Tuesday, October 12, 2010

5 books, group selection, depression, suffering, and games

One of my favourite websites of late is FiveBooks. The premise of the site is simple: Every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject.  It's a simple project done well and well worth reading.

In July, I read Jonathan Haidt's five book selections on Happiness and I ever since I've been expanding the connections that he's made into a wider frame of reference to include some thoughts I've been having about games.

But before I get into games, I want to highlight a particular passage from Jonathan's Haidti's interview where he casually drops some ideas that are largely heretical to current evolutionary thinking

The reason I have found this book so wise is that I am interested in the possibility that human beings are products of group level selection. That’s the idea that we evolved in part by groups competing with other groups. I’ve come to believe that we have a variety of mechanisms in our minds that allow us to temporarily become like bees in a hive, and these experiences of collective merger are among our most prized and important experiences.

I was first introduced to the idea of group selection by Harold Bloom's book, Global Brain:  The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. Bloom is not a scientist but an uninhibited free-thinker and I found his ideas fascinating and the lens of group selection a powerful one (while reserving judgment of whether such thinking is 'correct' or not). For example, he asks us to consider depression as a biological 'self-destruct mechanism' that can be triggered when an individual does not have strong ties to family or friends.

Now obviously this is a very powerful and dangerous idea and I think all of us know someone in our own circle of family and friends who have suffered from depression despite having strong social ties to people who love them. But I mention this concept only because I have recently read two different accounts of how the force of depression can be pushed back by encouraging the depressed person to become more social.  The first was this article in the Guardian that gives a brief summary of the book The Depression Cure: The Six-Step Programme to Beat Depression Without Drugs.

The second example is the account of Jane McGonigal's battle with a concussion that also included a bout of depression. In order to save herself from thoughts of suicide, Jane created a game called Superbetter for herself *and* her caretakers. The game worked.

There are several other ties between Jane McGonigal and some of her games and Jonathan's Haidti's book picks on happiness, with most obvious being the common interest in positive psychology. But to me, the most significant connection is that both researchers address the changing of mind to address human suffering: see Jonathan's book pick of the Dhammapada  and Jane's cookie-rolling manifesto : "When we're playing games, we're not suffering.".

In short, it's got me thinking along these lines: is the transformation that removes the drudgery of work in a game, similar to Buddhist transformation that removes suffering from pain?

I think I can find five books that suggests this is so. I've got two so far: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits and Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Let me know if you know other ones.

(cross-posted : New Jack Almanac. I'm going to combine all my blogs sometime eventually)

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