Will Camp Help Us Save The World?

I spend a whole lot of time in my car, driving to the houses and apartments of the new campers interested in joining the Kenwood & Evergreen community. And with so many hours spent by myself I have this incredible opportunity to listen to some very powerful recordings. Lately, in between the weekly broadcasts of NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” and whatever music has recently captured my fancy, I’ve also been enjoying samples from the vast collection of TED talks.

For those of you who are not familiar, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and since 1984 TED has been “a global set of conferences…formed to disseminate ‘ideas worth spreading.’” Essentially, thoughtful, interesting people get up on a stage and for about 15 minutes speak on a subject that they believe to be of the utmost importance. Lately, I’ve found a whole bunch of very compelling TED presentations.

After listening to so many of them, I find that the TED talks that stay with me the longest are the ones that not only present a problem, but a potential and viable-sounding solution. So much of what we hear or read these days articulates what is wrong in our world, and yet fails to highlight plausible or possible solutions for improving our world.

This past weekend I was listening to a TED talk by Jane McGonigal titled “Gaming Can Make a Better World. McGonigal a video game designer and researcher at a place called The Institute for the Future and she is worried about the same big questions that bother so many of us.  What I found so compelling was her method for solving these problems: online video games. I imagine that you laughed at this proposition. I did. Even members of the audience at her TED talk laughed at her. But give what she has to say a chance. Her thesis was that when people are playing online video games like World of War Craft that they are uniquely equipped to solve some of the world’s most pressing and intractable problems. Problems like hunger and climate change and social inequality and obesity. I’m not sure that I agree with her that gamers are “uniquely” equipped to do this, but we’ll get back to that later. She lists what she believes to be the four problem solver qualifications that online gamers share:

1)    Urgent Optimism – she asserts that gamers have an extreme level of self-motivation, believing that problems need to be solved, and that as participants they have a likelihood of solving those problems.

2)    Social Virtuosity – that gamers are adept at “weaving a tight social network around them”, and that they remain connected to this network whether they win or lose

3)    Blissful Productivity – devoted gamers play on average 20 hours a week! McGonigal sites statistics about how happy online gamers self-report to be, even when they are working for so many hours without being paid. She says that human beings are hard wired to work hard, and that we are optimized to do work that we believe has significant meaning in this world.

4)    Epic Meaning – she posits that “gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions” or experiences that help them transcend their daily lives (in part explaining their dedication to these online games).

It is because of these characteristics that McGonigal believes that gamers can help create massive societal change. Why? Because they are used to facing challenging problems that can only be solved by working in groups that effectively communicate with each other and aren’t afraid to engage in trial and error. I agree with her there. The world needs more people with these skills, and more people willing to tackle these massive, seemingly intractable issues. 

summer camp kids learning to collaborate and solve complicated problemsI’m not a gamer. I don’t own any computer gaming systems in my home, nor have I ever played any online role-playing, fighting or questing games.  But I certainly know a lot of kids and young adults who adore living temporarily in these virtual worlds. And a part of me has always wondered why they found them so compelling. Listening to Jane McConigal I also felt like the characteristics that she ascribed to gamers also apply to people who have participated in quality summer camp programs. Urgent optimism? Check. Social virtuosity? A definite check. Blissful Productivity? Just ask any camper who has participated on a competitive sports team, rope burning, a dutch auction, and learned a new mealtime cheer…sometimes in the same day. And experiences at camp are filled with Epic Meaning. Experiences like Color War or Snipe Hunts or Mountain Climbs or Lip Sync nights or that first time you achieved a goal that initially seemed far beyond your grasp.

overnight campers learning to solve problems together and form long lasting social connectionsEach summer at Camps Kenwood & Evergreen we attempt to teach our kids the vital life skills that McConigal mentions in her TED talk – skills like resilience, leadership, critical problem solving and the ability to effectively communicate. But as I look at our two different communities – the virtual and the one we build in Wilmot, NH – I worry that she mislabels the online gaming world as unique, and also misses the importance of regular face-to-face interactions.  Watching how our individual campers (and staff) grow each summer living in close quarters with other people, working towards common and individual goals, thriving outside of their home environments, and still having the chance to learn and fail and explore, it seems clear to me that participants in summer camp gain something so much more valuable by participating in the actual/non-electronic world. This is demonstrated for me every time our campers see each other during off-season reunions, and are immediately able to become that “best self” that they feel they are when they are with their camp friends. In our comparatively small sampling we see our kids and staff band together to solve incredibly complex problems, all the while fostering relationships that carry a significantly deeper level of connection than one might find through a broadband connection. 

But the sheer numbers of hours that online gaming community put up each week still dwarf time spent at Camp. McConigal estimates that each week more than 3 BILLION hours are spent in virtual play worldwide. She’d like to see it increase to as much as 21 billion, to create the societal change that she envisions.  But it strikes me that the downside of this would be a further eroding of our ability to relate to one another in the actual world.

I’m curious to know what you think about this powerful video, and about how it relates to the outcomes that we seek each summer at Kenwood & Evergreen. Is McConigal correct that a group of people with these skills has the power to create real and meaningful change in our world? Would we do better to push for this sort of community online or in our actual lives? And does the scale that she is describing – millions of people spending billions of hours on the same tasks – transcend the impact of what analog interactions, such as quality summer camps, can achieve? Do we simply need to send that many more kids to camp? As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.