Monthly Archives: March 2010

Learning the Game of Life

If only it were so simple...

In my last post, I talked about the “magic number”—10,000 hours, the amount of dedicated practice time that it requires to become a master at a certain skill.  I reference the fact that as it stands currently, the average gamer will have 10,000 hours of gaming experience under his belt by age 21.  We are all, in fact, experts at gaming.  But what does being an expert gamer actually teach me?

Learning With Your Hands

In the comments on the last post, my father reminded me of a special we both saw which talked about laparoscopic surgery.  Laparoscopic surgery is a form of surgical procedure in which rather than slicing open the patient completely, the surgeon makes several small, nickel-sized incisions and inserts a tiny camera underneath the patients skin.  He then uses these complicated tools as his “hands” to perform surgery—including cutting, cauterizing, and stitching.  It’s much less invasive than traditional surgery, and the recovery time is much quicker.  It was of special interest to the two of us at the time, since my father had just undergone a laparoscopic procedure in his shoulder.

I imagine most of you have guessed the punchline.  The special indicated that surgeons who play video games have a higher success rate at performing laparoscopic surgery than surgeons who didn’t play regularly.  And we’re not just talking about a small increase here—we’re talking about performing surgery 27% faster, and with 37% fewer errors. That’s a tremendous difference when we’re talking about errors in surgery.  With numbers like that, wouldn’t you want to know you were being operated on by a gamer?

If you think about it, the connection between the experience of gaming and the experience of performing laparoscopic surgery is not a hard one to draw.  Laparoscopy involves using complicated tools to make fine, careful movements, and your only guide as to how you’re doing is—you guessed it—an image on a video screen.  I imagine it surprises no one that these are skills that you can develop by playing a lot of video games.  Only the staunchest anti-video game activists would ever argue that you can’t learn hand-eye coordination from a video game.  But can games teach us more than that?

Learning With Your Heart

Some time ago I read an article on Wired which you may have read also—it made the rounds on a lot of WoW related blogs.  The article was titled You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!

This article is packed FULL of choice quotes, but let me reproduce the most important one here:

In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in the workplace.

I ran a World of Warcraft guild myself, for a while—a small one, back in The Burning Crusade.  We never got further than Karazhan, and eventually we dissolved into a larger raiding guild; my WoW playing these days is much more low-pressure.  But that brief time, along with my experience as an officer in previous guilds, prepared me better for the workplace than any previous job I had ever had.

Or to put it in more absolute terms: Being a WoW guildmaster is better “management experience” than any non-management job.

Everyone is familiar with the old catch-22 of the working world: you can’t get hired until you have experience, and  you can’t get experience until you get hired.  I daresay that if the people who do the hiring can learn to recognize it, this could present a very real solution to this age-old problem.

So we’ve talked about how gaming can make you a better artisan (physical), and how gaming can make you a better manager (social).  What does this leave?  Could gaming teach you to better perform complicated mental tasks as well?

Learning With Your Head

At GDC I was afforded the opportunity to have dinner with the author of Lost Garden, one of my favorite gaming blogs ever.  One of the things he mentioned at dinner was his recent creation of a game called Ribbon Hero.  Danc has written a post explaining it here, but as before I’d like to reproduce a relevant quote:

Ribbon Hero, in part, was born from a speech I gave back in October 2007 on applying the design lessons of Super Mario Bros. to application design. I made the following bet:

  • If an activity can be learned…
  • If the player’s performance can be measured…
  • If the player can be rewarded or punished in a timely fashion…
  • Then any activity that meets these criteria can be turned into a game.

Not only can you make a game out of the activity, but you can turn tasks traditionally seen as a rote or frustrating into compelling experiences that users find delightful.

Danc also posted the slides from the original speech, which you can download in PDF format.  Danc puts together great slides, so I recommend these highly.

The fact is, genuinely powerful computer applications are incredibly complicated.  At one point I went to school to learn how to use Pro Tools, and the teachers there had all been working as professionals in the recording industry for years—and yet I still managed to show my teacher a useful Pro Tools shortcut he didn’t know about.  The level of complexity in an app like Photoshop is unbelievable, and let’s be honest—the manuals aren’t doing anyone any favors.  Pro Tools for Dummies is 720 pages long.

But if you can make it into a game, I can learn it.  Not only can I learn it, but I can learn it quickly and permanently—in a way that I retain over the long term—and I will have fun doing it.  And as Danc explains in the slides linked above, it’s not even that difficult.  It all hinges on the idea of exploratory learning.

The modern conception of user interface design centers around the concept that users are dumb.  The oft-repeated mantra is “Don’t make me think!” UIs are built around the idea that people are stupid.  As Danc writes, “Sit in on any usability test and your subjects will flail about, click on the wrong things and ignore most obvious visual cues. We assume that users are idiots because we see them behave like idiots whenever we test them.”

But users AREN’T idiots.  The level of skill involved in effectively organizing and defeating a high level raid in World of Warcraft are on par with the skills required to do high level photoshop work, or complicated audio editing in Pro Tools.  And yet I know 10 or 15 people who can effectively execute a high level raid in WoW, and only 2 or 3 who can do pro audio editing, and 2 or 3 who know their way around Photoshop—because unlike WoW, I can’t learn Pro Tools or Photoshop as a game.

But…what if I could?

The Power of Games

Cracked posted an article a few days ago, entitled 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying To Get You Addicted.  Danc puts a more positive spin on the same concept when he says, “It turns out that games are carefully tuned machines that hack into human being’s most fundamental learning processes. Games are exercises in applied psychology at a level far more nuanced than your typical application.”  David Wong from Cracked writes about how these powers can be used for evil.  But Jane McGonigal from TED talks to us about how they can be used for good.

So the big question: We can use the principles of game design to do more than entertain.  How are we going to use them to educate, to train, to build social and emotional skills, and to make the world a better place?


Casey Monroe, World-Class Gaming Expert

Some of you may know that in addition to writing this blog, I am also the editor of the Wowhead Blog.  One of our volunteer staffers on Wowhead is a guy named Evgeni Kirilov (known on the site as ArgentSun) who I work with a lot.  He wrote a post two days ago that I would have written if I had gotten the chance to get it down on paper first.  The post is here: Gaming Can Make a Better World

The core theme of the post is a talk from TED by a speaker named Jane McGonigal.  You can watch the video embedded in that blog post, or you can watch the video directly on the TED website here, but in either case I encourage you to watch—I found it to be incredibly meaningful.

Jane’s speech contains a number of points which I found extremely compelling.  She mentions a statistic unearthed by a researcher at Carnegie-Mellon: that the average 21 year old, in a country with a “strong gamer culture” has 10,000 hours of gaming experience under his belt.

This isn’t just an arbitrary number, she draws two meaningful parallels:

  • 10,000 hours is roughly the amount of time a student will spend in school from 5th grade to high school graduation, if the student has perfect attendance.
  • 10,000 hours is the “magic number” that Malcolm Gladwell arrives at in his book Outliers, as the amount of time it takes for someone to achieve mastery in a certain skill.

I’d like to go into a little more detail about this than Ms. McGonigal did.  I read Outliers some time ago and enjoyed it a great deal, and was delighted to be able to draw a parallel between it and gaming.  In chapter 2, The 10,000 Hour Rule, Gladwell talks in great detail about the formulas for success, and one of the conclusions he comes to is summed up in this quote from neurologist David Levitin:

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.  In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up agin and again.  Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do.  But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.  It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Mr. Gladwell’s book is a delightful read, and I encourage you all to look into that as well—for all of its merits, not just its relevancy to gaming.  Gladwell makes one more point later in the chapter that I wish to reproduce:

“The other interesting thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time.  It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult.  You have to have parents who encourage and support you.  You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough.  In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program—like a hockey all-star squad—or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.”

Now, looking at that paragraph, look back up at that image and read that statistic again.

What this means is that people all over the country, and the world, are putting in that tremendous, difficult, onerous, magical number of hours learning a specific skill—gaming—without even meaning to. We didn’t even realize it, but we are part of an entire generation of World-Class Expert Gamers.

Up next: What do we do with all this expertise?

GDC 2010: T-Shirts and Sport Coats

Last week, my brother and I drove up to San Francisco for the Game Developer’s Conference.  It’s the first time I’ve attended the GDC in San Francisco, though I did attend the GDC in Austin two years ago.  My brother Will has attended several at this point—on the drive up to San Francisco I am deferring to him, asking him about his approach.  This year he isn’t even buying a GDC pass—instead, he spends the whole week flitting back and forth between the W hotel bar and the Intercontinental, making friends with strangers.  I’ve bought the Expo pass, the only one I could afford.

The floor at Gamma IV.

GDC is not a user-facing conference.  It’s a conference oriented towards people who make games, not just people who play them—not like E3 used to be.  Everyone who comes here comes here to meet people.  But it isn’t until after I’ve been here for a few days that I start to realize the strange dichotomy that splits the conference down the middle: some are here to meet new people so they can exchange ideas, and some are here to meet new people so they can do business.

Will calls them “T-Shirts and Sport Coats”.

Both Will and I are at the conference this year wearing our sport coats.  In deference to style, we’re wearing our sport coats over t-shirts—mine has the Wowhead logo, his says “I Am Trustworthy And Have Excellent References.”  Will is there as a talent scout, looking to find IPs to pass on to the producer he’s working for, in the hopes of optioning them for a movie.  I’m here to start building my own network in the game industry—to try and meet some people outside of the tiny corner of the MMO Industry that represents the entirety of my experience at Wowhead.  By the end of the conference I have collected 52 business cards, and am struggling to remember who is who.  Every night I am looking through the stack, entering the information into the contacts list on my computer, trying to read the notes I’ve scribbled on the back of the card.  I know I’m not the only one.

But there are a number of people I see at the conference who aren’t there to form business relationships.  Over the course of the conference I meet the people wearing T-shirts—people who are there to learn about new development technology, people who are there to talk shop with other artists or designers, people who are there to listen to the talks from prominent game industry figures.  My expo pass doesn’t get me in to see any of the talks, so I content myself with devouring the constant stream of GDC-related tweets coming down the pipe (the battery on my phone just barely lasting to the end of each day).

I attend parties (some invited, some otherwise), shake hands, and exchange business cards.  I ask everyone what they’re working on (which I later find out is a GDC noob mistake, since so many developers are under NDA).  I wear my sport coat proudly, and I think I wear it well.

One night, something strange happens.  My brother and I are attending a dinner at a nearby wine bar, with some (old and new) friends in the game industry.  We sit and talk with Adam, an old bandmate who now does iPhone/iPad development.  I finally meet Daniel Cook of Lost Garden, and Darius Kazemi of Tiny Subversions, as well as five or six other designers, developers and game industry professionals sitting around the table, and the conversation is…different.  We’re not networking—we’re just talking.  We’re talking about our ideas, our love of the art form, our belief in the potential of the future of gaming, the insight that games offer into the human condition.  We’re just sitting and talking about games—and it feels good.  After days and days of making contacts, suddenly I am making friends.  It feels relaxed.  It feels natural.  It feels, in fact, just like changing out of my sport coat and back into a t-shirt.

That night I decide not to attend any parties.  As I ride back into Burlingame on the BART, where Eric—the old friend I’m staying with—lives, I realize that this whole week I’ve been wearing my sport coat with a t-shirt underneath.  I’m here to network, and I guess I have to be, for now.  But underneath, the reason why I’m really here—not just at the conference, but in the industry at all—I’m here because I love games, and I love being with people who love games.

After this point, the networking changes. I’m getting to know people, now, not just job descriptions. I’m attending parties to have fun.  I’m asking people about what they’re playing, rather than what they’re working on, and suddenly the whole conference makes sense.

That night, when I arrive at Eric’s house, I set aside the stack of business cards waiting to be entered.  Instead, Will and Eric and I stay up until four AM playing Borderlands.  It feels right.

Live From GDC!

I’m going to be spending this week in San Francisco, at the Game Developer’s Conference.  Anyone reading this who happens to be attending, I’d love to meet up with you to talk about games.  There are a lot of people here I’m excited to meet in person for the first time.

For those of you who cannot attend, or who are wondering how to reach me, you can always follow my Twitter account at @Malgayne.  Hope to see you there!