This week, TED, offered up a fascinating lecture by game designer and futurist, Jane McGonigal. Particularly interesting is the bit starting around 12:30 where she relays Herodotus’s tales of gaming in the Lydian empire (circa the 12th century BC).
According to the (possibly apocryphal) tale, Lydians survived a famine by alternating days of playing dice games with days of feasting, to preserve resources. This allowed them to live for 18 years through a resource shortage, before playing one final game of chance to decide the civilization’s terms of exodus.
Herotodus’s chronicle could not be a more relevant historical anecdote today. There are literally millions of teenagers and 20-somethings who are either un or underemployed, who use gaming as a money-saving means of entertainment, not to mention an effective mental respite from their increasingly intolerable real lives.
While online communities such as World of Warcraft or Second Life were originally conceived of as modes entertainment, they also serve the role of facilitating survival. When food is sparse and work is elusive, there are fewer more efficient (and enjoyable) ways of spending a day than gaming while remotely connecting to a network of peers often in similar situations. And all of this is available for a meager monthly subscription fee that offers unlimited access to these worlds.
While McGongall’s lecture attempts to sell an optimistic vision of this trend, somehow hoping for a future in which we harness gamers’ collective intelligence to solve world problems, the near future seems a more likely forum for using gaming as economic hibernation.
Of course this theme isn’t new to the cyberpunk genre. While The Matrix contains the most obvious reference to gamers in hibernation, James Cameron’s Strange Days also included virtual reality as a sanctuary from a distopian future. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash told tales of impoverished pizza delivery boys living in glorified storage pods with little more than a ‘metaverse’ jack on the wall for entertainment.
This is becoming present day reality at a very alarming rate. While it’s very noble for the rosy McGongall to seek out a way for humanity to utilize these lives cast away to the Internets, perhaps we should begin to wonder how we’ve allowed our society to deteriorate to the point that a mass hibernation is a rational reaction to it.
Originally posted on Technorati.