Jane McGonigal meets a real gamer

A still from Jane McGonigal's famous TED presentation

PAX East takes place in just a couple of days, and the keynote speaker is Jane McGonigal. I’m mostly familiar with McGonigal through her TED lecture “Gaming can make a better world,” in which she argues that if we could tap into the time and energy that gamers demonstrate through their devotion to games, we could do a lot of good in the world.

When I saw her TED lecture, I thought that the picture of gamers she was presenting bore absolutely no reality to what I’ve experienced from human beings while gaming online, but McGonigal is an idealist. To wit, she wrote a book whose title includes the words “Reality Is Broken.” That idealism has likely played a huge part in her achievements, so I don’t make the comment by way of poking fun of her.

I do enjoy seeing idealism clash with reality to see what happens next, however, and so when I heard the tale of the GDC session  “No Freaking Respect:  Social Game Devs Rant Back,” I couldn’t help but laugh. McGonigal ran headfirst into an experience which is emblematic of the reality of modern gaming culture: the exploit.

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The panel was accompanied by a game. Everyone in the audience was meant to be given a plastic coin as they walked in, and then to use their social networking abilities to collect coins from other people in the audience. Whoever had the most coins at the sessions’ midpoint would be given some time at the microphone to do a “guest rant.”

Ryan Henson Creighton, the founder of Untold Entertainment, managed to get his hands on the entire bag of coins. From Creighton’s retelling of the story as posted by Gamasutra:

“I strode back to the entrance, to where the deliciously young and impressionable CA [volunteer Conference Associate] was handing out the coins. In an urgent voice, I said ‘Excuse me! Chris Hecker, one of the panelists, said he only really wants about half the room to get these coins. He sent me to get the bag and run it up to him at the front of the room.’

Then, with no skepticism or suspicion, the CA pleasantly purred ‘sure,’ and handed me the bag.

He HANDED me the bag.  The bag with all the coins. “

Creighton exploited the game in the most classic sense. He found a weakness in the “programming” and used it to his advantage. I’m of the opinion that exploiting is assuredly cheating, which is usually an opinion shared by anyone who suffers at the hands of an exploit and doesn’t feel motivated to replicate that exploit in order to even the odds.

A picture and map layout of the Roundhouse map in Call of Duty: World at War

The most famous example of exploiting I can think of would be the Roundhouse map in Call of Duty: World at War. There was a large, metal door at the edge of the map that allowed one to get under the map if they jumped at just the right position. Players would find themselves mysteriously killed when no one from the enemy team was anywhere near them, and then the kill-cam would cut to the opponent walking around underneath the ground and shooting up into the map. This exploit ruined dozens of matches for me and my team. We eventually just camped out the door and killed anyone we saw trying to exploit the glitch.

To hear Creighton tell it, McGonigal very much wanted to win. Earlier in his post, Creighton talks about not being able to compete with her “celebrity, eagerness, and feminine wiles.” To follow the metaphor, let’s consider this “player skill.” Creighton knew he couldn’t counter skill with skill, so instead, he cheated.

Unlike in the real world, McGonigal’s game wasn’t ruined for her.  The session panel was extremely unimpressed with Creighton’s deception, and therefore named McGonigal the winner.  It was as if someone from Xbox Live happened to be floating around during one of those Roundhouse matches, kicked the exploiters, and handed everyone else a win to help pad their stats.

While the purpose of this panel was not to teach McGonigal a lesson, I wish they had let things play out precisely the way they had, because up until this point we were telling a tale which is an extremely apt metaphor for what everyone in competitive gaming experiences on a regular basis, and competitive gaming is most certainly social gaming. Dustin Browder’s “Starcraft II as e-Sport” panel made this argument rather forcefully. Not that they allow cheating in Major League Gaming, but the rest of us amateurs have to put up with it on a regular basis,

Competitve gamers celebrating their trophy win

When McGonigal talks about tapping into gamers’ energy to do good, she’s missing something very important:  a tremendous number of the gamers she would like to tap into only cooperate when they are also in peril, i.e. when they are playing competitively as a team, like squadmates in first person shooters or people fighting together as parties in MMOs.  Historically, human beings can only be reliably counted on to cooperate with one another when they are in trouble. The rest of the time, humans tend to default to the most basic of human behavior: competition.

I wonder what might have gone through McGonigal’s mind if Creighton had been announced the winner, if the panel had recognized that their game was designed poorly enough to allow for an easy exploit, and dealt with the consequences the way game designers have to in the real world? We could follow the metaphor and say that they applied a patch in handing McGonigal the win, but that’s generally not how it works, is it? Usually one has to suffer from the exploit for a while before it gets fixed. The more appropriate metaphor would have been making McGonigal wait for the next time the game took place.

Might she have learned something valuable from the experiencehad that been the case? What if she focused her efforts on tapping into humankind’s competitive spirit, which is much more prevalent than its cooperative inclinations, to try and do good in the world ? That sounds like quite a challenge for a game designer: figure out a way to turn competitive effort into cooperative gain. It probably would have a much higher probability of success, as well. I don’t have the command of math and systems that most game developers seem to, but even I can crunch those odds.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful article, just came here from Casey O’Donnell’s article “Getting Played: Gamification, Bullshit, and the Rise of Algorithmic Surveillance”. It mentioned this GDC session and I had to know more. Also love your take on the whole gamifying world problems thing, by turning competitive into cooperative. I suppose we just need the perfectly designed common enemy. The next generation’s space invaders with a real world connotation.

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