago), is that we ought not condone or be involved in practices that create or reinforce structures of power, such as racism, sexism, the medicalization of sexual “deviance” and so on, which enforce oppression based on the valuation of certain types of identities, bodies, etc. over others.  By making this the target of a consequentialist ethics, rather than simply happiness, it creates a more nuanced space for confronting oppressive power structures, as well as -isms (sexism, racism) and -phobias (homophobia, transphobia) that come with them.

This is where I feel McGonigal’s book is too broad (or too myopic, depending on how you’d like to view it). I would have imagined that, as a woman in a very masculine focused industry, she might comment on the way in which games might subvert gendered stereotypes, but there was no mention of that. I think it’s very important that we address the various ways in which certain identities are devalued or assailed in our society, and if games are to address social issues, they must address these things too. The fact that the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games kickstarter made over $100,000 is a sign that other people are interested in more egalitarian games.

As proof of the plausability of applying McGonigal’s concepts to identity politics I would like to point to two short and easily playable games that might be of interest to the class, Auti-Sim and dys4ia.

In Auti-Sim, you take on the first person perspective role of a child with severe autism in a playground environment. As you get close to other children the screen fuzzes and shrill noises screech out of your speakers or headphones. Even if you escape the playground and surrounding forest, you still can hear the din. This represents the way in which typical social situations can cause sensory overload for people with autism. By placing the player in a first person position and encouraging them to empathize with people with autism, the game can help combat ableism, in this case discrimination against those with autism.

Likewise, dys4ia is a short, semi-abstract flash game which autobiographically describes the experience of a transgender woman with her gender and the process of receiving hormone replacement therapy (HRT). By presenting and confronting the individual and social difficulties trans women face, the game fosters understanding of trans* issues and transphobia.

If you play the games, you will notice one other thing that these games bring that are contrary to McGonigal’s vision. They aren’t particularly fun, difficult or exciting. Auti-Sim is in fact incredibly uncomfortable to play. I explored the playground quickly and then ran far away before closing my browser. Like other forms of media, gaming may be able to learn a lesson from this: not all games have to be fun to provide an enriching experience.



2 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Reality is Broken: Games vs. Isms

  1. I’d like to start by agreeing with you in that McGonigal is not the best writer. About halfway through the book I’d heard just about every argument she had and she just kept posing them to the readers in different lights. It was boring and as you mentioned tedious to read. But I did notice that she seemed to have a pretty evident line in the sand about where she went with her idea. I think that she wants to look at the actual structure of video games and apply that to everyday life. The content really didn’t matter all that much except as for a vessel in which for players to interact with each other and bring out the best in themselves. The games you mentioned above are interesting based almost solely on their content. The gameplay itself isn’t exactly stimulating. So for McGonigal, it is obvious that video games can be used to simulate environments and situations that the player has no experience in, thats the basis of a virtual reality. But what hasn’t been done is using the methods of interaction and playing that have been developed in video games over the last 30 or so years and apply those to every day life. I think thats what McGonigal was getting at.

    Posted by Ben Tarhan | May 30, 2013, 11:11 pm
  2. Lots of good stuff going on here. Despite your opinion of it, you’ve elevated the course material through the connection to May’s work. By bringing McGonigal’s relatively basic set of ideas with regards to maximizing happiness into discussion with this greater, broader theory of ethics, you’ve raised the bar for intellectual discussion on this blog going forward.

    You’ve also raised an interesting counterpoint to a comment I dropped earlier. You propound that perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here in that perhaps not all games need to be fun to be enriching. I’d argue that, maybe lost in all these attempts at cerebral discussion, at the end of the day we are talking about videogames, here. Videogames! To remove the element of fun is to fundamentally alter the essence of what a videogame is–without it, doesn’t it become something else entirely?

    Posted by bretth2 | June 1, 2013, 4:09 am

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