I have been reflecting on the past month of binge gaming. Command and Conquer, Supreme Commander, the list goes on as I jump from one game to the next to keep my mind occupied. It has been a pleasant experience for the most part, filled with joyous laughter, healthy screen ranting, and even an opportunity to re-connect with an old friend over some friendly battles. But, as the high of each game wears off, I am dragged painfully back into the reality we are living in. Racism, murder, and idiocracy seem to be the aggravated norm. It would seem the slumbering beast of oppression has been violently re-awakened. I download a new game and slip back into a temporary state of tranquility, embracing the digital reality this forgotten hobby brought me. As a I float aimlessly on the loading screen, my mind drifts.
Once upon a time I was an avid gamer frequently getting my excitement and social engagements from a friendly game and some fierce online battle. My genre of choice, strategy games in particular, Command and Conquer. Something about building an army and planning an attack two or three steps ahead and seeing it work perfectly, or the sudden realization you messed up and the frantic race to come up with a new solution! It was with strategy games to that I got introduced to online gaming. It was a brutal verbal arena so used my online experience to connect with old friends and do private games between us.
All that changed though with World of Warcraft. The world that was built was easy and enjoyable to get lost in. Warcraft has been building lore on their environment since their first game, with the owner’s manual filled not only with instruction on how to install and play the game, but pages of backstory and concept art of the novel characters you would be playing as. Fast forward to 2 games later and World of Warcraft was able to use that lore to build a huge interactive world. A fully generated virtual reality, that constantly changed and fully populated by online players. As we assumed our avatars, we rushed diligently to engage in quest and earn our treasures. Getting gear and completing these feats though required a team. This was unique to World of Warcraft, and frustrating at times, as it would require some patience and depending on the challenge, finding a crew hellbent on achieving the mission. Surprisingly though depending on how much time you wanted to commit, finding or joining a crew was not too difficult. The rewards remained relevant till the next expansion pack that brought new challenges and started the process all over again.
Gaming was a part of my life until most recent. Not long after I stopped playing, I watched an incredible TED Talk on gamification by Jane McGonigal. In it, she discusses with a meme worthy image of a gamers face about to accomplish the “Epic Win”, an outcome that is so extraordinary that it does not seem possible until you achieved it. Gamers at their utmost can get so immerse with achieving this experience that everything else is blocked out, not to dissimilar with some of the memories I shared earlier. It is the combination of having many collaborators willing and able to trust you at a moment’s notice to set together to achieve a goal. It’s an interesting phenomenon, one only appreciated by fellow gamers.
How is it that gaming can encourage such committed and determined behavior? Reflecting from my personal experience there are some unique insights to be gained. Rewards systems are a constant in games. Attributes are increased when completing a task, conquering a foe, or finding some random hidden element of the game. In real world applications, speed cameras were tested using a reverse lotto to reward good driving with potential earnings collected from those that chose to speed. However, the world of gaming is more than just the badges and collecting gear. There is an ethereal element in being able to escape the current reality and contribute to something grand, especially when the backstory is compelling. In a similar vein of World of Warcraft, reality is filled with pages of lore, many of which influence the games we play. Could history become our lore to the biggest and most complex game of all time, life.
Life though does not offer the same reward as the digital experience. There is a yearning to have our work to have meaning or impact, yet the harsh reality outside of the game world is often bleak. In Utopia for Realist, Rutger Bregman, dives deeper into how we have become quite effective at creating jobs that pay well but generate little real value to society. This, in term with the constricting purchasing power of today’s worker, pushes us to seek an alternative reality, rather it be an evening at the pub, immersing in a movie, or spending a night to early morning as your digital avatar. Yet how might we change this trend? How might we create an alternative, where reality is the ideal, and the game world allows us to re-immerse in the blighted history we have overcome? How might we use gaming practices for real world problems? What aspects of the digital spectrum could we introduce into day to day living?
Many of my fellow peers and myself included desire for meaning in our work and to be active contributors to solving a problem, rather than just collecting a paycheck for the rent. We want to achieve the impossible and know our actions helped make a difference. How might we use the “Epic Win” in this unique period of our lives? With a rising global pandemic, the full effects are not yet known, but it is undoubtedly a grand mission worthy of an “Epic Win”.
The high wears off again, and I am pulled back into reality again. It is an immediate blow, and I find myself on the emotional roller-coaster again. As I ruminate on the latest horrible thing, I come to another realization, with my previous though of “the slumbering beast being reawaken”. I recall a recent episode of The Late Show and reflect on how the distractions of day to day living such as hanging out at the bar, or grabbing a bite for dinner, or even my escape with video games can hinder our ability to see with clarity all the atrocious acts being committed. Being deprived of these distractions and limiting my hours of play with games has allowed me to see how sad the world has become. I am left in a bit of a pickle with this realization. My heart wants to engage and make a difference on as many issues as I can. My body reminds me with subtle shakes, twitches, and aches, that I can only handle so much, which fuels my desire to escape to my digital oasis, so I may numb the pain. What to do?
I reflect on this idea of the “Epic Win” more in depth. The plethora of problems we will need to solve are very similar to completing a raid on World of Warcraft. It is possible, but it requires a collective effort, with a diverse and well put together team, committed to the fullest to achieving this mission. Once this is overcome, we could apply this model of creative problem solving to other challenges, confident that the framework we have created will allow us to overcome anything. When a new problem surfaces, we could utilize this network of change agents to be the forefront of executing solutions. How might we use this idea to change the reality we are living in, where the burdens our communities of color are forever lifted, and the only mention of travesties are the horrible events of the past? How might the video game be our vessel to relive and teach these histories, as the realities we escaped, as we bask in the utopia that we have created?
Although my quests are addressing College Homelessness and Food Insecurity, they share many similar overlapping factors to other challenges we aim to solve. I realize the Epic Win is not about personal glory, or even the trinkets at the end of the battle, it is about overcoming the almost impossible. It is about banding together for a common cause and trying again and again till it is completed. All we need to achieve it is more players and a platform to let them get the work done. Ruminating on these realizations, I spend my afternoon reaching out to old contacts, making email introductions, and looking for common threads between our work as we prepare for a holiday weekend. Each connection becomes another player in this arena as we work to build a platform. The only question left to ask is…. are you ready to play?
Jesse Herrera is the Founder & Chief Visionary of CoAct North Texas which designs human-centered solutions for today's most pressing and ambitious challenges. www.coactntx.org