Competitive Meditation, Anyone?

Until recently I believed, in my nuanced, non-judgemental way, that every minute spent playing video games was another minute tragically leeched from more important things like ending global poverty, drinking tea, or just having a life. Worse, that as we get sucked further into the virtual world, we are rewiring our brains, numbing our kids to onscreen violence and forgetting how to talk to one another.

But then I read a book by Jane McGonigal, called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World.

When it comes to statistics McGonigal, a world-renowned games designer, offers little immediate comfort. Players of World of Warcraft, for example, have collectively spent a total of 5.93 million years in this online parallel universe – coincidentally the same time that has elapsed since our human ancestors first stood upright. And by the time the average modern youth hits 21, s/he will have spent 10,000 hours playing computer games, which is about the same time s/he’ll have spent on secondary education. Terrifying, right?

Wrong. Because, according to McGonigal, we need more gaming, not less. Her thesis is that modern computer games are successful because they give us several things that reality is failing to give us – such as a sense of mission, successful collaboration, minute-by-minute feedback on how we’re doing, even a missing sense of awe, of being part of something much bigger than ourselves. So why not learn from them and invent games that help us engage just as intensely in the everyday challenges of the real world?

This is McGonigal’s speciality – what she calls alternate reality gaming. She has already come up with multi-player games that variously simulate a peak oil crisis (World Without Oil), spark real-life interaction between young people and lonely pensioners (Bounce), or improve recovery times after illness by motivating patients with secret superhero missions (Superbetter). Her no.1 goal in life is to see a game developer win the Nobel Peace Prize, and after reading this inspiring book, it didn’t seem such a stretch.

I’ve certainly noticed a subtle change in my own gaming habits since I finished it. Instead of typical fretting about my son’s growing affection for his Nintendo Wii, I’ve thrown myself into flying missions round Wahoo Island with him on Sports Resort, and noticed how ingenious he is at finding the secret sea passage through the caves. We still do Lego and bike rides and all the other wholesome stuff kids need, but I no longer think of the computer as a necessary evil – more as an intriguing place of possibility.

In fact, a couple of years ago at the Dundee Science Centre I played a computer game which McGonigal would love (though she makes no mention of it in her book) for its potential to improve emotional intelligence and general contentment. On this intriguing prototype, the games controllers had been replaced by two helmets wired up to measure the players’ alpha brain waves – those typically produced during mediation when the nervous system is at rest. So, instead of adrenalin and lighting reflexes, it rewarded the ability in either player to focus, calm the mind and induce a feeling of inner peace. While screens plotted the alpha waves (rather erratic in my case, and comically disrupted in my son’s by a mention of cake), a ball moved towards the goal of whoever did it best. Essentially, it was a form of competitive meditation – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. The idea strikes me as ripe for commercial development, if it isn’t already on the market.

Imagine a Star Wars game in which children could “use the force” to lift objects, and learn to move between the heightened arousal of battle and the peace of meditation. Imagine if mind-calming mastery was as important to game players as one’s strike rate against aliens – would we end up with a generation of Zen masters?

I know of the meditation game in Wii Fit, which measures body stillness rather than mind waves, but are there any others, either on the market or in development?

In the meantime, here’s Jane McGonigal’s excellent TED talk from 2010, which romps through the main content of the book in 20 minutes:

Jane McGonigal TED talk

Posted on: 28 Apr 2011 in Book Reviews, Books, Technology official site