Do you consider Puzzle Pirates a guilty pleasure? Do you find yourself constantly apologizing for the amount of time you spend on the ocean? Is the YPP client’s “No pizza for you!” reminder a frequent visitor to your screen?
Apololize no more. Turns out, you are our hope for the future.
Skeptical? Watch this video: Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world (transcript).
McGonigal’s thesis, put simply, is that in the virtual worlds of online multiplayer role-playing games, participants get in a state of mind more conducive to cooperative problem solving than they do in the real world. Gamers experience what she calls “urgent optimism,” the sense that a problem must be solved, will be a challenge to solve, and that they are indeed capable of solving it. They may experience frustration–with game design, with players who don’t cooperate maybe–but not overwhelm or despair.
Admittedly, McGonigal is talking about games in the style of World of Warcraft, where the stories are epic and the stakes are high. Puzzle Pirates are rarely asked to save their archipelago from a world-threatening evil in the same sense that WoW players must repulse threats to Azeroth. Yet the many potential goals of YPP do require certain problem-solving skills nonetheless, the successful application of which produce satisfaction and enjoyment. Think about the last time you bubbled to the top of a duty report, or that one time you and your crew fended off superior numbers in a brigand melee. A close SF victory absolutly puts that “gamer on the verge of an epic win” expression on your face.
So, granted that YPP players, just like other gamers, enjoy epic wins and experience urgent optimism–where does that lead?
It leads to a place very different from real life. Global problems can make you feel small, helpless, unable to make a difference. Thinking about them can be depressing–so you try not to think about them. But have you ever been depressed thinking about engaging in sea battle with a brigand king? Not just discouraged–“Man, Barnabas always has way too many skellies, is this even possible?”–but actually depressed, such that it’s painful to think about it at all?
(And don’t you eventually go from discouraged to inventive? “Of course it’s possible. Crews have beaten Barnabas before. Maybe if we teamed up differently, like maybe chose three GM+ SFers to go solo and produce some quick insta-kills, would that help? Or maybe if we… or if we… or…”)
What if there were a way to reliably invoke the “urgent optimism” of the gamer mindset in response to real-world problems?
McGonigal suggests designing games such they output real-world solutions. For example, in her alternate reality game “World Without Oil,” players developed fuel-scarcity habits which they held onto long after the game was over. And in the role-playing game Urgent Evoke, your stats are based on your own problem solving skills and your experience points are earned by completing “missions” which drive real-life communities toward addressing global issues such as food security, pandemic response, and economic recovery. (For more about games that change the world see this interview with McGonigal in Wired Magazine.)
What skills do you use in Puzzle Pirates that might be applied to the world outside your computer screen?