Reality is broken, let’s play games

Ingress portal thumbAsk me whether I’d like x or y and the answer is frequently yes. Maybe it’s being a Libra, or growing up around my mother’s talent for creative problem solving, but when faced with a choice between two options one of the first things I ask myself is do I actually want to pick only one, and if not, whether there’s any way I can have both. Comforting as it might be to be able to categorize everything, life is not binary and I’m not keen on being limited to either/or.

Unfortunately what I am limited by, whether I like it or not, is the number of hours in the day, which means that there is a point at which choosing some things does by default mean not choosing other things. When deciding how to spend my time, I’ve always been torn between physically interacting with the world around me and engaging with the world virtually. I appreciate the creativity and artistry that goes into game universes, but an afternoon spent using my fingers to snowboard down a virtual hill tends to leave me wishing I’d gone and done the real thing. That ambivalence is why I find the idea of augmented reality games like Ingress, SF0, or the upcoming Pokemon GO so interesting.

Ingress 1Alternate or augmented reality games involve a blending of technology and real-world action. You’re playing a game that takes place in an imaginary world which is overlaid on the actual world you’re living in, and you have to physically interact with the environment around you in order to advance in the virtual environment of the game.  For instance, Ingress is an online multi-player game created by Niantic Labs in which scientists have discovered a mysterious alien substance that has the ability to control human minds and players have to choose whether to resist its power and retain their humanity or embrace it and evolve. The game action is driven by physically locating portals positioned at places of cultural significance like local landmarks, museums, or public spaces, and linking them with portals claimed by other members of the same faction to create “control fields”. There are players of all ages from around the world, and fields can span cities, countries, or even continents when enough people are participating in different locations at the same time.

Niantic’s new project is Pokemon GO, where you get notifications if you are in physical proximity to another player and have the opportunity to initiate a battle with them to win their Pokemon. Imagine you’re sitting on the bus heading home from work and suddenly you receive a battle challenge. You look around and three quarters of the people on the bus are fiddling with their phones or tablets. Is it the guy in the business suit two rows back? The high school girl across the aisle? The middle-aged woman with the giant umbrella peeking at you from the front of the bus? It feels almost like going through the looking glass and coming full circle, using a medium that has traditionally taken people out of the physical world as a means to pull them back into a new virtually integrated way of relating with their surroundings and each other.

One conversation I’ve often had with my parents is about the value of virtual reality and spending time online versus interacting in person. There are so many advantages to everything we can do with technology, and so many genuine connections to be made with people and things we would never encounter in our daily lives, but there is also the tendency to disappear from our own lives and invest less in the people right in front of us. My argument is that technology is a tool, and ultimately it’s as foolish not to use all of the tools available to us as it is to use the same tools for everything whether they suit the job or not. (Unless we’re being invaded by Cylons, in which case listen to Colonel Adama and turn off the wifi).

The internet offers amazing opportunities. 24 hour access to knowledge about almost anything we want to learn about, the capacity to do all kinds of work from home, the chance to make a real connection with a favorite author or artist. The vast geographical expansion of possibilities for meeting friends and partners who share your interests, or finding other people in similar situations when you’re feeling isolated. The ability for people in crisis to circumvent traditional media and repressive governments to communicate in real time what is happening to them and gain international support.

TextingIt also results in social gatherings where everyone is sitting in the same room but interacting with people somewhere else. It makes people want to grab their partner’s phone and throw it across the room, or yell at strangers to take their eyes off their screen and pay attention to their miserable child. It makes it possible for normally considerate people to act like assholes without repercussions, and it enables trolls to anonymously harass anyone they please.

Augmented reality games use the imagination and ability to transcend boundaries that are so appealing in video games as a tool to enhance and transform players’ experiences of the physical world and their relationships with each other. It’s a mixed medium that has the potential to ignite change and create new kinds of communities. One example is SF0, a collaborative production game based in San Francisco, where players participate in creating tasks that cohabitants (other players) can sign up for. The stated goals of play include meeting new people, exploring the city, and participating in non-consumer leisure activities. Your character is described as being exactly like you, but “able to do things that you may be unable or unwilling to do yourself. Your character doesn’t recognize the artificial boundaries that prevent non-players from doing what they want to do.”

Superbetter questsAnother interesting example of using aspects of games as a tool to improve everyday life is Superbetter. It’s an approach to achieving positive changes in your life by treating them like a game. You create a secret identity, recruit allies, activate power ups and battle bad guys to complete quests and increase your scores for mental, emotional, social & physical resilience. The game designer, Jane McGonigal, created it to help herself recover from a severe concussion that left her confined to her bed and on the verge of suicide, and then turned it into an app to help other people. It’s based in one of the central premises of her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, which is that “reality is broken and we need to make it work more like a game.”

What it comes down to for me is that I want to inhabit my own life. It’s too easy to drift away into fantasy and never do the things that would help create a better life or change the world. I enjoy escaping reality, but I also want to use my time and energy to improve my reality. Predictably, I want both things, but who really wants a cake they can’t eat anyway?


alex MacFadyen wishes his life could be more like Little Big Planet.


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