Reality is broken. Game designers can fix it. — Jane McGonigal
There is a list of games that Shakyamuni Buddha would not play, and that his disciples should likewise not play, because he believed them to be a cause for negligence. That is certainly not how we think of games today.
For video game designer, popular author—and self-identified Buddhist—Jane McGonigal, games represent a fun way to learn, become healthy, and enhance our skills. For architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, the World Game was a tool to facilitate a comprehensive, anticipatory, design science approach to the problems of the world.
For those who study game theory, the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction between rational decision-makers is helpful for predicting behavior. Consider, if you will, the games of political brinksmanship we see daily in the news, or figuring out how folks will behave as our societies start back up after the pandemic.
For sociologists and for anthropologists, games reveal deeper truths about our civilization. Consider, if you will, our global preoccupation with competitive sports and the multi-billion-dollar industries around them, right up to and including the Olympic Games. Suddenly, in a post-pandemic world, some of us are questioning the value of those investments.
In spite of precepts in pretty much every major world religion against gambling, we have no shortage of lotteries, casinos, sports betting, bingo halls, trivia tournaments, and e-sports tournaments. Games are a common trope in our movies, music, and books. Gaming is the platform for much of our human interaction, and a lens through which we evaluate politics, business, education, and so on. We put on our game face; we play the game; we accuse others of headgames when they cross us. This is not a game.
For some, games provide a safe simulacrum for dangerous pastimes with lethal toys. Consider, if you will, the popularity of paintball. Imagine: all the adrenaline of war with none of the fatalities. This multi-million-dollar industry is touted as a great team-building exercise, but I certainly can’t imagine a bunch of bhikshus signing up.
The games we play on our smartphones have eaten up huge swaths of our brainspace. As a high school teacher, I was constantly reminding students to stop playing videogames when they should be working on their projects. As I walked around the class and saw what they were playing, the majority of the games involved violence: killing, domination of others, criminal morality, and the like. Other games fall into a category known as casual games—simple distractions that can be completed in a few minutes. Simple or complex, all these games are designed to be incredibly addictive.
Ironically, as educators, we are encouraged to gamify our curricula in order to match the thinking processes of our students and hold their interest—with apps such as Kahoot!, for example. Forced into massively multi-user online learning by the pandemic, we are quickly learning entire new forms of pedagogy at warp speed. MMORPGs are no longer only the realm of Dungeons & Dragons gamers.
In many instances, games act as a social glue. The goal is not to win, but to enjoy the experience with others. However, that function is increasingly being mediated by interactive digital technology. For example, we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of fully immersive virtual reality, such as the holodecks portrayed on Star Trek; we debate the relative merits of Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets versus competitors; we suffered through the media frenzy around Pokémon GO, an augmented-reality geo-tagging game; we watched the IBM Watson supercomputer beat humans on the Jeopardy quiz show in 2011 and then watched Google DeepMind beat world Go champion Lee Sedol in 2016; we “play” sports at home with our Wii consoles or “brain games” to stave off dementia; and our government-run gambling consortia encourage us to “play responsibly.”
There is an entire field of design devoted to user experience (UX), known as interaction design. As our gaming increasingly involves role playing and simulations, where experience is the commodity and the goal, it has become a key battleground in the attention economy. With the advent of artificial intelligence, chatbots, and humanoid robots, we are edging closer to the uncanny valley. Like all battlefields, it is shrouded in the fog of ambiguity. On one hand, we are enchanted by the possibilities offered by our own intelligence, objectified, externalized, and enhanced. Right now, we are pinning all our hopes on viral wargames and simulations being run by epidemiologists around the world. On the other hand, we see a world in which real life is extraneous and in some ways irrelevant. We ponder a future of cute, disinfectable robot companions for old folks, sex robots for the lusty, and Westworld robots we can kill for sport, all without ethical qualms. We even have Buddhist funerals for robots, not to mention Buddhist monk robots you can order online to officiate at services, and, most recently, the Mindar Kannon robot at Kodai-ji, a temple in Kyoto, Japan.
Back in the real world, sports commentators and runners speak of a Zen-like flow where players are “in the zone.” Buddhist commentators ponder whether or not there is a place for contact sports in Buddhism, while others make movies about the soccer obsession of young Buddhist monks. Magazine articles and documentary films explore the “mind games” that abusive gurus use to build their cults. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of hot topics involving games and Buddhism.
Back in the 1960s, I read Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), by Hermann Hesse (who also wrote the immensely popular Siddhartha), a wonderful novel presenting the protagonist’s early spiritual journey as a process of interdisciplinary harmonization, a vision that still resonates for me. I find his vision much like the metaphor of Indra’s net from Huayan Chinese Buddhism, or the concept of Namgyal in Vajrayana Buddhism.
The big questions here are: how do we navigate through mainstream contemporary ideas about games to harmonize our cultural reality with a truly Buddhist understanding? We can’t simply say “no games.” How do we wean ourselves off of samsaric involvement in games (especially violent ones) with relevant Dharma teachings? And how do we incorporate positive aspects of our gaming nature (Homo ludens) into our Dharma practice?
Virtually all the games sold today that promote themselves as “Buddhist” are variations on the concept of karma: Buddhawheel (Emily Preece, 2005); 7 Desires (The Game Crafter, 2017); Karmaka (Hemisphere Games, 2nd edition due in 2020); Mieses Karma (KOSMOS, 2011); Samsara (Oka Iuda Editions, 2018); and Sick Boardgame of Karma! (Homosapiens Lab, 2018). You start off in some bad rebirth and then have to work yourself up to Buddhahood. Personally, I’d rather play Go.
Let’s go back, for a moment, to Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, a big idea he proposed in the 1960s. His goal: “Make the world work, for 100 per cent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” At the time, he was considered a marginal figure best known for his geodesic domes. Now, however, his systemic philosophy has become foundational to solving our existential crisis. If you’re not familiar with his work, I recommend it highly and I think you will find it resonates very well with a Buddhist perspective.
Jane McGonigal is director of Game Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, and she has put a lot of thought into how each of us can think like a futurist. Since none of us knows the outcome of the future, we are all in on the massively multiplayer forecasting game. And since the life of our planet depends on our actions, this is one game that deserves every bodhisattva’s full attention.
Hesse, Hermann. 1943. The Glass Bead Game. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin.