McDonald: Girls, get gaming

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Kay S. Hymowitz decries the slacker-slob male prototype she claims is increasingly common in society. In the provocatively titled “Where Have The Good Men Gone?”, Hymowitz believes she has identified a cultural trend afflicting today’s young men: they “hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance,” which, she says, does not endear them easily to members of the opposite sex. While few can dispute her statements when applied to popular culture (the seemingly ubiquitous on-screen “man-boy,” to borrow a phrase from a female friend, is typified by Seth Rogan’s character, Ben, in Judd Apatow’s 2007 movie “Knocked Up”), it’s less clear she has anything to say about reality. In fact, these “man-boys,” whose hobbies include playing lots of video games, may have something to teach men and women alike.

Video games have long been associated with male slackerdom. But in an ironic turn, a female game designer is now actively working to disabuse people of the notion that video games are useless diversions. In a 2010 TEDTalk, Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future said she views gaming not as a non-productive activity to be frowned upon, but as a way to save the world. McGonigal points out that an impressive three billion hours are spent playing online games per week. Collectively, she said, people have spent nearly six million years playing World of Warcraft. Funneling this play to the right kind of games, McGonigal argues, can solve global problems like hunger, poverty, and climate change.

On the surface, this idea seems far-fetched at best. How could that possibly work? As a game designer, McGonigal has created several games to benefit society, including World Without Oil, which challenges the gamer to survive an oil shortage, and Evoke, a project done in collaboration with the World Bank Institute to foster social innovation, especially in the Third World. There are also fairly popular games (although not compared to commercial titles) such as FoldIt, which has the slightly less noble aim (depending on your perspective) of predicting protein structure.

McGonigal has also considered why gaming is so attractive to so many. As noted in her TEDTalk, “We feel we are not as good in reality as we are in games. And I don’t mean just ‘good’ as successful, although that’s part of it — we do achieve more in game worlds — but I also mean ‘good’ as in motivated to do something that matters, inspired to collaborate and cooperate. And when we’re in game worlds I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves.” While McGonigal is not drawing gender lines here, this seems like something especially attractive to those very man-boys who, according to Hymowitz, are having difficulties creating an identity in a post-feminist knowledge economy. Sure, guys probably enjoy blowing up a panoply of objects before catapulting themselves across rooftops in the latest Call of Duty incarnation simply because it’s cool. But perhaps it’s also because in the virtual world it’s easier to be ‘better’ men.

In order for McGonigal’s dream of games working to solve problems to materialize, she estimates 21 billion hours would need to be spent gaming, approximately one hour of gaming from half the world’s population a day. It is unclear to me how McGonigal would accomplish this, especially with games that can’t yet compete with World of Warcraft, which has an impressive but still too few 12 million players. I do know that at the very least, a lot more women would need to take up gaming. Of course, I would be remiss to give the impression that women are not also gamers; my twin sister easily adopts the title. But men are the primary users of video games like the ones McGonigal is so excited about — the immersive ones with “epic wins,” like World of Warcraft. In the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2010 Report about media use in kids aged 8 to 18, boys played four times as much as girls on console video games like the Xbox.

And certainly, if gaming is on its way to saving the world, by Hymowitz’s logic, women would quickly flock in support (I suspect Hymowitz would not be surprised in the least that the iconoclastic McGonigal sports two X chromosomes). So perhaps we should all look forward to the day when it’s commonplace for the boyfriend to nag the girlfriend to stop playing a game. That, truly, would be a game changer.

Jessica McDonald is a fifth-year student in immunobiology.

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