Virtually You / Reality Is Broken

By WILLIAM SALETAN
Published: February 11, 2011
nyt.com

Humanity is migrating to cyberspace. In the past five years, Americans have doubled the hours they spend online, exceeding their television time and more than tripling the time they spend reading newspapers or magazines. Most now play computer or video games regularly, about 13 hours a week on average. By age 21, the average young American has spent at least three times as many hours playing virtual games as reading. It took humankind eight years to spend 100 million hours building Wikipedia. We now spend at least 200 million hours a week playing World of Warcraft.

Elias Aboujaoude, a Silicon Valley psychiatrist, finds this alarming. In “Virtually You,” he argues that the Internet is unleashing our worst instincts. It connects you to whatever you want: gambling, overspending, sex with strangers. It speeds transactions, facilitating impulse purchases and luring you away from the difficulties of real life. It lets you customize your fantasies and select a date from millions of profiles, sapping your patience for imperfect partners. It lets you pick congenial news sources and avoid contrary views and information. It conceals your identity, freeing you to be vitriolic or dishonest. It shields you from detection and disapproval, emboldening you to download test answers and term papers. It hides the pain of others, liberating your cruelty in games and forums. It rewards self-promotion on blogs and Facebook. It teaches you how to induce bulimic vomiting or kill yourself.

In short, everything you thought was good about the Internet — information, access, personalization — is bad. Aboujaoude isn’t shy in his indictment. He links the Internet to consumer debt, the housing crash, eating disorders, sexually transmitted infections, psychopathy, racism, terrorism, child sexual abuse, suicide and murder. Everything online worries him: ads, hyperlinks, even emoticons. The Internet makes us too quarrelsome. It makes us too like-minded. It makes us work too little. It makes us work too much.

In part, this grim view stems from Aboujaoude’s work. He sees patients with online compulsions. He believes in the Freudian id — a shadowy swirl of infantile impulses — and perceives its modern incarnation in what he calls the “e-personality,” a parallel identity that hijacks your mind online. In the physical world, your superego restrains your id. But in the virtual world, where you can instantly fulfill your whims, the narcissism and grandiosity of the e-personality run wild.

To Aboujaoude, the Internet is a mechanical alien, “a new type of machine . . . that can efficiently prey on our basic instincts.” It converts children into bullies “almost automatically.” It turned Philip Markoff, the accused “Craigslist killer,” who committed suicide in jail, into a serial assailant. Lori Drew, the woman whose online impersonation of a teenage boy supposedly drove a girl to suicide, seemed normal until “the Internet made her fleeting dark wish . . . take on a life of its own.” Again and again, computers get the blame.

Jane McGonigal, the author of “Reality Is Broken,” sees the Internet differently. She’s a game designer. To her, the virtual world isn’t a foreign contraption. It’s our own evolving creation. She agrees that bad online games can addict people, make them belligerent, distract them from reality and leave them empty. But this is our fault, not the Internet’s. When virtual life brings out the worst in us, redesign it.

If Aboujaoude is the Internet’s Hobbes, McGonigal is its Rousseau. In the rise of multiplayer games, she sees a happier picture of human nature — a thirst for community, a craving for hard work and a love of rules. This, she argues, is the essence of games: rules, a challenge and a shared objective. The trick is to design games that reward good behavior. The Internet’s unprecedented power, its ability to envelop and interact with us, is a blessing, not a threat. We can build worlds in which nice guys finish first.

The point isn’t just to enhance virtual reality. It’s to fix the real world, too. McGonigal offers several examples, some of which she helped create. Chore Wars, an alternate-reality game, builds positive attitudes toward housework by rewarding virtual housework. Cruel 2 B Kind invites players to “kill” competitors with smiles or compliments. The Extraordinaries hands out missions like one in which the player must GPS-tag a defibrillator so its location can be registered for later use. Groundcrew assigns players to help people with transportation, shopping or housekeeping.

The premise is that since games motivate us more effectively than real life, making them altruistic and bringing them into the physical world will promote altruistic behavior. But is this motivating power transferable? What draws us to virtual worlds, McGonigal notes, is their “carefully designed pleasures” and “thrilling challenges” customized to our strengths. They’re never boring. They let us choose our missions and control our work flow. They make us feel powerful. They offer “a guarantee of productivity” in every quest. And when we fail, they make our failure entertaining.

Reality doesn’t work this way. Floors need scrubbing. Garbage needs hauling. Invalids need their bedpans washed. This work isn’t designed for your pleasure or stimulation. It just needs to be done.

McGonigal points to studies suggesting that games that reward socially constructive behavior promote such behavior in real life. But the only outputs measured by these studies are self-reported values, self-reported behavior in the real world, and objectively measured behavior in games. Where’s the reliable evidence that this data translates to people’s doing more real work? Projects like Groundcrew, McGonigal concedes, have produced “modest if any results so far.” Hundreds of thousands of people play Free Rice, a game designed to feed the hungry, but the rice comes from advertisers, not players. Thousands sign up every day for Folding@home, a game to cure diseases, but all these players contribute is processing power on game consoles.

If reality is inherently less attractive than games, then the virtual world won’t save the physical world. It will empty it. Millions of gamers, in McGonigal’s words, are “opting out” of the bummer of real life. And they aren’t coming back. Halo 3, for example, has become a complete virtual world, with its own history documented in an online museum and Ken Burns-style videos. McGonigal calls this war game a model for inspiring mass cooperation. Two years ago, its 15 million players reached a long-sought objective: They killed their 10 billionth alien. “Fresh off one collective achievement, Halo players were ready to tackle an even more monumental goal,” McGonigal writes. And what goal did they choose? Feeding the hungry? Clothing the poor? No. The new goal was to kill 100 billion aliens.

Game designers can’t be counted on to arrest this trend. McGonigal says the game industry wants to help users avoid addiction so that they’ll remain functional and keep buying its products. But we’ve heard that argument before from the tobacco industry. Addiction, as a business model, is too addictive to give up. She says Foursquare, a game that rewards you for going out with friends and “checking in” at restaurants, promotes sociability. That would be nice, but the game’s Web site devotes a whole section (“Foursquare for Business”) to commercial exploitation.

The Internet isn’t heaven. It isn’t hell, either. It’s just another new world. Like other worlds, it can be civilized. It will need rules, monitoring and benevolent designers who understand the flaws of its inhabitants. If Aboujaoude is right about our weakness for virtual vice, we’ll need all the McGonigals we can get. The point isn’t just to enhance virtual reality. It’s to fix the real world, too. McGonigal offers several examples, some of which she helped create. Chore Wars, an alternate-reality game, builds positive attitudes toward housework by rewarding virtual housework. Cruel 2 B Kind invites players to “kill” competitors with smiles or compliments. The Extraordinaries hands out missions like one in which the player must GPS-tag a defibrillator so its location can be registered for later use. Groundcrew assigns players to help people with transportation, shopping or housekeeping.

The premise is that since games motivate us more effectively than real life, making them altruistic and bringing them into the physical world will promote altruistic behavior. But is this motivating power transferable? What draws us to virtual worlds, McGonigal notes, is their “carefully designed pleasures” and “thrilling challenges” customized to our strengths. They’re never boring. They let us choose our missions and control our work flow. They make us feel powerful. They offer “a guarantee of productivity” in every quest. And when we fail, they make our failure entertaining.

Reality doesn’t work this way. Floors need scrubbing. Garbage needs hauling. Invalids need their bedpans washed. This work isn’t designed for your pleasure or stimulation. It just needs to be done.

McGonigal points to studies suggesting that games that reward socially constructive behavior promote such behavior in real life. But the only outputs measured by these studies are self-reported values, self-reported behavior in the real world, and objectively measured behavior in games. Where’s the reliable evidence that this data translates to people’s doing more real work? Projects like Groundcrew, McGonigal concedes, have produced “modest if any results so far.” Hundreds of thousands of people play Free Rice, a game designed to feed the hungry, but the rice comes from advertisers, not players. Thousands sign up every day for Folding@home, a game to cure diseases, but all these players contribute is processing power on game consoles.

If reality is inherently less attractive than games, then the virtual world won’t save the physical world. It will empty it. Millions of gamers, in McGonigal’s words, are “opting out” of the bummer of real life. And they aren’t coming back. Halo 3, for example, has become a complete virtual world, with its own history documented in an online museum and Ken Burns-style videos. McGonigal calls this war game a model for inspiring mass cooperation. Two years ago, its 15 million players reached a long-sought objective: They killed their 10 billionth alien. “Fresh off one collective achievement, Halo players were ready to tackle an even more monumental goal,” McGonigal writes. And what goal did they choose? Feeding the hungry? Clothing the poor? No. The new goal was to kill 100 billion aliens.

Game designers can’t be counted on to arrest this trend. McGonigal says the game industry wants to help users avoid addiction so that they’ll remain functional and keep buying its products. But we’ve heard that argument before from the tobacco industry. Addiction, as a business model, is too addictive to give up. She says Foursquare, a game that rewards you for going out with friends and “checking in” at restaurants, promotes sociability. That would be nice, but the game’s Web site devotes a whole section (“Foursquare for Business”) to commercial exploitation.

The Internet isn’t heaven. It isn’t hell, either. It’s just another new world. Like other worlds, it can be civilized. It will need rules, monitoring and benevolent designers who understand the flaws of its inhabitants. If Aboujaoude is right about our weakness for virtual vice, we’ll need all the McGonigals we can get.

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