There exist, of course, a lot of (arguably necessary) defenses, many of them well-researched, of various kinds of video games, and plenty of experts ready to talk about how people who don’t like gaming are wrong, that gaming is actually quite good for you. In fact, there’s never been a better climate for gaming advocates: The “gamification” movement has corporations interested in using game elements to motivate and reward workers, while charismatic author and designer Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, is widely cited both in and out of the traditional game space because of its accessible assertions that gamers are actually the world’s best problem-solvers.

And because the social-media climate naturally lends itself to sharing achievements—successful recipes, exercise regimens, family milestones—there is a wealth of apps and gadgets designed to make your average couch potato feel more motivated and playful. Everything around us is becoming increasingly game-like, and it’s getting harder and harder to be game-negative.

Happily, Yee’s book is far from yet another takedown of Luddite bias. The Proteus Paradox applies its research most thoroughly to the fascinating way online game worlds are not living up to their potential. Given a highly influential and relevant medium whose appeal is supposedly about limitless possibility, even the chance to reinvent one’s self, we bring an unfortunate amount of human baggage into virtual spaces, Yee finds. Serious online players describe their commitment to their chosen game as a “second job,” full of friction and repetition.

One of the most pervasive myths about online games is one that’s gone unexamined even by the gaming industry: They aren’t the utopias of freedom, fluidity, and determinism we hoped for, but rather spaces where humans re-enact superstitions, gender and race biases, and where we end up destined not to escape the constraints of reality but to dutifully imitate them.

This is the “Proteus Paradox” Yee describes: Given infinite possibility, we loyally gravitate to the familiar—nearly every game or online world contains chairs, for example, even though virtual bodies never tire of standing. Just as it’s simpler to click a familiar text interface than to inhabit a new one, human beings, it seems, are most comfortable experiencing humanity with all its limitations. “Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and cognitive baggage prevent us from changing,” writes Yee. “And where we think we are fully in control, unique psychological levers in virtual worlds (such as our avatars) powerfully change how we think and behave.”

Yee’s book is pleasantly neutral, avoiding the usual impulse that those who love technology often feel to overemphasize on its behalf. Games in particular have long been made to act as a universal receptacle for a broad swath of social fears—a recent study found that 61 percent of people in the UK think games can cause real-world violence and aggression, even though causal links between content and behavior in media have been persistently nigh-impossible to establish. And this viewpoint occurs in direct proportion with individuals’ acquaintance with games: The less one has played games, the more likely one is to presume they cause problematic behavior. The likelihood of this opinion jumps to 79 percent among people over age 60.

But while Yee has no end of evidence supporting the positive and often fascinatingly complex role online games like EverQuest (launched in 1999 and still beloved) play in the lives of millions of people, The Proteus Paradox deftly avoids righteousness and works primarily in the important service of challenging a medium rich with unexplored potential.

Yee restrains himself from breakneck advocacy for game concepts under all circumstances: If corporations use games to motivate and reward, might they not try to substitute those games for genuine compensation and the responsibility to instill a sense of value in their employees? If the collective ingenuity of a group of devoted gamers can be used to solve massive problems cooperatively, couldn’t ad firms also use virtual worlds’ “free-labor” economies to get players to, say, help generate high-impact keywords for a marketing campaign? “Engagement and exploitation may be two sides of the same coin,” Yee warns. “When we receive these invitations to play, we must remember that fun can end up being a lot of work.”

Online games still face significant and disheartening limitations that parallel the real-world problems many people believe virtual worlds should be able to solve—are maybe even responsible for solving. With so much to learn about ourselves in these massive play spaces, we urgently need to democratize the technology that will allow us to continue our creation of and experimentation with virtual worlds, Yee argues. What would we build if we had a new round of opportunity?

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


More in Critical Eye

Brief encounters

Read More »

Leigh Alexander is a gaming and social media culture journalist. As editor-at-large at Gamasutra, she covers issues of concern to the industry, and she freelances games criticism and essays. Her work has most recently appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, and The New Statesman.