Wednesday 12 June 2013

The first gamers: and the end of history - by Manda Scott

World of Warcraft: the biggest MMORPG in the world
I have a confession to make: I play World of Warcraft.   I have a battleground healer who has in her time, been an undead shadow priest called Kyst, and a night-elf discipline priest called Warfaryn. I have a shaman called Saffyk and when nobody in the player world got it, I created a healer monk called Sapphic. They still don’t get it.  But that’s not the point.  The point is in the community and the competition. 
Arathi Basin battleground
I play, I discover, at what is generally termed semi-hard-core levels, which is to say I give it fair amounts of time (10pm – midnight most nights) but I don’t compete at the super-high levels. I am, though, in a rated battle ground team and the work required to stay there is significant: I have to keep my gear up to scratch which means doing a lot of sub-optimal fighting, but when it’s right, and the team is working well, there’s nothing like it.
Actually, there are a few things like it: climbing was one – that sense of absolute partnership with whoever’s holding the rope and who does, quite literally, hold your life in their hands: if you climb regularly together, you develop the kinds of intense relationships that tend otherwise only to happen in high pressure jobs like surgery or theatrical acting, where people take risks together on a daily (or nightly) basis.   Battle re-enactment had a similar effect: the team work, the practice it took to reach a good standard, that sense of all the pieces coming together when we won a particularly hard battle: and yes, the sense of being able to defend someone’s ‘life’ and of having them defend me.
Scoreboard: a vital part of gaming feedback
Game designers define these bonding experiences as some of the most intense in human emotional evolution.  They have words for the pride we feel when our side wins (Fiero), or the almost equally powerful pride we feel when someone we have coached and helped also wins (Naches).  They name the sense of everything coming together as ‘flow’ and they list the four components of gaming that make it so addictive: games have an attainable goal (that often pushes us to the edges of our competence, where we are most in flow), games have clear, succinct rules, games have voluntary participation, games have a feedback system.
Arena competition 2vs2
By combining all of these, a game – defined as any voluntary activity involving the solving of unnecessary obstacles – has the potential to provide us with massive positive emotion, as opposed to the outside world which often provides less than obvious goals – certainly not goals that are theoretically attainable and for which we are given clear, regularly irregular, obvious feedback.  In short, we have the chance to excel in a social context that matters to us: when I heal the flag carrier in Warsong Gulch and my team caps, there is a moment’s peak experience that is the same whether I have ‘died’ or survived (and in any case, I’ll resurrect fairly soon, so dying is not too much of a problem, it just removes me from the game for a bit, thus depriving me of my chance to throw game changing heals).
The evolution of games is one of the most interesting historical stories – this is, after all, an historical blog, so this is the history:   It is widely held that the Lydians were the first to engage in serious gaming as a culture.  Herodotus tells us that in the reign of king Atys, there was such a famine as the Lydian people were in danger of starvation.  So he set up a law, by which the entire population would eat one day and on the next day, they would play games that were so immersive, they wouldn’t notice they weren’t eating, They played dice, knucklebones, ball games and ‘in this way,’ Herodotus said, ‘they invented all the games that are common.’ 
They passed the time this way for eighteen years and at the end of it, when the famine still gripped the land, they played one last, ‘epic’ game, in which the ‘winners’ – half the population – took to boats and sailed off to find a land free of famine, while the remaining half stayed behind and had enough food to sustain them.  Current archaeological theory, backed by DNA evidence, suggests that the Lydians were the fore-runners to the Etruscans who were in turn, the biological ancestors of those who founded Rome: and went on to make the public slow death of other people the most gripping set of games their culture could imagine. 
All of which leads us to examine games rather hard, because the current generation of children is the first to grow up with immediate access to all that digital games can offer.
I was very struck reading an original Grimm Brothers fairy tale recently, which described the young princess ‘amusing herself by playing with a golden ball: she threw it up and caught it and in this way kept herself happy for days on end’. Until the ball fell into the well and was found by a frog and we slide into psychosexual allusion rather fast.
But I am trying to imagine any of the children of my acquaintance finding amusement in throwing a ball of any colour at all into the air for hours on end and catching it, when they could be playing Warcraft. Or Halo4. Or Angry Birds. Or on-line Scrabble. Or Chore Wars (yes, you can turn your household chores into a game. It works.  Details here:
Modern kids spend roughly 20 hours per week at school – and another 24 hours per week playing games.  That will rise as games available on mobile phones become more immersive and more multi-player.   So the children of today know that ‘work’ can be fun, can provide flow, can provide tangible evidence of success and social bonding. Or it can be dull, repetitive, with high stress levels and no obviously attainable goals.
Our educators are only lately catching onto this. I have read of one school in the US where the entire school experience is structured as a game: a pupil might discover a ‘secret code’ hidden in the library which takes quite advanced mathematical skills to solve, and she’ll get extra points if she solves it ahead of her team mates (aka class mates). She might have to bring in two or three of them to help, because some have higher maths-scores than she does, but they will discover ‘fiero’ and ‘naches’ in the success of the ‘secrete mission’ and in the helping of others.  At other times in the day, our hypothetical student will spend time teaching a computer how to do some more basic maths – because teaching others is the best way to learn, at other times, she’ll be powering up her language skills in order to help others find their way out of a labyrinth.  She’ll come home full of self-created projects she wants to get done before the next day and, because the whole of school is one big, epic game, she won’t need or want to spend time on Warcraft or Halo or Call of Duty.
So: history is useful when it teaches us how we can be, if it shows us mistakes we can avoid (we never do, but that’s a different post), if it helps us to understand ourselves.  But we are on the brink of the singularity and games are becoming an increasing part of the world we inhabit.  We as writers and readers are the last generation who will have grown in a world where we created our own games.  We, as readers and writers, need to understand the realities of the world that is evolving, and step into it.
One way to do that is to create games of the world around us: Chore Wars is one.  SuperBetter is another (  which helps people recover from acute or chronic illness.
We can work out how to survive without oil (, or we can generate our own games based around, perhaps, discovering the folding of proteins that may one day help biologists to understand the causes of cancer.  (
The possibilities are without end and probably beyond our current imagination. Which is why we are at the threshold of ‘beyond history’ .  Never, not even in ancient Lydia, have we had an entire generation that understood games as a way of life.  How that will shape our future is also beyond our imagining.  But very probably not beyond theirs.


Annis said...

Fantasy/sci-fi authors from Orson Scott Card (“Ender” and “Homecoming” series) to Rod Rees (“Demi-Monde” series) have played with the potential of actual/virtual world crossovers in games-playing. It will be fascinating to see how far future games-playing generations can take that in reality – though I won’t be round long enough to find out :)

Sue Purkiss said...

Am interested in your assertion that 'modern kids spend... 24 hours a week playing games. This may be true, but where's the evidence for it? Which kids? What age groups? Who did the research?

Unknown said...

@Sue Purkiss - the evidence is referenced in a book called 'Reality is Broken' by Jane McGonigal. I'd find it, but I'm packing to head off to lead a vision quest for a week in wales and will be entirely off line until after the solstice.
She's done a TED talk where she mentions this - you could google that.

Mary said...

I was just about to come and recommend a book called "Reality is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, but I see you beat me by two hours. FWIW, here's the Amazon link: