Life in Dog Ears: Can video games make us better people?

Life in Dog Ears: Can video games make us better people?

Life in Dog Ears: Can video games make us better people?

Life in Dog Ears is a new feature in which editor and obsessive reader Daniel Nash provides brief reviews and analysis of his reading list from the past month. Some selections are new, some are less new, and others are incredibly not new. Have a recommendation? Tweet Daniel at @dlewisnash.

Jane McGonigal | Psychology/Self-Help

Back in the heady days of the early ‘00s, the television news media seemed to have founded a new cottage industry out of shock stories targeting the parents of video game players. Most of these stories focused around the first 3D entries in the “Grand Theft Auto” series, with claims that players “earned points” for killing prostitutes and that the series could train teens to become killers. This strategy worked: My mother forbade me from playing “Vice City.” (Naturally, I paid a friend to procure a copy).

It’s easy to forget other, less popular franchises were subject to more subdued forms of scare propaganda. Bethesda Softworks’ “Elder Scrolls” series -- each entry built around an open, free-roaming province of a fully-realized fantasy world -- is particularly notable for conjuring stories of hopeless addiction. Every gamer seemed to have a friend of a friend who had turned their back on spouses, jobs, and families in favor of a new life in Tamriel. This wasn’t complete nonsense. When the fourth game, “Oblivion,” came out, two of my roommates took shifts on a playthrough that lasted, nonstop, for two weeks.

But when I first dipped into “Skyrim,” my experience was the opposite. Though the game was (and remains) thoroughly enjoyable, I was able to take in this viking fantasy in one- or two-hour sips, with the occasional four-hour gulp on weekends.

More than that, I found the game to be psychologically beneficial. At the time, I was barely in my mid-20s, in a career I had chosen out of a love for storytelling, but which had frequently turned out to be a cynical juggling act between ethics and private parties’ self-serving agendas. My boss wasn’t shy about calling with advertiser-friendly requests after 8 p.m. The community I had moved to was rural and insular, and I had few friends with whom I could talk about my troubles. Everything outside my apartment door felt like a threat I was powerless against. Game designer and author Jane McGonigal would say I was caught in the throes of low self-efficacy, a mental state in which the sufferer feels they have no ability to affect change in their lives or their world.

Over several sessions with the game, I noticed my outlook change in subtle ways. I found myself drawing parallels between the openness of the game world’s design and the openness of the world I lived in. I began to take long walks to the cow pastures and country houses that sprawled beyond my apartment. After all, what was the world but a particularly vivid game map, with its own hidden wonders? I struck up friendly conversations with strangers. What were they but flesh-and-blood non-player characters, with better dialogue options?

One afternoon on one of my walks, I came across a man desperately trying to extricate his car from a mud puddle as his tween daughter berated him for his ill-advised attempt to take a hatchback off-roading. A few weeks earlier, I might have taken one look at the scene and walked away. Instead, I decided to walk over and help push. And as the tires worked their way out of the mud, I swear I could hear “Skyrim’s” “quest complete” music play in my head.

Are games really a waste of time? Or do they have the power to shape us into better people? In her 2015 book “SuperBetter,” McGonigal argues persuasively for the latter, and constructs a framework for readers to engage in “gameful living.”

McGonigal suffered a concussion in 2009. The effects were severe, and her recovery required her to remain on a strict regimen of bed rest, forbidden to read, write, or go into sunlight for long periods of time. Unable to do any of the things she loved -- or much of anything at all -- she began to experience suicidal thoughts.

So she decided to turn her recovery into a game. The design was simple: Create a secret identity, recruit allies from friends and family, collect “power-ups” that would improve her mood, and complete quests that progressed her toward her ultimate goal of recovery. McGonigal found that, while playing the game didn’t alleviate her symptoms, it gave her a sense of control and a means to measure her progress over the course of her recovery, which improved her psychological outlook.

After her recovery, McGonigal turned her game into the web and phone app “SuperBetter,” which was eventually used in clinical studies of anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University.

The book “SuperBetter” is divided into three parts. The first (and my favorite) dove into the existing research into the psychological benefits of games, including the University of Washington’s research into virtual reality as a pain management tool for burn victims -- a tool that has proven more effective than morphine. The second section details the ins and outs of McGonigal’s “SuperBetter” plan, while the third section offers three comprehensive examples of how the plan might be applied to the specific goals of improving physical fitness, enriching personal relationships, and gaining free time.

McGonigal doesn’t treat games as a panacea, and dedicates a short section to the subject of game addiction. I enjoyed the book throughout, with few exceptions (I found the idea of “creating a secret identity” hokey, and I had to put the book down for a week midway through that chapter).

This is an excellent and well-researched book that could benefit anyone interested in self betterment, but will likely resonate the most with self-identified gamers. If nothing else, the research it details might help you wipe away any guilt over all that time spent on “Candy Crush Saga.”