Crisis of Faith and Faith Reborn

After publishing Zen Fire, I realized that it had been so long since I played games regularly that I didn’t really feel qualified to keep making them. So I decided to go on tour and revisit many of my favorite games of the past, plus check out some of the recent offerings in the industry.

I discovered something odd. While I often enjoyed playing the games, I didn’t like who I was when I was playing them. I became hyperactive, egocentric, short-tempered, megalomaniacal, and self-critical. In short, anti-Buddhist. Not *all* games make me feel that way, and my recent battles with Seasonal Effective Disorder and the depression that comes with it were also in the mix. But I had to ask myself, “Is this really the transformation I want to inspire in other people?”

Even a cursory read through any gaming design theory emphasizes the paramount importance of making games as addictive as possible. As someone who has experienced long-term video game addiction, Only the inexperienced imagine that quitting heroin or smoking is any harder. I was full aware that I was destroying my school career, my romantic relationship, and almost anything else of real value in my life, and it was only a tiny, tiny part of me that still cared. When I finally quit, the feeling of loss was so overpowering that it felt like 90% of my reason for living was gone. Everything else, including school, eating, relationships, *and* fighting the addition long enough to escape it, had to come out of that remaining 10%. For the Rest of My Life to slowly re-inflated back to normal took months. Was this an extreme case? Yes and No. Do I want to do this to someone else?


Added onto the fact that I really don’t play games much myself anymore, I had to ask myself, “why am I doing this?” Particularly, why am I doing this when I’m taking a substantial financial and career risk for something so unpredictable and potentially unethical?

If the answer were as clear cut as some gaming critics claim it is, there wouldn’t be any conflict. But games and gaming *do* have real value, and they are as much a part of being human as friendship, family, and community, and play integral roles in all those relationships. But it was still hard to get behind what I was doing with these doubts in my mind, and I knew that my success was 100% dependent on the laser-like focus of Total Commitment.

One idea I’d had for a while was to create games that *teach* people about all the techniques of manipulation that are being fielded against them. I also want to teach people about politics (where similar techniques have always been used) and things that would make a real difference in their lives but that they have trouble with emotionally like budgeting. These were all good ideas, but perversely, they weren’t something I felt like doing for my First Major Project.

But, thanks to Jane McGonigal, I think I’ve found the Path to Redemption. In her book Reality is Broken, she shows how people are already starting to use the billions of hours per week (no exaggeration) that people devote to gaming to solve real world problems. People are never going to stop playing games (the book claims that 97% of US children play games), but the things that make gaming so much fun can be used to help motivate us to do great things in real life. In fact, the neuroscience of what makes games so enjoyable is actually about the most cutting edge of any of its kind, and there’s no reason those techniques can’t be used to make positive changes in the real world. Two excellent examples are Jane’s own Superbetter, a game that helps injured and sick people recover and achieve physical and emotional goals, and the World Peace Game, a hands-on 3-level model where elementary school children take on the roles of world leaders in order to solve all the same problems that have plagued us throughout history. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone did *that* in primary school?

And there’s one Big Thing I’m realizing, despite having not finished the book. I already had an inkling of how this might work after playing the fabulous Game Dev Story, an adorable (and addictive!) game about making games.

What I really need to do to overcome my lack of focus is to transform the process not only of game-making, but of my entire life and career change, into a game.

Stay tuned for details!

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