The difference between the real world and the virtual world

Just watched Jane McGonigal‘s Gaming Can Make a Better World video. Pretty interesting talk and a novel idea that gaming can improve or even solve some of the world’s biggest issues. But I am skeptical of this idea that online gaming is beneficial on a large “let’s solve the world’s problems” scale. I wish Jane had touched more on how gamers would apply the 4 things (mentioned in the video) that they are “virtually” good at in real world scenarios. The examples she gave of “real” world problem video games were all in actuality, virtual. If you know something is not real, no matter how real it is simulated to be, I don’t think you can ever attach the same gravity of consequences and level of responsibility that an actual real situation would. Even if you are socially interacting with real people in online games, noone is actually going to die if you give the wrong advice or make the wrong decision. Virtual problem solving is so popular because it is just that…..virtual. I’m not convinced that it is possible to just jump over to reality in applying these virtual game skills and approaches to problems. Nor do I think it should be possible, lest we start under-appreciating real life consequences. I think oxymoron when I hear the term “virtual reality” because to me, they are two completely separate worlds.

This is not to say I am against virtual games, I do think they have benefits. They help us learn the mechanisms of problem solving and they provide an escape from the real world. I just don’t see the same level of benefits that Jane insists are present through online gaming. In fact I have the opposite view. In her article Be a Gamer, Save the World, Jane says “the real world just doesn’t offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments”. Do you know the first things that popped into my mind when I read this?

Carefully designed pleasures: Picture a delisciously juicy fresh from the oven deer tenderloin, stuffed with goat cheese and rosemary, served with a cranberry port wine sauce. It was from a young buck that I got with my husband this past December that we butchered and processed at home. The pleasure as I cut into it and put the first juicy morsel in my mouth, the creamy goatcheese mingling with the earthy melt-in-your-mouth tenderness of the meat, dripping with sweet succulent sauce, is what comes to mind when I see this phrase. There is no way I would get this excited about any achievements in WoW, or even getting all acheivements for that matter.

Thrilling challenges: So I’m going to geek out here for a minute, but not virtually. I mean geek out in the real world. I think of my dissertation project as a thrilling challenge, really I do. I’m using a model to predict the effects of sea-level rise, it’s a novel model that incorporates dynamic sea-level rise, meaning it doesn’t just assume that everything will be flooded at a certain level of rise. It accounts for differences in groundwater levels, slope, elevation, substrate, vegetation, tide levels, and a myriad other variables that make sea-level rise a dynamic process. I am tempted to write pages more as I sit here blogging, truly I am. This is a thrilling challenge to me.

Powerful social bonding: I don’t know about you, but interacting socially online has never given me butterflies in my stomach, made me cry out of sheer joy, or made me think I can’t possibly live on without someone. I won’t discount this blog just yet, but so far, only some very important people in my real life have made me feel these strong emotions. This to me is powerful social bonding. Asking an online player to help you beat a mage is not.


I’m still going to try some of the games on  Jane’s website, and I will read further on her research. But at this point, I am not convinced that online gaming is all that and the real world is really that bad. Because to me, the real world is awesome and I am constantly amazed by its wonders. Maybe I am just too optimistic.

Convince me otherwise! I want to hear your stories about how you think online gaming can help make the world a better place. And particularly, how it fits into education and current pedagogical practices compared to practices that present students with real-world situations.