One of the central claims made by Jane McGonigal in her popular TED Talk, and subsequent book and media career – is that Reality is Broken, and for many people (particularly youth), video games are a way to feel ‘good at life’. There’s little doubt that this has been well received online and in the media, which as we know are not reality. However, for the most part, her arguments are highly moralistic and difficult to prove. They are a form of media violence insofar as they once again depict a youth in crisis, who choose media use over civic engagement. There’s also little travel to be made in showing most of society is playing games, or that pervasive networked games are more complex and chronologically advanced than ‘videogames’. These are logical and easily observable though the media, and became the loci of attention by those who became interested in games and culture, circa 2000-2010. Overwhelmingly, this new field of reseach railed against the psychological claims being made though experiments about violence and addiction, which has been the traditional axe brought upon all forms of emerging media, though videogames are a simple target — and a ready market for the associated ‘therapies’ that families can pay for.
There’s no doubt youth are complex and that some people over-use media among the many options they have when they ‘don’t feel good at life’. However, suggesting videogames can resolve this is ambitious, and I think misguided. We are moving past a time where it was sufficient to consider what games are and who plays them. We are in a culture where identity is formed through communication. What is being missed entirely in the media-rendering of digital games and society in the ‘reality is broken’ arguement is that it fails to explain the fundamental differences between closed and open social systems. McGonigal is clearly an instrument of the open system, and have valorised this idea though various means.
However, that girl in her bedroom playing Minecraft, or the son who’s playing way too many hours in Team Fortress are choosing a very different “half-real” way to spend their time, and there’s no evidence to suggest this is to rebel against the commercial interests of adult-run politics and industry.
Social systems use communications as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction. Their elements are communications which are recursively produced and reproduced by a network of communications and which cannot exist outside of such a network (Luhmann 1986, p.174).
It’s would be nice to believe that if we can only extract the ‘best parts’ of videogames, that we could use them to heal the shallowing of society, poverty and improve healthcare simply by designing a game and getting ‘the crowd’ to play it. Sadly games comprise of three elements as systems: a biological (you and me); a social system and a psychic system. In fact those kids who are immersed in online multiplayer worlds — such as Minecraft — are building their identity and finding meaning about ‘reality’ in almost the opposite way those kids who are hooked on Facebook, Instagram and so forth. They, are part of open systems which exist – in reality – simply to valorise products using the same societal systems that established factories, so it’s no great shock that kids are now working inside Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple factories too.
Reality is not at all broken, it is exactly how each of us perceives it. The world looks very different to a cat, who I might point out is also a type of popular media phenomenon.