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Games, play, purity, idealism, and the messiness of life.

I wish to respond to three blog posts that have been playing in my mind for a week or two:

Adrian Camm – whose post concludes with a thoughtful open question ‘What am I missing’ [about why he's uneasy mashing gamng with schooling]

Dean Groom – bouncing of all his posts, really

Darcy Moore – asks  “If the education system was destroyed last night?

If you read all three you’ll see I’m responding to multiple common threads, and not least the idealist/utopic impulse which we all share. 

This post is one of those manifesto posts: a formulation of some tentative thoughts that have crossed a threshold of confidence for me. I wish I knew what they add up to, but I don't.

So here is where I’ve landed for now:

 

#1 Play is not play. Games are not games.

For the life of me, I can’t see any clear distinction between play/gaming and real life, except in matters of degree.

Play/gaming tends to be low-stakes. ‘Real life’, in contrast, is real because it is has high stakes. So we think of simulation of an environment versus the environment itself.

But for the life of me, where’s the faultline between the two? We say life is a game. “Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life” is the subtitle of a book.

In ‘game’-shows like ‘Deal or No Deal’ the participant has very real amounts of money on the table. Decisions in the moment have big real life consequences – regularly they lose $30,000, or gain it, in a heartbeat. Why is this a ‘game’ show? Why, then, simulation, and not ‘the real thing’? Obviously, it’s because they came with nothing to lose, with zero investment. It’s a fine line.

The baby in playpen, preschool children in a sandpit, a game of soccer, monopoly, exploring and building in Minecraft, questing in WoW, these are games, these are play.

Or are they? The baby is facing very real challenges caught up with fundamental capabilities of movement, agency, voice and the ability to be heard. Social strategies for how to get dad or mum’s attention launch a life of strategy and tactics, from tantrums (adult tantrums!) to persuasion, deliberate controversy to joining trends, to find a secure place in one’s social network.

A game, play, can be low-stakes, but it’s just a matter of degree. I can’t see a meaningful difference between a student creating a work of art in our Minecraft virtual world and a student fashioning a ‘real’ work in ‘real life’. Both took time, though, creative spirit, meaningful collaboration.

A teenager playing World of Warcraft is play? It’s a simulation? For so many reasons it’s more complicated than that. A stark aspect: gold mining is still a real industry. Poorer people from poorer nations work long hours earning virtual gold in games such as World of Warcraft, to sell the virtual currency to play-ers for ‘real’ money. http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/technology-blog/chinese-prisoners-forced-play-world-warcraft-money-guards-202425282.html

Play versus real life is a spectrum; a series of shades of grey, and I can’t see a point where any part of life is one but not the other.

 

#2 Real life is not real life.

 I am not a nihilist, relativist, a deconstructionist, but for the life of me, I can find precious few aspects of ‘reality’ that are hard-coded. Almost everything becomes soft-coded if I’m willing to face up to it.

Social lenses, cultural lenses, pet theories, moods, narratives; I find myself at the nexus of overlapping, sometimes competing, interpretive communities and social networks. Who am I? I have multiple frames for understanding this - all derived from social experience and soft-coded context.

Take any one of them. Let’s say: my school. Or your workplace. Or my family. Or your Twitter identity. Or my philosophy. Or your evaluation of your life’s worth, success or failure thus far and aspirations for coming years. 

All these are curated landscapes. They are technologies. They did not have to be so. They could have been otherwise. They could become otherwise.

They play by particular rules, are powered by particular interacting dynamics, have particular key agents/players, goal posts, pitfalls, sometimes taking the form of what I call ‘AWFULS’, that is to say THOU SHALT NOTs, the very definition of failure or antithesis of the happily ever after. Each curated space has its own HAPPILY EVER AFTER too, although the narrative evaporates the moment you reach THAT page, and quickly fades into the past as a new story begins.

The rules of the game: how to succeed, what to avoid, how to earn ‘gold’ (metaphor for a zillion currencies we pursue), moments of leveling up, and so on.

In our inner worlds and outer worlds, we move from curated space to curated space. These are mash ups of others’ frames and our own frames, and our own interpretations of others’ frames, influenced of course by others’ frames.

Where I end and you begin, the quantum leap between individual and collective, is impossible to tell. Am I a neuron in a social brain? A node in a network? A distributed processor? No, I scream, I am me!

Authentic me! The words ‘authentic’ and ‘me’ are of course English words. This happens to be the language of the society I was born into. I inherited these thinking blocks.

My notions of authenticity developed over the years through interactions, media, Home and Away, Chinese fortune crackers, preaching, and my first girlfriend, some potent advertising campaigns for deodorants and something to do with potty training…?

THE SYSTEM. The machine. Always run by faceless men or evil masterminds in our narratives. Logan’s Run, The Matrix, The Game, and countless texts in a genre that draws attention to reality-as-curated-system; the protagonists seeking to break out into 'reality'.

Curated: artificial, designed, man-made.

Freedom from, freedom to. Western, Eastern. Whatever your flavour: we created it ourselves. We are the curators. We made our own bed. Collectively.

School is a curated space. It plays by some pretty specific rules. Oh, sure, it gets mighty complicated, especially in High School. Different teachers, different expectations. Tests, surrogate skill-trees (sport/geek/rebel? Tank/mage/rogue?), blah blah.

How is this different to a game? And how does it matter, except by degrees? How is it different to the workplace, or family dynamics/politics, or the great game of public transport?

And don’t the kids know it? Don’t they adapt? Don’t they play it well? Me, the class clown, getting laughter-currency, attention-currency, with a specific strategy that earned me gold. The rebel, opting for the skill-tree that favours a particular social brand among peers over a particular social brand among adults. He hasn’t lost the game, he’s just chosen a class. His bitterness at being slammed by the hierarchy feeds into his pride and uniqueness of his own brand. Can't have everything. Choose a strategy and get good at it. 

I see this all the time: teenagers defining themselves by kicking out.

 

#3 The Real Difference Between Games and Reality

I can see two key element that do differentiate games from real life:

our own awareness of the artificiality of the curated system/environment.

our own sense of agency in re-writing the rules, re-designing the game. 

In other words, it’s all constructed, but we only call it a game when we recognise it as such and sense we have control over it. It’s the artifice, and deliberate purpose it implies, that makes it a game.

Is that why idealists like myself are so drawn to gaming, and so keen to apply the language of gaming to real life experiences?

I wonder if it relates to the disappointment I sense in Dean Groom’s writing at the grubbiness of non-gaming spaces, such as Twitter. He disdains the stage and self-promotion. This is a game none of us curated but are forced to reckon with. It appalls me that there is an art to being listened to. Yet there is an art to being listened to.  

Not playing is not a neutral choice… nor is playing without acknowledging playing. There is no strategy or mindset I can apply to real life that gives me an out-clause or a clean definition. Taking my bat and ball and living on a farm in peace for the rest of my days is no escape. Maybe that equates to depriving humanity of my needed services. 

Yet it’s not social currency that feels grubby. The recent Kony mob-outbreak aspires to purity but there is grubbiness in the crowd, and the movement is far from pure. The purity is bloody dangerous.

Life is far from pure.

The quest for purity is a basic human drive. We can’t escape it, but we emphasise it at our peril. It makes us judgmental, idealistic to a fault (such that we filter out what doesn’t fit, which is oppressive, suppresive, hostile to other-ness and blind to inherent contradictions).

It’s the impulse to utopia that drives idealists to games. The desire to start again, do better. To have agency in the game-design. To begin afresh with a new narrative, yes and new identities to boot.

Darcy Moore asks what would happen if the education system (read ‘game’ or constructed space) were to die.

Real life systems do indeed die, all the time. Call it a paradigm shift, or turning point, or revolution. From the French revolution to the demise of Borders and Kodak, the new system that arises in its place is never designed from scratch like a game. In real life, it is market systems, the collective we cannot help but be in, that topples powers and raises new ones. 

How I wish I could redesign the school-game!

It would be a second Eden. There’d be a skill path for everyone. No one would win at another’s expensive. All would have a space, a home, and chance to contribute and receive in good measure. Utopia, heaven, purity at last.

And that’s what grabs us in gaming. It’s a glimpse of agency to recreate the system. I saw it in our school Second Life island, ‘Booralie Island’, and again in our Minecraft space. Even movements like Woodstock, #occupywhatever, and even #teachmeet have the smack of ‘god-at-last’ to them.

These are magnets to edu-idealists. And no wonder we rankle at ‘gamification’, where the toy gets broken apart, the motor ripped out, then plugged into the Frankenstein to create a monster that makes us the monster. It makes fools of us all. 

Fool I would gladly be, hoping to co-curate a better game. Yet I am wary of idealism invoking the appetite for purity to a fault. I have to also navigate the intricate knot of the tangled games of real life over which I have little control. I've forced myself to run gamification workshops to confront these issues, stare them in the eye.

What is the difference between a power-up and a report-card? A degree of purity? The ability to unplug the computer and turn the game off? Meta-agency? Curation of one's own challenges? Oh that the universe were a Minecraft server running on my own PC. I want to confront this. I want the worlds to collide. I want to take teachers to the faultline with me. We can have a cup of tea together and embrace the awful disjunct with a sigh and a sip. I don't know what to do after that. 

Is this what Peter Garrett considered in leaving the purity of Midnight Oil for politics. He lost social currency for the move. And I am guessing, clarity.

I wish for myself brutal honesty in accepting unpleasant truths and inner contradictions. I can’t accept others more than I accept myself, and inner purity could only come at the expensive of editing you out, which I don’t want to do. . 

Dean’s most recent post went deeper and is a recurring theme for him: below all the layers, what do you stand for? Your personal values. Under all the games in my head I seek for them.

Not a second Eden. Not an escape. I wish to sail my ship forward through the mess with a rudder of ‘love’. That’s about as much clarity as I’ve got. 

Into the mystic river, then, tweeps?

Post Script:

Not my most articulate, I'm afraid, in this post. I can still see the problem, but don't know if others will get it or see it has any relevance at all.