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Games evangelists and naysayers

A new study suggests Tetris might help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Not Tetris 2

(Correction: This article initially misquoted the “Play, don’t replay” webpage as saying “this simple trick” when in fact it says “this simple technique”. I apologise for this error.)

A few days ago, renowned game designer, author, and speaker Jane McGonigal launched a new project on her website called “Play, don’t replay! HELP PREVENT PTSD(Update: McGonigal has updated the wording of the website since this column was posted. The original can be found here. ) Its stated goal is to get trauma victims to play a pattern-matching videogame such as Tetris or Candy Crush Saga as soon as possible after the traumatising event to potentially prevent ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder.

The aim of the project is to have as many people as possible know about “this simple technique” so that they can pull it out themselves in case they suffer a traumatic event. Not because it works, mind, but because it might work, and McGonigal wants people to try it themselves and then provide feedback. She has asked her 59,000 twitter followers to share and retweet the project multiple times. There is an email address you can provide your results to once you try it out.

On the surface, the project is clearly well-intentioned. Who wouldn’t want to help prevent or ease the suffering of PTSD? However, in the tone of the post, the presentation of the science, and the demands for crowdsourcing test subjects, it is a shockingly irresponsible and unethical project. It is a project through which we can vividly see all the problems with what I’m going to call the “games evangelism industry”. This is an industry of individuals and organisations that has a self-aggrandising need to convince both others and itself that games are good and can fix problems and, to paraphrase the title of McGonigal’s own book, can save the world.

I’m going to look at the problems with this particular project in more detail then return to this idea of a games evangelism industry and why it deserves our scepticism.

First, the necessary caveats about the science that McGonigal is working from: I don’t doubt for a moment the integrity of the study (pdf) that McGonigal cites. There is little doubt that playing small games can be useful to distract people from various things. That such a technique might help ease PTSD is a commendable avenue of research.

However, to take one controlled test where forty participants watched a twelve-minute film and present this as definitive proof that this approach should be trialed by everyone in the uncontrolled real world is an unethical way to conduct research. Of course, the writers of the study don’t make such claims. They, of course, note that further research is required and that maybe this technique could be employed by emergency services responding in the early post-trauma period. McGonigal, however, doesn’t share their restraint. She wants everyone doing this right away. She wants a #Kony2012-esque social media campaign to get 100,000 people to read her blog post. She thinks it irresponsible to sit around and wait for definitive results. She even goes so far as to label those that voice valid concerns about the project as “games naysayers” and compares them to climate change deniers.

The project is an unethical way to both present findings and to gather research data. Further, it trivialises the realities of PTSD. McGonigal runs with the study’s wording of Tetris as a potential “vaccine”. But you wouldn’t take a potential vaccine for any disease and distribute it to everyone after a single clinical trial. Why should PTSD be treated with any less seriousness? Responding to a comment on the post questioning the approach, McGonigal cites her own suffering of flashbacks and nightmares after a traumatic experience to demonstrate her good intentions (intentions which I do not doubt for a moment that she has). Yet, she wants everyone to try this because it might work. She doesn’t stop to think that one test on forty people in a controlled environment is not enough to rule out that sticking Tetris or Candy Crush Saga under the nose of someone who has just had a traumatic experience could potentially be harmful for some people (especially considering Candy Crush Saga is not even mentioned in the study itself!).

Further, and crucially, in her desire to implement this project in the real world, she makes no attempt to compare or contrast this method of battling PTSD with existing methods. It doesn’t matter. The point is that it proves games can be used for good.

In this project we see one of the most vivid examples of the games evangelism industry where it is more important for games to be seen as good than to critically ask what might be good about them and whether something that isn’t games might be better. I don’t use the word “industry” lightly. People like McGonigal and organisations like Games for Change, despite being a non-profit organisation, directly benefit from advancing the notion that games are useful tools for social change. They provide a veneer of respectability for a far broader (and lucrative) “gamification” industry where expertise quickly translates into speaking events, consultancy roles, and book deals. The games evangelists tap into a growing enthusiasm around games and create a need for a particular type of games expert that they themselves are then perfectly positioned to fill. All while the “social change” games they advocate just as often merely reinstates the status quo than actually challenge it.

Which isn’t to say games can’t facilitate positive social change. Of course they can! But the priority quickly shifts from actually making games that do this (which have existed for a very long time), to clutching at any argument that might further prove how games are useful and how these people and organisations are necessary. To the games evangelists, games become hammers and all the world starts to look like a nail.

And, of course, you can’t disagree with them. What? Do you want PTSD victims to suffer? Why don’t you want to make the world a safer place? Why are you being so negative about this? Do you hate games and play? What is wrong with you? Games evangelists trade in inspiration; to question their ideas is to questions their inspiration. In McGonigal’s own terms, anyone who dares disagree with the uncritically optimistic outlook of games evangelists is a “Games Naysayer” and any criticism of their projects, like that presented here, is negated. After all, she’s just trying to help.

It is tempting to want to believe games are fundamentally positive things. Especially, of course, if your livelihood is dependent on games in one form or another. The various responses to McGonigal’s post on twitter highlight this thirst to believe that games are good. It’s intoxicating. After decades of the mainstream media and our parents alike telling us that games are bad, developers and players alike want to believe that, after all this time, this hobby that we’ve devoted ourselves to is good.

But just as films can be works of art, Nazi propaganda, or both, games are never ever only one thing. They are no less capable of being “bad” as they are of being “good”. Or, even, they don’t have to be “bad”, but maybe, just maybe, in any given situation there might be something else that is better. That McGonigal’s latest project doesn’t even attempt to compare Tetris to pre-existing methods of treating PTSD reveals that the highest priority is highlighting the significance of games is a much higher priority than actually helping anyone.

Uncritical evangelism is unhelpful, and it only benefits those who are evangelising. “Play, don’t Replay!” is, on the surface, a grassroots online activity to raise awareness. I don’t doubt that this is exactly what McGonigal, with the best of intentions, sees it as. But it is also a means to crowdsource research via the free labour of trauma sufferers while drastically overstating the results of a single study in order to advance a personal agenda. Like any project, it demands scepticism and criticism; its positive intentions don’t exempt it. But dare ask a question about the methods or the science of the project and, no, you are merely a games naysayer.

Almost as a counterweight to the lawmakers and media personalities that use a single clinical trial to prove games are fundamentally evil, the evangelists use a single clinical trial to prove that games are fundamentally benevolent. “Play, don’t Replay!” is just another example of games evangelists twisting a study into a nail to advance their own hammer under the guise of saving the world, and it’s something that people should be cynical about.

If being a games naysayer means thinking critically about the place of games in society and not overreaching the findings of individual studies, I for one will gladly be a games naysayer.

(My thanks to Mary Hamilton and Dan Golding for providing feedback on a previous draft of this column. My thanks, too, to the various people I’ve had conversations with about this project over the past few days that have helped to shape the arguments I make here. That said, the views shared in this column reflect mine alone.)