McGonigal’s TED talk struck me in that she really got to the heart of what makes games so satisfying in ways that real life is not; in particular, I think that the ideas of epic meaning and urgent optimism are significant. Failed attempts to “gamify” education, fitness, innovation, and more that ignore McGonigal’s principles are manifold, from clunky trivia games that do little to motivate their players (much less craft some kind of grand narrative) to digital feedback systems that either frustrate us when progress is too slow or eventually lead us to abandon them when the thrill of leveling up is gone.
A good example of such a failed attempt is the 7scenes University of Maryland historic tour. In some ways, the app is a downgrade from lower-tech alternatives. Without any recommended order for the locations, the app tour has even less narrative than a guided audio tour, and with no way to ask questions of the creator, less interactivity than simply following a tour guide around campus. There is no sense of epic meaning, which makes it difficult to have any sense of urgency. (It’s unnecessary to even consider whether the user has the necessary optimism about making progress, because they have already decided that progress isn’t worth making.)
There are better locative media than 7scenes out there, but I’d argue that this approach of attempting to mediate reality to look more like a game is inherently misguided. Games create epic meaning and urgent optimism through overarching storylines and quests that are carefully tailored to the individual player’s level of ability, but real life just doesn’t work that way. Although making the sites on the 7scenes tour related by some theme would have made the app more interesting, there is an intrinsic conflict here that the real world is incredibly complex and we are forced to deal simultaneously with events from many different narratives. History does not have a singular overarching theme, and even if it did, we’d still have our own narratives and those of the people around us to consider as we followed the narrative of the tour. Similarly, no game can ensure that real life will always assign us responsibilities that perfectly align with our abilities.
Rather than superimpose the game features of multimedia, instant feedback, and digitally-based interactivity on to real life, we should take advantage of what we can do in virtual worlds where epic meaning and urgent optimism are abundant and recognize how the knowledge that we gain through those experiences can carry over into the real world.
While I was playing “The Martian: Bring Him Home,” one of my first thoughts was that I wished that the game was broad enough in scope to be collaborative. I’m surrounded by future engineers, scientists, psychologists—intelligent, motivated thinkers who know how to approach a range of technical and non-technical problems. If I could work with real people who I know rather than just reading the emails of a team of fictional experts, we would get to personally engage in an exciting adventure, while also thinking about real-world scientific principles and gaining collaboration and problem-solving skills. The “Martian” app was far too simplistic to warrant real teams of experts for making decisions, but I think that that kind of game could be really fascinating and really impactful.
In time, solving problems in a game world that references (but doesn’t seek to overlay) reality could translate to solving real-life problems. Rather than trick ourselves into thinking that real life is a game, we should aim to gain problem-solving experience that is genuinely applicable in real life and be able to draw analogies between different kinds of problems. Rather than thread a fictional narrative through reality in order to make it make more sense, we should try to appreciate the beautiful complexity of many, many overlapping stories. In real life, we have to create our own epic meaning.
Real life isn’t a game. But maybe we can learn to play it with the same enthusiasm.