In her book Super Better, Jane McGonigal looks at the ways in which a game player can improve his or her own quality of life with a profound but simple change in perspective. McGonigal presents preconceived understandings about life and happiness, but in a new environment and with different tools. She looks at the effects of video game playing on the human condition, and how these effects diverge between two majors groups of people: those who want to play and those who need to play. Specifically, in chapter four, “You Can Make the Leap from Games to Gameful,” McGonigal describes how ones moves from one of these groups into another, from needing to play to wanting to play. McGonigal refers to these two groups of people as self-suppressors (those who need to play) and as self-expanders (those who want to play). Similar to McGonical, Przybylski talks about the possible consequences of playing video games. His take, however, is different than McGonigal’s. He argues that there are more factors at play that create a positive or a negative “postplay” outcome. He argues that an interaction between the self-determination theory and the dualistic model of passion create a response to game playing, rather than McGonigal’s simplistic self-suppression versus self-expansion theory, which I will discuss in greater detail below. Ultimately, player interaction with video games is a compelling aspect of the digital humanities, and more specifically, the concept of digital stories in play. Rather than looking at the what of the digital humanities, I am looking at the why of the digital humanities. Why does one participate in or engage with stories in play? Why does one engage in a video game? Also, how does one go about accessing a story in play in the “right” way? Both McGonigal and Przybylski speak to these questions. The right way to access a story in play, or more specifically a video game, is in seeking its benefits and applying these to real-life situations, while simultaneously fostering the traits inherent to Przybylski’s description of self-determination theory, through said game. The argument, overall, is that to succeed in doing this is to consequently to support a life of a higher quality through video game play.
In her chapter “You Can Make the Leap from Games to Gameful,” McGonigal discusses the transition from just playing games to playing games mindfully. She argues that a gamer should play with purpose, rather than with the escapist attitude that is most often adopted by gamers. McGonigal argues that this form of escapism through playing video games is very common, however, it is important to recognize and avoid. Escapism encourages players to avoid their daily life and its problems, thus, further convincing them to believe that their problem solving skills are insufficient for dealing with life’s challenges. The more supportive perspective that players adopt, and that McGonigal is arguing for, is playing with purpose. In doing so, a player identifies a game’s benefits (i.e. team building) and finds this benefit’s purpose in a real-life situation (i.e. working collaboratively on a shared project at work). To play with purpose means to access the benefits of game playing, or being gameful, and apply these virtually accessed skills in a real life setting. There are real consequences for each of these playing perspectives, both positive and negative. McGonigal identifies a health paradox that plagues gamers, affecting both their physical and mental healths. Gamers who self-suppress, or avoid their issues by gaming, are often physically and mental unwell, suffering from depression, social isolation, anxiety, and a host of other issues. Gamers who are self-expansive and apply virtually learned skills in real life settings often excel in terms of their mental and physical health, happiness levels, and even test scores. McGonigal states that both are reasonable perspectives on game playing, that people can be naturally inclined towards either, and that both are validated by empirical data. This knowledge begs the following question: what triggers either perspective in a gamer? The major difference between the two, as mentioned above in the introduction, is the purpose in playing, or the why. In a self-suppressive player, the why is to distract from a problem, rather than to inform a problem and present a solution. The self-suppressive gamer avoids problems in reality by retreating to the virtual and thus “diminishes [his or her] own capacity to solve problems and improve [his or her life]” (McGonigal 108). This is a defeatist attitude, and it is a symptom of and cause of a greater issue: low quality of life in the real world. I will speak about this cause in my discussion of Przybylski’s article below. McGonigal argues that the “purposeful play,” or the self-expansive play, instead, works against this instinct to distract from real life. Instead, the self-expansive gamer plays to inform his or her real life. The gamer seeks out potential benefits of the game, such as education, exploration, creativity, relaxation, and so on, in order to “activate [their] gameful skills in real-world contexts” (McGonigal 106). Because this type of player is seeking out the game’s benefits, and is thus someone who plays games with purpose, he or she is then more likely to find growth and improvement in everyday challenges. To play with purpose allows for the growth of self-efficacy. McGonigal argues, however, that we should not censure those who cannot always play with purpose (107) because escapism is a common psychological coping mechanism, although unproductive. McGonigal compares escapism to “experiential avoidance,” a coping mechanism in which a person is unwilling to accept or directly deal with distressing thoughts or emotions, and attempts to escape or avoid anything that might trigger distressing thoughts and emotions. In response to this duality of purpose in gaming, McGonigal suggests a well-known mindfulness theory: to grow the good rather than stop the bad. This is a popular theory on how to improve one’s quality of life, but McGonigal renegotiates its application and its meanings. Insightfully, she modernizes and makes relevant this mantra, to grow the good rather than stop the bad, by inserting it into digital humanities language. Game playing with the intention of self-suppression is an avoidance of real life issues, which creates no positive change. Playing with the purpose to self-expand by seeking out benefits and applying them to create positive change in real-life circumstances is extremely positive. This mindfulness theory becomes grounded in a gameful environment; readers can imagine, and thus act upon, what it means to play with purpose and how to practice mindfulness in a productive and supportive way. McGonigal argues, however, that these two perspective can look the same. It is important to recognize that it is not what activity one is engaging in, or what game one is playing, but how and why he or she is engaging with this game or activity. One can engage in any activity with a self-expansive or a self-suppressive intent; reading a romance novel, going for a run, or having beers with friends. Each can be an opportunity for either attitude. The difference, again, is the why. The solution to engaging with a game, or a video game in particular, with a self-expansive attitude is to have clarity about one’s reasons for playing the game. McGonigal invites readers of Super Better to embark on a “quest,” in which you must identify: a game you like, its potential benefits, and the purpose of these benefits in your real life. In embarking on this quest, McGonigal optimistically argues that a gamer can eventually reap limitless cognitive, emotional and social benefits.
Przybylski et al.’s article, “Having to versus Wanting to Play: Background and Consequences of Harmonious versus Obsessive Engagement in Video Games,” revolves around and discusses the results of a study on the benefits and disadvantages of video game playing. Similar to McGonigal’s discussion, there is a dualism of responses to game playing: disordered and enhancing. The disordered play fosters intense dependencies on video game playing, which causes negative health consequences. The enhancing play indicates an interest in gaining benefits from the game, which thus results in a higher quality of life. There are more factors at play, however, in Przybylski’s article than in McGonigal’s chapter. Further influencing factors on “postplay” outcomes are identified as the self-determination theory and the dualistic model of passion. The self-determination theory is a macro theory of human determination. It is perfect for looking at the distinction between enhancing (self-expansive) and disordered (self-suppressive) motives for game playing. The self-determination theory supports the argument that psychological well-being and effective self-regulation are rooted in a person’s ability to seek and to find satisfaction in video game playing. The traits that self-determination theory calls for and that determine whether someone has this psychological well-being and effective self-regulation are competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Przybylski argues that those who have these three personality traits “experience high levels of personal wellbeing, have low levels of psychopathology, integrate important activities into their lives in healthy ways, and are less vulnerable to self-esteem pressures” (Przybylski 485-86). So, here, instead of the motive (to self-expand or -suppress) for playing a game affecting one’s quality of life, it is the other way around. Przybylski is arguing that quality of life and personality type determine how and why a player can gain benefits and purpose these benefits in their daily life, rather than the other way around. Przybylski states: “Self-determination theory has been applied to the study of video games in a number of recent studies and has demonstrated that video games can provide players need satisfactions, thereby fostering positive short-term shifts in well-being and enhancing game enjoyment” (486). In other words, only those who satisfy this self-determination theory can access benefits of video games, and enhance their well-being and game enjoyment. This is inherently limiting for how people interact with video games, or with any sort of story in play. It is an unproductive way to look at gamers’ interactions with video games, and doesn’t provide any sort of solution to the problem, other than to supervise players’ interactions with video games in order to ensure that they are not motived by what would be understood as a disordered play. This aspect of Przybylski’s article is quite different from McGonical chapter on how to leap from games to gameful, in which players’ motives can be manipulated in order to reap benefits in real life. Przybylski’s self-determination theory-based argument is deeply limiting for gamer-game interactions and the potential benefits. The other component which determines whether a gamer can access the benefits of a video game is the dualistic model of passion. Przybylski states that this model
“is expressly concerned with the nature of passionate engagement in activities. Passion. . .is thought of as a strong inclination toward an interesting and important activity. The dualistic model of passion proposes that two kinds of motivational contingencies shape the overall quality of passion: full, autonomous internalization translates into harmonious passion for activities, while incomplete, controlled internalization produces obsessive passion” (486).
Here enters the concept of “need versus want.” Przybylski is arguing that it is healthy to want to play a video game, rather than to need to. This is an obvious truth. However, to propose the dualistic model as a collection of two discrete types of motivation is, again, problematic. It is limiting for the gamer; if he or she falls into one category, it seems hopeless that he or she can transition to the other. This discrete dualism also forgoes a naturalized understanding of how people interact with activities, that they either want to or need to, not that they can interact with an activity with a combination of both motives. Przybylski finalizes the article with an argument similar to McGonigal’s chapter: “We hypothesized that harmonious passion for video game play would lead to a pattern of play epitomized by game enjoyment and postplay energy, whereas obsessive passion would be associated with a disordered pattern of play reflected in postplay tension and greater amounts of play” (488). These different motivations for playing result in different postplay effects. What is different, however, are the fundamentals of these two arguments regarding player-game interaction. McGonigal, more productively, argues that these motives are not fixed, nor are they grounded in personality type or initial motivation in playing a game. Whereas, Przybylski et al. argue that these motives for and responses to video game playing are fixed, and that there can be nothing done except to predict your player outcome based on your satisfaction of the self-determination theory. I will explore this issue more in-depth below.
The primary argument in Przybylski et al.’s article is grounded in empirical data, obtained from a single study on the effects of video game playing on different groups of people. Instead, McGonigal’s Super Better uses accumulated data and makes an argument based on a wider range of knowledge. I position my argument alongside McGonigal’s, first, because of the wider range of sources that it draws upon, and thus its superior validity, and second, because of McGonigal’s optimism and inclusivity. Both arguments are valid in that they identify the potential adverse and beneficial effects of video game playing, however, each goes about it in a different way. My goal is to identify what philosophy is in the best interest to keep in mind in order to support player interactions with games, or stories in play, and to keeps games in a positive light. Przybylski speaks to this issue of games, or stories in play, descending into a negative light: “Many in popular culture assume that unhealthy relationships with games are rooted primarily in the experiences games provide” (491). This is a perspective that we want to avoid, because according to McGonigal, it is entirely untrue. The issue does not lie in the game itself, but rather, in the motives of the gamer. As constructors of a stories in play project, I find it imperative that we keep this dualistic concept of motivation in mind. But how can we design this project with this goal in mind, to encourage harmonious interaction with a story in play rather than with obsessive interaction? Is this already ingrained into our Stories in Play Initiative, or does it need to be developed? The type of motive that a person has for engaging in a certain activity determines how beneficial this activity will be for them, and will determine what their “postplay” attitude will be. Combining both McGonigal and Przybylski’s works, I am asserting that it is vital that we combine and project both these modes of thought onto game-gamer interaction. It is necessary to hone in on the play with purpose concept that McGonigal discusses (which can also be understood as an enhancing play, as per Przybylski), by asking those who interact with our Stories in Play Initiative: “what are you seeking, and how does it benefit you in daily life?” (McGonigal 113). While doing this, it is also necessary to foster those three traits that support the self-determination theory: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Works on the gamer-video game dynamic have a lot to offer in terms of identifying what elements of a gamer’s perspective, or motives, determine a positive “postplay” outcome. In mimicking these elements that support a positive “postplay” outcome, we can largely improve the interaction between readers and our Stories in Play Initiative.
McGonigal, Jane. “You Can Make the Leap from Games to Gameful.” Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient⎯Powered by the Science of Games. Toronto: Penguin Group, 2015. 104-29. Print.
Przybylski, Andrew K. “Having to versus Wanting to Play: Background and Consequences of Harmonious versus Obsessive Engagement in Video Games.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 12.5 (2009): 485-92. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.