Thursday, January 29, 2009

UPDATED: I am not a game evangelist.

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.


infrarad said...

I attended the webcast of your talk the other day, and I found that the entrenchment of the GAMING = ISOLATING VIOLENCE FANTASIES in (a small number of) attendees was frustrating, as was debate over what 'happiness' is. Gamers always seem to get it, though, which seems to indicate that 'evangelism' may be functionally replaced with 'waiting just long enough.'

David Sahlin said...

I don't think there's much else to say about the situation than that.

Jane said...

David, I appreciate the ninja simplicity of your comment. ^_^

Infrarad, I love the idea of "waiting just long enough". I think it is an inevitable demographic shift. 97% of people under 18 in the U.S. are regular players of online games. Uninformed bias can't persist that much longer. At the same time, I should say, I am wildly interested in gamers who disagree with some of my premises or can add another complicating facet to this POV. Arguments about games from people who are playing or making them are awesome. ^_^

johnmaccabee said...

Referencing Zen practice while decrying evangelism is a contradiction in terms, although maybe that's just me and religion, I'm either in or out and lately I'm out. Perhaps my game sharpened skepticism is aimed at the rigidity of held beliefs in general. And maybe not so much skepticism as wariness, and while that may be a personal flaw, it is something I want to investigate when it comes to discussions of happiness and games. A game offers players release from routine. We willingly play because what is offered, aside from the dangers of simultaneity, my grenade hitting its target, is so metaphorical, so human-made, it is reassuring, especially in a secular world, where play equals power. It’s like catnip. How can we not play? Maybe it is as close to the miraculous as we are likely to find. Maybe after what we have been through, in the last eight years, I am wary of cemented systems of any kind, not that yours is, but I don’t want the future to be about all of us facing in the same direction as we play, no matter where or what we play. It’s funny, I trust fragmentation more than solidity.

Dominic Muren said...

I think another important thing that distinguishes you from evangelists is mystery. An evangelist would try to make their views as plain as possible, and as easy to understand, hoping that people will be attracted by the simplicity of the system. Modern christian mega-churches in the US ascribe to this strategy. You won't find ornate robes, cloisters, antechambers, or Latin; rather, it's very much like a concert, but with a different topic of conversation.

Your tactic (and that of ARGers in general) is to make something highly visible, but maximally obscure. This is sort of like the modern CIA -- it's certainly very visible, but it is complicated, and almost impossible to understand from the outside. But that doesn't stop some people from becoming totally obsessed with it.

Certainly, there are benefits and drawbacks of both strategy, but I think the biggest plus of mystery is that it serves as a filter for only the most dedicated. ARGs work so well because of the incredible participants they draw. I don't quite know an analogue in the real world, but I suspect it would involve choosing between Saddleback Church and the CIA to overthrow Cuba...

Caleb said...

Oddly enough, this is pretty close to an idea i've been wrangling with over my love of electronic music and mashup culture. Though i've been contemplating the whole "I'm not here to evangelize electronica/mashups(/postmodernism?)", at this point i'm still definently evangelizing it :P

Centralasian said...

Games are similar to any other new media and how next a 'new media' is introduced and penetrated into society. Take reading (and literacy as an enabler of that process) as an example. Initially a very lucky few were literate, and even smaller amount of the 'got the point' and made use of it and/or found its pleasures. The remaining rest was mostly opposing to literacy due to its 'sinful nature' , 'damage to one's health', 'waste of time', 'isolating one from real life', 'escapism' (in fact, very similar reasons we hear now about games). (By the way, one of the 'good' reasons was the initial luck of good books to read; again, very similar to current situations with games). Now, did the societies moved toward literacy because more good books had been published (and we learn how to write them)? Or because the 'lucky 5%' managed to explain to the rest how great the life would be if everyone is literate? Or it started when nation-states 'got the point' and start building a mass-scale educational infrastructure AND start benefiting from that? Now, the trickiest question is what is the agency that would benefit from a 'mass gaming literacy' today 8and in the future). Current nation-states or current business establishments seem unlikely. What about new supra-national structures? General 'planetary collective intelligence of humanity'? Mafia? I'd love to hear your opinion on that.

Anonymous said...

A more fruitful question would be 'What are you?'. Many ignore the word not if they see it.

You strike me as articulate and a passionate advocate for bringing games to life (oh the dancing!). People will try and draw on that.
So how to move from evangelism to advocacy?

Maybe do less discussion and more what engages you? Action always trumps inaction and sawing sawdust wastes time.

“Tell me and I'll forget;
show me and I may remember;
involve me and I'll understand.”
-- Chinese proverb.

Good luck and have fun!

Anonymous said...

I don't know exactly what your mission is and what your points are, I'm probably going to read up on that later (I'm too hungry right now). But, as a gamer, I have my doubts about your theory that "people are happier and quality of life goes up when we make the real world work more like our best-designed games." Simply because of the fact that it's not so black and white, it's not that simple. It's way more complex. But I bet you know that already.

Apart from that, I admire your way of thinking that you put forward in this post and share that with you. Although I still often try to win people over with arguments, I've found it's much more rewarding and much easier to just simply let them experience it.

You seem to be really passionate about what you do, but this post also seems to be full of frustration and the need to defend yourself and your beliefs. If that's so, try to let it go (play a game, haha), since as you've said: you don't have to convince anyone, they'll get it eventually and if they don't, that's fine too.

Cyranix said...

Evangelizing may not be necessary, but it doesn't hurt to nudge people once in a while. Some people can't do the mental reverse engineering to figure out what the cause was that led to a particular effect, even if the effect is a good one. Sometimes good ideas just aren't that self-evident, and you can still do beneficial work by getting someone to ask the right question even if you don't feel that you should answer it for them.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post, Jane. The other day I was giving a speech on pervasive games somewhere, when a game publisher guy raised his hand and asked: "This is all fine and good, but how do you make money out of it?"

I was thinking "I'm not trying to *sell* this stuff here, in fact I don't benefit a bit if you benefit from this". I'm just saying: These things exist, and you might want look into them to see if they work for you.

It's not like anyone is handing out exact recipes to success. It all boils down to the proofs of concept and the assessments made by the decision-makers *themselves*.

- M

Anonymous said...

It takes guts and forsight to place out there on the table all your ideas. It is also refreshing.Debate is exausting. There are those who hold positions not out of logic but because they wern't hugged enough or 7th grade was really tough.
Our institutions are working on a mystery that will incorporate both our new social media initiatives and a real time experience opening weekend.
Sure you aren't an evangilist? Maybe you just have good ideas...

Jane said...

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 elswhere -- is that gaming is not a monolithic system, one 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, that I do believe gaming, in general, applies widely, 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. There's nothing really 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.

Patrick said...

I once tried to evangelize my virginal, sheltered, Christian cousin into Zen. I was like "you can stare at a wall for 20 minutes a day for 20 years... but you could also just eat mushrooms and get it in a night." Not a great pitch.

My favorite are agnostics who manage to be Zen even though they've never studied it or hear of it beyond pop references. I summarily pay them money to attend their seminars with titles such as "drinking beer on wednesday" or "watching old episodes of Alf." And Alf raised his finger, and the boy become enlightened.

Kevin marks said...

The 'Evangelist' label is problematic as it does imply a messianic commitment to a revealed truth. Some of us use "Advocate", as this is closer to the idea of holding a discourse - I'm a Developer Advocate at Google, and I advocate some things to external developers, and I advocate for them internally. Ludic Advocacy is part of what you do.
This maps back to the discussion about being a Tummler that I have been having for a while; you are a gaming Tummler par excellence, as your Werewolf advocacy at geek conferences shows. The Game Master or referee role in gaming is very like that of the Tummler in other discourse.

Interestingly, 'gaming' is a perjorative term for discussion boards - there it means ignoring the spirit of the venue to achieve arbitrary points.

Jane said...

Kevin -- super, super interesting comments. I agree completely about the use of "gaming" to describe maxing out personal benefit in ways that undermines the designed goals and intended spirit of a system. also intersting is common use of the phrase "playing the game", meaning not really doing want you think is best but what you think will get you ahead. this is probably worth its own blog post... why are there so many terms for behaving in lame ways that come from play and games?

Anonymous said...

if i was u i would make a rpg game im planing ot be a like u but if u do make a rpg game u can e mail me at and i can help u by makeing items or ideals for u