What Games Are Changing the World?

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm
Can pandas change the world?
As I continue scuba diving in the sea of words on video game narratives, I keep discovering profound ideas expressed long before this writer started unraveling his little yarns. They come from sharp personalities and witty brains, those from think tanks and media to academia and the blogosphere, who say video games are changing how "we" (yes, the collective "we" ) think and learn.

As James Gee writes:

"Video games usually involve a visual and auditory world in which the player manipulates a virtual character (or characters). They often come with editors or other sorts of software with which the player can make changes to the game world or even build a new game world (much as the mind can edit its previous experiences to form simulations of things not directly experienced)."

Taking a step further, some also say video games can change the world.

The good news is, video games really are changing the world, and they are changing "our" brains. It's not really a question of "can" anymore. Why? To arrive at some answers, we can point to World of Warcraft, the enemy of Eve Online. Consider this Part Two of our yarns on narratives in massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
If we're looking at existing yarns, World of Warcraft has been lauded as a highly influential game, with an incredible community that constructs and sustains a complex universe. Much like the players of Eve Online, (which we covered last week), WoW players have their unique narrative arcs within their universe, except that WoW's NPCs and quests offer more guidance for unearthing the game's overall narrative, or as we've cited before, its authorial narrative on Azeroth.

One student, who I found after some Internet trolling, puts it this way:

"Winning the game is simply not an option; there are too many offshoots, too many paths, and too many constant changes in the diagetic world of the game to allow for a total fulfillment of all it has to offer (rhizomatic, eh?).  Thus, if winning is not the point, it's the journey that becomes the focus.  This journey is the narrative.  As interactive players, we are actively fulfilling a narrative to get levels (experience), gear, in-game money, and even a feeling of prestige."

That "feeling of prestige" notion seems in line with game designer Jane McGonigal's talks and her 2011 book Reality is Broken: How Video Games Can Change the World, a must read for any one interested in the power of games. I'm enthralled by her talk at the TED2010 conference, during which she discussed WoW as well as her socially driven games World Without Oil  and Superstruct, both of which presented fictional high stakes regarding the world's oil supply and countdown to oblivion, respectively.

One of many comments worth pondering:
"You know there's a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week, kind of a half-time job. It's because we know, when we're playing a game, that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing, or hanging out. We know that we are optimized, as human beings, to do hard meaningful work .... Gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions to human planetary-scale stories."

Overall, it seems that World of Warcraft has mind-influencing, world-changing effects similar to those of Eve Online. The scholarship revolving around it will continue, and so will updates that enhance its narrative, gameplay and overall power. There's much to explore.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.  

1) I've been reading The Digital Divide ..., which features commentary from Nicholas Carr, James Gee and many others. The book features Gee's pieces "Learning Theory, Video Games, and Popular Culture."
2) I enjoyed GameSpy's World of Warcraft review.
3) The student cited above hailed from an "American Literary Traditions" course at University of Pittsburgh.

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