You know, it's funny. I used to think of myself as a game evangelist. That's because for years now, I have been spending a lot of time talking to people who don't play a lot of games, or who don't take games seriously at all. Some people are there because they are curious if they should start to take games more seriously. Some people are there because someone else invited me to talk to them. They're not necessarily interested in hearing about games, but there I am, and there they are.
Whoever I'm talking to, I try really hard to show them things about games that might reveal something useful to them. I try to share with them the real social support you get from playing games with other people, the real sense of learning and accomplishment, the real feelings of awe and wonder and curiosity that stimulate your vagus nerve in the ways that religion and great art do, the power of the opportunity to be valued by a community for effort you put forth, the totally calming effect of being focused and immersed in a feeback-intensive system, the long-term benefits of becoming better at something than you thought possible, the way games can change the way you look at the world differently and push you to seek out more opportunities for engagement in everyday life... And I'm really enthusiastic about games, and it shows.
But the more optimistic I become about the potential of games, and the more "mainstream" this message gets, the less and less I want to be any kind of evangelist for it.
As you may know, I practice Zen Buddhism. There is no "evangelism" in Zen Buddhist practice, because, as they say "It's too hard of a practice to be talked into. You have to be already willing on your own." So there just isn't any kind of active persuasive aspect to it. The only thing that is persuasive is that it seems to work. So, you know, a Zen Buddhist might invite you to try it, to see if it works. That's it. No argument, no debate, no evangelism. Just see if it works. Don't take my word for it. Reach your own conclusion.
This the approach I would like to take regarding the use of games to improve our experience of reality. It is my experience that people are happier and quality of life goes up when we make the real world work more like our best-designed games. I really believe this. But I don't want to evangelize for this POV.
When I talk to people about games, I feel like I am offering people a way to look at things that they might benefit from. But I don't want to argue with them whether or not it's a helpful POV. I don't want to get into a debate. I don't want to convince everyone. They can decide on their own. I feel like the maximum gains in this space are going to come from working with and talking to people who either intuitively grasp this and are ready to dive in, or who accept the premise that it might work, and the only way to find out is to try it. That's the best place to invest time and energy for me and others working in this space. My goal isn't to change how many people think, exactly. Not in the near-term. It's to find like-minded allies who are willing to do something. Trying to convince as many people as possible of this POV is just not a good investment of time and energy.
So I find myself in the wake of high-exposure, general audience lectures and interviews and articles wishing I could respectfully tell people something like this:
"I am not here to convince anyone of anything. I don't really want to debate the 'finer points' yet, because we are just starting. I'm not trying to get YOUR money or YOUR resources or YOUR action. Intead, I offer you this POV in the spirit of service. I believe it may be of service to you to share that I have found in my experience this thing about games is true. But I have no ultimate stake yet in whether you agree with me or not. That may change eventually, and I might have to work harder then to explain myself better. But right now, there are enough people who do share this experience of games, and we are just trying to find each other. We just want to work with other people who have had similar experiences, to try to amplify it for the good of as many as possible."
I'm not claiming that my ideas about games are self-evident. On the contrary, they strike me as non-obvious and counter-intuitive. Which is why I understand that many people will, naturally and inevitably, argue against them.
But here's my back-of-the-envelope estimate. Right now, even if 95% of people exposed to the idea that we should make the real world work more like our best-designed games disagrees, the 5% who do agree are more than enough to make changes on major scales.
It only takes one proof-of-concept city, one proof-of-concept hospital, one proof-of-concept election, one proof-of-concept airline, one proof-of-concept school, one proof-of-concept museum... if this idea is a good one, then the results will be persuasive on their own. It will work for a lot of people, and evangelism won't be necessary.We don't have to evangelize for penicillin or cell phones.
In the meantime, it's better not to try to convince everyone to think this way because 1) We still have to determine exactly how, when, and where this is a good idea and 2) when we do figure that out, then the rest will come in time. Because it's hard to argue with demonstrated improvements to quality of life. There will always be naysayers (many people complain about cell phone etiquette, even though cell phones are obviously a force for good in developing countries and everyday family life, just for example) It's just not my goal or my business to persuade the naysayers. It's my goal and my business to work with the people who are optimistic about the potential applications.
The people who are in the best position to make these ideas a reality are the ones who are the least resistant to it. I just believe that. Because like Zen Practice, this is too hard of a project and too big a leap of faith to have to talk anyone into it.
UPDATE: Thanks everyone for this terrific feedback. These are some very thoughtful points and I'm grateful for the opportunity to mull them over! I'll keep mulling and in the meantime, the one thing that I do think bears mentioning here -- it's something I say often elsewhere, but for people encountering me for the first time I guess it's not immediately obvious: Gaming is not a monolithic system. I in no way believe that one specific game, or one kind of game, fits all. There are so many different kinds of games to play, and so many different positive emotions or kinds of collaborative communities they can create. Its true that I do believe gaming, in general, has already turned out to be an incredibly powerful method for many different efforts to improve quality of life, decrease suffering, aggregate human action for the good, and to amplify our individual human potential. And we are going to discover many, many more examples where this turns out to be true. But specific games will work better in different contexts for different people, and a diversity of games and game-like experiences is of paramount importance, and some spaces or experiencs may never benefit from game-like approaches. I've laid all of this out in an essay, the final chapter of my disseration, "Specifying Play", which you're welcome to download if you are intersted in this argument (warning: it's over 500 pages. ^_^. But in short: There's nothing monolithic or rigid about the idea of games benefitting humanity, that's like saying "literacy benefits humanity" or "medicine benefits humanity" are monolithic ideas, when in fact, there is still a diversity of things to read and write, and myriad medical approaches to any given condition. Games are an incredibly powerful tool and they are currently being wasted on solving the problem of boredom. My suggestion is that we use them for other things as well.