Grand Theft Utopia

What can video games teach us about community?

It’s Friday night. I’m cruising toward the highway that leads out of Los Santos. The sun is dropping behind the mountains as I flip through radio stations to find the perfect soundtrack for an evening drive.

Suddenly, I spot a woman waving in distress at the side of the road. I pull over to help. Her friend is in trouble, she urges me, and so I hurry toward an old clapboard house. Bad move. From around the corner, three thugs brandish pistols. My heart rate spikes. They shout at me, take aim, and — bang! bang! bang!

I slump back in my sofa. Game over.

I’ve just been beaten by Grand Theft Auto 5, the infamous video game. My act of virtual altruism only got me wasted. As I drop the PlayStation controller on the coffee table, I wonder: What kind of lesson is that?

The moral of the video game industry tends to be that mayhem makes money. In 2013, the latest of the GTA franchise earned a billion dollars in its first three days. Video games have surpassed Hollywood blockbusters as the most profitable — and influential — mass entertainment on the planet. So, you’re not alone to worry about a generation weaned on shoot-outs and car-jackings, even if it’s “just” pixels on a screen. Even if it’s “just” a game.

Is there anything more to video games’ popularity than violent fantasies and mindless escape? Can they ever teach us about who we are as a community and how we can be better? As a father and a teacher struggling to instill values in my kids and my students — who were all born, it seems, clutching video-game controllers — I wanted to find out.

* * *

Stereotypes can be hard to break. Ask outsiders to imagine an “intentional community member,” and they likely picture a neo-hippy in a graying ponytail or peasant dress, passing the kombucha around the talking circle. The same prejudice applies to “video gamer,” a phrase that conjures visions of pimply-faced teenagers killing zombies in their parents’ rec-room. Both caricatures miss the variety of people who care about community or are passionate about video games.

Video games have come a long way since I played Pong and Pac Man at the suburban arcade. Today, 95 per cent of young people play digital games — on consoles, computers, tablets or smartphones. They campaign in World of Warcraft for hours at a stretch. They snack on Words With Friends or Clash of Clans in snatches of downtime. Games are everywhere.

Games have evolved, too. From crude two-dimensional origins, they’ve become sophisticated high-def simulations that immerse players in virtual worlds. Games have also become social. Kids once played their Atari alone or with a buddy in the basement. Now the Internet connects gamers around the world for massive multiplayer online tournaments.

Aside from superficial socializing, though, what do virtual games share with real communities? Wouldn’t kids be better off learning how to garden than tending digital crops in FarmVille? Probably. Still, a good game and a good home share the same philosophy. To live “intentionally” requires hacking the operating system of conventional society. It means being conscious of how our choices affect the people and environment around us. It means embracing interactivity. It means learning from failure and always aiming higher. The same values are hard-wired into how video games reward success.

So-called “simulation” or “god games” tap into our human instinct to build a better world. Back in 1981, Mattel released Utopia, in which players micro-managed private islands, from backwater to paradise, by adding farms, houses, schools, hospitals — and surviving random hurricanes. Simulation games later took off when players could manage urban growth in SimCity or virtual families in The Sims. Millions of gamers got hooked on the strategy of Sid Meier’s Civilization games, now used in classrooms to teach world history. The rise of European “resource” board games, like Settlers of Catan and Agricola, satisfies that same desire to cultivate a thriving community. The takeaway? Creating utopia isn’t easy.

The most popular video game, in fact, is a giant sandbox for world building. Launched in Sweden, Minecraft has become a global phenomenon. (Try calling a 10-year-old boy to dinner during a Minecraft session.) Online players collaborate to construct virtual castles and elaborate edifices that would awe any architect. Millions of young Minecraft’ers are learning to work together for a common goal. It’s no wonder tech-savvy teachers integrate this co-op “game” into classrooms, too.

There is now a rich subculture of alternative games with a social conscience: Educational games, serious games, health games, newsgames, games for change — these forward-thinking games are to a shoot-em-up like Call of Duty what an ecovillage is to suburbia. These games provoke thought and solve problems. They help players make scientific discoveries (FoldIt), reflect on economic injustice (Spent), address mental illness (Depression Quest), learn Middle East diplomacy (PeaceMaker), question military policy (September 12) or stay fit (Zombies, Run!).

And they are the medium through which our next generation of leaders often thinks about the world.

* * *

Video games appeal to our inner hero. Games lead young players on epic quests, even as their real lives get boxed-in by over-anxious guardians. Teens like to play Grand Theft Auto, one friend told me, because it’s their only chance to explore a city without adult supervision. Video games should remind us of the importance of imaginative free play — a dirty word to type-A parents who fret about kids “wasting time” instead of burnishing pre-college CVs.

Play, however, is fundamental to psychological development and community building. We dismiss it at our peril. Already, we have banished play from our streets and even our playgrounds, re-designed as danger-free zones by liability lawyers. Then we push our kids into organized sports — the fastest way to vacuum fun from play. (It’s happening in video games, too, where “e-sports” offer cash prizes.) Games join disparate individuals into what Bernie De Koven, the guru of the New Games movement in the 1970s, calls “communities of play.”

Two summers ago, I witnessed the power of play at Findhorn, in northern Scotland, where a non-competitive board game, called The Transformation Game, complements the ecovillage’s spiritual practices. A few hours playing shed more insight on my life and relationships than months of therapy could. Every year or two, Findhorn turns its Universal Hall into a giant board for a multi-day, community-wide “planetary game” played with props and costumes.

I know of no other community that integrates a game so deeply into its social fabric. (Football in Texas doesn’t count.) While you can download The Transformation Game’s famous Angel Cards as an app, I doubt the designers will launch a version for the Xbox or Playstation. Findhorn remains proof that a community that plays together stays together.

If you worry about the messages in the medium of video games, you should pick up a controller to sort the good from the bad. I did that recently with my eight-year-old son. He watched me play Journey, an artfully animated game with a moody Grammy-nominated soundtrack. I navigated a faceless avatar in a flowing robe through desert ruins and dark caverns. The game felt like a metaphor for life — a lonely sojourn towards a distant peak of enlightenment. Via the Internet, I was joined by a second player, whose identity, age, and even gender remained shrouded in mystery. We could only communicate through spiraling dance and wordless song. Should I follow this enigmatic figure? Or go my own way?

I couldn’t decide. Frustrated with my dithering, my son told me to tag along with the stranger. “Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to trust other people.”

Out of the mouths of babes. And of games.

Ultimately, I realized, the hard line between our “real world” and our “virtual playground” has blurred — and that’s fine. If we want to build better communities, though, we also need to build better games. In the 21st century, the two will likely go hand in hand.

[Originally written for Communities magazine.]