I am very into video games. This does not mean I play many video games- I’m below average for people I know, although that’s a skewed sample. But I do a lot of reading about video games , because I find economics interesting and the business of video games has a confluence of factors that allow me to understand it. Plus, it’s going through some interesting transformations on both the monetary and art fronts. That is why I read Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.
Much like researchers of heroin and cocaine before her, McGonical’s approach is to look at something addictive and, rather than declare we’re all weak for liking it, study why it is so addictive/satisfying and what we can do to bring that into our lives in a healthy way. Her list of things video games provide us- flow, challenge, ownership, accomplishment- read like a list of things my job doesn’t do. Which I already knew, and has led me to start researching other careers, which led to among other things this blog. This gave me the idea to start alternating work-type tasks with video games targetted to give the satisfaction of having done work (e.g. Harvest Moon, which is about running your own farm). For the moment the work type task is “reading books I already wanted to read”, but it nonetheless raised my satisfaction and endurance level significantly, and I’m hopeful it will help when I return to work as well.*
But then McGonigal shifts tacts, and talks about all the ways we can use video games to improve the world. One example is Foldit, in which players are given the primary structure of a protein and attempt to find the lowest-energy tertiary structure for it. Scientists actually use these results in their research. ** She also designed World Without Oil, a collaborative fiction game where people brainstormed how to adapt to an oil storage.
She also talked about her prolonged recovery from a concussion. I identified with this a lot: the lack of tangible progress, the alternation between not having the energy to do what you’re supposed to and being desperate to do something but not knowing what. In my case there’s also juggling several different problems, and wondering if you’d be happier if you just concentrated on one until it was done, and trying to manage containing the most urgent symptoms and investing in long term solutions. I responded by writing “this is hard” in my diary. Jane McGonigal responded by making SuperBetter, a website/service that gamifies convalesence (think fitocracy but for actual health, rather than health-as-codeword-for-skinny). This was kind of a revelation for me on two levels. One, it solved a problem I had recently been whining about, and enables me to take better care of myself. I’ve been using it for a week so far, and while it’s not magic, it is helpful, and it is most helpful when I am least able to act on my own.
Two, it has me thinking about my future. My volunteer thus far has me very convinced I want to work in adolescent mental health. I think that is my special talent and while I feel stupid saying it, I genuinely think I could change the world. I want to do that. But so far my research has focused on existing career tracks I could jump into (psychiatrist, counselor, etc). I’d considered programming for a company that made meaningful software but dismissed it, in part because I’d done it before and found it lacking. But maybe there’s a hybrid. I could have made SuperBetter. I mean, the last webpage I made was written in notepad, but I’m capable of learning the skills to make SuperBetter. Hell, I could probably get a job to pay me to learn the skills to make SuperBetter. There’s no credential holding me back. And I think I would be really proud of myself if I did something like that.
MoodGym already exists, so off the top of my head I don’t know what I could create that would add value to the world. I definitely need more volunteering and reading to find out, and may quite possibly need more formal education. But my eyes are open to the broader range of possibilities for me to change the world, both now and in the future.
Which is extremely convenient, because the money that would have gone to taking off work and soul searching has gone to taking off work and holding an ice pack to my jaw. It was a good trade given the circumstances, but it may set formal school back years. This was an excellent time to acquire hope I can do more in place.
*According to Reality is Broken, this is common strategy among top executives.
**This is how I got through the analytical section of organic chemistry. I hated all that stuff that was never going to be relevant to me as a behaviorist until I realized it used exactly the same part of my brain as the game Set, which I loved. I went on to nail that test and enjoyed it more than any other part of orgo.