How Mumbley-Peg and Bloody Knuckles Help Explain the Headlines, Pt 1

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Going it—Mostly—Alone No. 2

           I did get that reset post published—after a bit of struggle with the image. That let me pull off the cap of my Waterman fountain pen and put a check mark in the box next to that line on one of my three pads of paper. I’d made something happen, affected the world from inside a room in my apartment: I’d demonstrated I had agency, which was satisfying in itself.

Then, soon after I had published the piece, I got not only got a like, but a follower and yet another follower by the next morning: these felt good.

And that—right there—is social media acting gamefully.

As Jane McGonigal explains in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, gameful describes an activity not normally thought of as a game being given aspects of games in order to manufacture, not only happiness, but purpose.

I’d thought something, written it out, and put it out into the world. In response, the world responded with two follows and a like within hours, which first appeared in my inbox and then on my blog. Not only did this feedback please me, but it gave me evidence that I’m moving closer to my goal of escaping obscurity. I now have a number, a score I can hold up against other people’s scores to see how I’m doing. They reveal near term goals—levels in game-speak—10 likes, then 50 follows, then 100 likes and so on up the “Most Liked” and “Most Followed” leader boards.

These scores also let me know if something I do works and should keep doing it, or if something fails—getting no follows, nor even a single like, or worse a thumbs down or snarky reply—and should make an adjustment or abandon that idea entirely.

The “happiness engineers” who design games understand that people crave feedback, and that positive feedback gives people an emotional high, and that feeling good drives people to keep doing what gave them these good feelings. Even negative feedback is better than none: if you know something doesn’t work, at least you can move on and try something else. After all, isn’t waiting is the worst part?

These game designers also understand that the more time between action and feeback, no matter how great the reward or harsh the punishment, the connection fades until, eventually, it breaks completely. What 4th grader can connect doing yet another worksheet of identifying number patterns with getting a corner office 18 years from now in a job that doesn’t even exist now? Or connect it to getting hired by that prestigious firm, or to graduating from the right college to get the interview in the first place, or to getting into the right high school to qualify for that college, or into the best middle school program to get on the track for that high school? Especially when they are on the verge of setting a new class record in Shark Attack they can brag about in school tomorrow.

Those worksheets with number patterns to decipher seem pointless and dreary, and like the rest of the work in “most of the institutions that take up our time—schools, offices, factories—[is] organized around the assumption that serious work is grim and unpleasant, ” as M Csikszentmihalyi observed in Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Worse, “[b]ecause of this assumption, most of our time is spent doing unpleasant things” with grim resolve, while constantly yearning for something else, something enjoyable like setting that new record in Shark Attack.

But by adding elements from that game such as scores, immediate feedback and levels to the same deciphering exercise as the websites IXL, Dimension U and Khan Academy do, this boring, seemingly pointless task becomes game-like: becomes fun, something that our 4th grader might even want to do because it is fun. Because it’s gameful.

Sure, that’ll work for kids in school, but for adults with actual problems? Get real.

As real as it gets: a lot of American adults play video games. How many? Roughly 53% of the entire US adult population plays video games, and one in five of those adults plays almost everyday or everyday. That means a lot of adults are playing a lot of video games. They also play board games, pick up b-ball, soccer and on and on.

So, games for adults? Emphatically yes.

If games give this many adults that much pleasure overcoming problems that don’t even really exist, does it not make sense to harness this power to drive adults to do things they might otherwise avoid or even hate in real life?

After all, there are games even kids dread playing yet still play: not the ones required by Mr. Shout-a-lot in Phys Ed, but hidden, backyard games such as mumbley-peg and bloody knuckles. The first is certainly dangerous and possibly very painful, and the second certainly painful and possibly dangerous, yet kids still play them. I did. I was scared yet sort of thrilled by mumbley-peg. I mostly hated bloody knuckles—I always lost and that sucked—yet I’d find myself staring at some other kid’s outstretched fist, which I had to hit as hard as I dared with my bare knuckles so I could draw blood first.

As loony as my child-self looks in retrospect, viewing bloody knuckles and mumbley-peg, not as merely social rituals by which boys jockey for their place in the pecking order, but as games allows the desires to keep knocking knuckles until your skin splits open, or possibly having a knife blade driven into your flesh or lose by slicing open another boys’ finger open, or worse—chickening out—to make some real sense.

How can mumbley-peg and bloody knuckles be considered games since they guarantee psychological stress and promise physical pain simply for joining in, and the former could involve trip to the hospital, stiches and a tetanus shot. Neither sounds like much fun, and fun’s why we play games right?

Not always: real danger and the guarantee of pain doesn’t eliminate something from being a game, or being gameful. Broken bones, bruises and concussions are all part of football. People have even died playing it. No one would doubt it is a game. The day I’m writing this line is The Game: the annual Ohio State-Michigan game, and there will be much pain this afternoon, both physical and psychological.

From mumbley-peg to Big Ten football to table tennis to Halo to Candy Crush to poker, charades and Dungeons & Dragons, there are so many different kinds of games with so many different kinds of rules, with vastly different goals and wildly disparate elements—some are played indoors, many with cards, others with pencils and dice, or on a screen with headphones and a controller, still others on boards with pieces, or with little more than the imagination of the players, and some are played outdoors and involve teams, fields, balls and body protecting equipment and are played inside stadiums with spectators with officiating staff and thick rule books, others are played in back yards, and have rules as fluid as the wishes of the players—a very real question to ask is does it make sense to talk of games as a thing at all?

In 1978, philosopher Bernard Suits came up with probably the most useful way of thinking of this vast variety of activities when he called games: “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.

Key here are “voluntary” and “unnecessary”. Nothing can truly be called a game if it’s involuntary or necessary. As a kid, I didn’t have to spread my fingers out on a stump and let a someone jam a knife between them faster than I could jam it between his fingers, nor did I have to try to draw first blood by slamming my bare knuckles against another boy’s. There was nothing necessary about it. In fact, avoiding them both would have been better in a lot ways—many kids did—but such is the power of games, and there is plenty of science to explain this allure.

Mostly mocked or overlooked within psychology for most of its history, the science of happiness is now taken quite seriously. Until relatively recently, the only dignified areas for “proper” psychological research were personality formation, pathology and therapies. Now, money and research both flow into how to achieve happiness, especially as prophylaxis against mental illness and as a way to live better, not only psychologically, but physically. This is a long way from a couch in Vienna.

Back up by all this new science, Ms. McGonigal lists seven primary facets of games, elements that can be taken from them and applied to non-game activities to make them gameful: Agency, Flow, Fiero, Communitas, Awe/Epic, Naches, and “pwn”, which a misspelling of own, and can be pronounced pone if one were so inclined—it’s usually written–and describes achieving such a major victory that one cannot help but gloat, such as defying essentially every political pundit who wrote a word about the 2016 presidential election from the Iowa Caucuses until 11:00 pm on November Eighth.

In the next post, we’ll start delving into these facets, including the science behind each one, starting with agency. Then, we can start applying this potent framework to some of the most confounding headlines we have been reading lately in order to illuminate the mysterious whys behind puzzling actors and begin pulling back the curtain on the hidden mechanisms that explain how many of these perplexing things came to pass in the first place. At the very least, it will let us cut through the fog of contradictory and oft reflexive opinions pouring from the myriad pundits clogging our screens and see that there are actual, controllable mechanisms in action here, which can be understood and then used.

Next time on One Candle in the Darkness: Games Explain

Agency: the ability to affect the world

3 thoughts on “How Mumbley-Peg and Bloody Knuckles Help Explain the Headlines, Pt 1”

  1. Interesting! My favorite was “as much as I want to escape from obscurity” THAT is a brilliant way of putting it! Obscurity can be hellish, but last week I posted a piece (2d) named after a girl who DID escape from obscurity, and found herself in a nightmarish new life, where men keep trying to rope her in by any means necessary, she gets followed in her car, guys tell her they’re going to own her, she gets the nastiest things said to her online, I have discouraged parents of girls who want to come out here and ask me what it is like. I tell them. The daughters stay in Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and I am thankful for that. But for men, its not anywhere near as scary, but still, plenty of psychotics out there,

  2. Yikes; kinda David Lynch story line. Not “Mulholland Drive” as the actresses are complicit, but more “Lost Highway”. “last week I posted a piece (2d)” where is this? That escape from obscurity is akin to this very interesting point I read about “giving away too much”; I.e. giving away some writing in order to get a following. The writer asks which is worse, releasing a book no one knows about? Or giving parts of it away ahead of time? (Obscurity is hard to monetize.)

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