Surrounded by Sociopaths: A Response to Reality is Broken

Reality is Broken book cover

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

In response to the thesis brought forth in Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal that using game mechanics in could better our everyday lives on a large scale I say that I agree, but not without reservations.

Game mechanics are important because they provide ongoing incentive for doing things that may seem rather drab without the playful elements added. Thinking about a world without oil, for example, is a deeply distressing and laborious task unless, like in the game “World without Oil” it is done with thousands of other people with whom to “play” the scenario. Play that makes you more creative because unlike thinking about the topic in a conference room with other experts, “World without Oil” gives you a believable alternate reality in which to live. Summed up, you’re playing a game with a bunch of other people who provide social incentive to engross yourself in a world you choose to inhabit for the ultimate purpose of creating real positive results. After you finish playing, you can turn around and say “Wow, that was fun,” but not feel bad because it has no effect on your real life.

Indeed, some game mechanics are already pervasive in many industries. Salesmen will often have a public leaderboard of bests so that success is a social boost in addition to actual rewards like vacations or tickets to sports games. These are basic motivators that work fairly well, but they lack a few elements of life-changing games: the believable alternate reality that makes gaming so engrossing, progressively more difficult challenges (unless promotions are involved, of course), and a system that provides players with intrinsic rewards. Though I’m sure some salesmen do believe that their product will make the world a better place, I think that this is a minority. The majority of game mechanics in the workplace, whatever the industry, involves extrinsic rewards like more money or a vacation. These things are nice, but they’re the reason people say that work doesn’t love you back; it’s because rarely does it provide the type of incentives that makes a whole life more rewarding; they are short-term motivation boosters and up to a point, they work. In a reality of business cycles, quarter after profitable quarter, I am fairly certain that most bosses do not consider the long-term, whole-life ramifications of their actions. Nor do they consider how their quarterly earnings (or tactical goals) influence society. Up until recently, social good was sometimes the occupation of entrepreneurs after work hours, today this is changing though not quickly enough. Too many corporations are still only giving lip service to social good. All-inclusive game mechanics, like other powerful conceptual tools, do not assign moral value – they are, as their name suggests, tools that can be manipulated by the game master.

For many years I have been curious about what makes Scientology so appealing to so many different kinds of people. I gained some insight by reading Dianetics and other readily-available Scientology literature as well as having a Scientologist co-worker who was nice enough to talk to me, albeit in a somewhat limited way, about his beliefs and take me on a tour of a Scientology building on Sunset Blvd. so I could get a sense of Scientology methods of instruction and generally how things work for rank-and-file Scientologists. To be sure, I was impressed by the things he showed me, Though I never harbored any serious thoughts of becoming one, I could see the appeal of the religion/technologies to so many people. And yet, it was not until I began to explore Jane McGonigal’s work and some basic game theory did it become clear. Scientologists are so drawn to the organization because it is rife with game mechanics!

To start, there is an all-encompassing cosmology that one finds more and more about as he goes up the org chart (Bridge). To find out about it, you have to take classes and get audited, and by getting those experiences you rise in rank. These levels are not merely a chart, they represent your development as a person; your first push is to become a “Clear,” then through many levels of work and a long time you become a Thetan. Many special abilities are attributed to a Thetan which makes working your way up to that level very appealing. Despite the money and hard work that you put into the organization, there are many people on the same path with similar aims. This social proof gives credence to your own goals and desires. Furthermore, ostensibly the mission of Scientology is, from the beginning, focused on the greater good; Scientology seeks to improve the world. That is why affiliations with organizations like Narconon (to help get people off drugs) and its equivalent for alcohol, the World Literacy Crusade, and the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights (of “Psychiatry Kills!” fame) are not hidden. All of this is, of course, a simplification of Scientology, but I expect that no Scientologist reading this will disagree with my thesis.

Obviously, L. Ron Hubbard and the other inventors of the Scientology materials (the game masters, if you will) understood how game mechanics could motivate people. Though they probably would not be pleased to have their work being looked at through this lens, the connections are very clear. Despite the myriad faulty scientific and logical/philosophical claims in the writing of LRH, I must admit that there are also plenty beneficial teachings. So many intelligent people become and stay Scientologists because it is relatively easy to accept the fundamental ideas of LRH and once those are accepted, the game mechanics (and, I must add, the aesthetically-pleasing buildings, books, and learning materials) do a great job of keeping people plugged in.

In the introductory chapter to Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal writes “What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” I like this mode of thinking, and it leads to a very persuasive argument posed as a question. Why not, McGonigal asks, since more and more people are transfixed by games that provide little real-world solutions, not work real-world problems into the back story of games and use the reflexive illusion of play (that is not really play, but is play, but is not really play, etc. etc.) in an “alternate” reality to then fold the “alternate” reality solutions into the real world?

My knee-jerk response is that games have creators and game runners and these people have identities that factor into the games they create. For Ender Wiggin, the game he didn’t know he was playing was set up so he would play it despite any pacifist tendencies he might have. Part of the controversy was that the deception that took place had real-world consequences; had Ender known he was playing at reality, perhaps his actions would have been different. Moving into a real-world scenario, the fun of many games is that we do not know what will happen next; if the game is spoiled for us, we won’t want to play. And here we have our moral dilemma: When using games to solve real-world problems, how can we be sure about the nature of the problems we are purported to be solving? The deeper one is in a game world, or an alternate reality, the more difficult it becomes to extricate oneself. Even more insidious is that the deeper we go, the more difficult it becomes to recognize that the problem we were solving is no longer the same – that the people we were once associated with are no longer the people we like.

Inherent in alternate realities is their exclusionary qualities; like having a secret, if everyone knows about it, it is no longer a secret. To accept an alternate reality is to be part of a special tribe, ascribing to oneself particular identities that require difference. There must be a spectrum of qualities unlike the entity you wish to become for that entity to exist. By itself there is nothing amiss about exclusivity, but when that exclusivity is an unknown factor to non-members, consensus on what is normative behavior becomes difficult. The slippery-slope argument goes like this: If everyone is playing an alternate reality game but no one knows who is playing what game, how do we agree on how to communicate? What secret mission is that person carrying out? Does it have to do with me? Does that person’s reality carry a back story that is detrimental to my own? Do that person’s assumptions about the meaning of words differ from my own? Do we both mean in the same way?

Though this is a slippery-slope argument that quickly jumps from the rise of real-life gaming to a world where society can only be seen through the lens of one’s fragmented consciousness, it is eerily real when it comes to tribes like Scientology, fundamentalist religion, and polarizing politics. The use of game mechanics can help alleviate the distress in the world, but it can also initiate the progress of the filter bubbles Eli Pariser describes in his book. Only the filter bubbles I’m talking about are not merely digital but in our minds. When game mechanics make it easy to join a “game” that makes us a part of something bigger than ourselves, the threshold to becoming an in-game representation of yourself (as opposed to your avatar being part of you) is real. Whereas online, no one can tell that you’re not really a [blank], they can tell in real life – it’s a scary proposition when because of the ubiquity of the games we play, no one – even in real life – will be able to tell who we are. It will be as if we are surrounded by sociopaths.

p.s. – A fellow librarian recommended the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline in which the protagonist along with everyone else spend most of their time in a virtual world. Mayhem ensues.

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One Response to Surrounded by Sociopaths: A Response to Reality is Broken

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