What Pokemon Go Teaches Us About Virtue

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Pokemon Go players at Loyola beach. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

Since its release on July 7th 2016, Pokemon Go has already become the most downloaded video game of all time in the United States. Nintendo’s market value went up an astonishing 9 billion dollars in five days, and most major cities in the U.S now have a dedicated following of people getting together to hunt digital creatures. We can of course point to a plurality of reasons why Pokemon Go has become such a success: 90’s nostalgia, the novelty of augmented reality, and a fun way to exercise, among others. However, I wish to illuminate one aspect of the success story that has been surprisingly ignored: namely, that playing Pokemon Go may also be virtuous.

 

If you have not yet downloaded Pokemon Go, here is how it works. The object of the game is to catch as many little fantasy creatures—Pokemon—as possible. The phone app displays the player’s location on a map via GPS. When the player moves around in the real world, so does a little avatar on the map. Therefore if you want to go from A to B in the game you have to do it in real life. Pokemon creatures are scattered all around the map and players have to move around in real life to catch them. Players go to real world locations, pull out their phones, and try to catch the creatures that appear on their screens. Pokemon come in various degrees of rarity and power, and the more caught the better.

 

To understand how and why Pokemon Go promotes virtue we need to first think about the role of play and playfulness in human life. When we think of virtuous people and list their characteristics, rarely do we list playfulness as one of their core traits. A virtuous person might be brave, generous and have temperance, but whether that person is playful does not seem to matter in our evaluation of their moral character. However, this is a mistake. Play and playfulness are integral to what it means to be a harmonious and flourishing human being.

 

A large body of research spanning sociology, psychology, philosophy, and education all support this conclusion. Play and playfulness in adults have been showed to effectively reduce stress, and combat anxiety (Magnuson & Barnett, 2012). Play has long been shown to be an effective learning strategy inside and outside formal education (Mann, 1996). Furthermore, playfulness and play promote mental states that are almost meditative in nature. In other words, being playful and playing makes us healthier, happier, and more open to new information.

Play

The Vienna Circle philosopher Moritz Schlick (1882–1936) went as far as to argue that play is the very meaning of human life (On the Meaning of Life, 1927). Although this claim might seem extreme, we can learn various insights about human flourishing from Schlick’s definition of play. Schlick defines play as a state of mind in which an activity is performed just for the sake of itself. In other words the process of the activity is much more important than the product of the activity (114-115). Play is a mind state that can be applied to any human activity. The playful person finds pleasure in the activity itself, not the product.

 

If being a flourishing human is to be balanced, happy and steadily self-improving (as Aristotle believed), then playfulness must be included in the list of virtues, since it promotes all the conditions required for flourishing.

 

As Philosopher Dale Mann points out in Serious Play, learning is a latent function of play, but it is a very powerful and fortunate latent function. In fact, it turns out from studies done on players of the video game World of Warcraft that organizational and leadership skills are taught much better when the intention is simply to have fun and not to learn (Forbes Magazine, JUN 24, 2015). In other words, if you want someone to learn let them enjoy something that is fun simply for the sake of itself, and they will work out with a whole new skill set. Nobody gets on a swing to learn kinesthetic coordination, or to build muscles; children get on swings because they are fun. Similarly, nobody plays Pokemon Go because they want to learn the metric system, city geography, or statistics. People play Pokemon Go because it is enjoyable in itself, and that has tremendous learning potential.

 

Similarly–as the site Gizmodo reports–American students are suddenly starting to understand the metric system, since Pokemon Go operates in kilometers not miles (Nunez 2016). Geography teachers in Copenhagen Denmark found that those of their students who played Pokemon Go not only began to develop a much stronger contextual understanding of the city and its history, they also had much stronger basic understanding of maps and national geography (Realdania, 2016). As a personal example, I can say that I now remember which main streets in Chicago are North-South directed and which streets run East-West because playing Pokemon Go has taught me the city’s grid.

 

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Pokemon Go in Perth. Photo source: The Sydney Morning Herald

It has been accepted for decades that meditation is a healthy way to relieve stress and anxiety. However, if we take Moritz Schlick’s definition of play seriously, then a successful engagement with a playful experience should have the same healthy effect as meditation. This means we might start thinking of play as another avenue for self-love and self-care. Researchers are finding that Pokemon Go encourages a kind of playful sensibility and sociability that can be very good for shy people, people with agoraphobia, and people with autism, many of whom struggle with social skills. Cities such as New York and Chicago have communities of people who venture out together in flocks to catch Pokemon, set lures, and acquire Poke Gyms from rivaling teams. When walking through the Chicago loop one can often see groups of people spontaneously meeting and talking to one another because they ran into someone else playing Pokemon Go. Players rely on information from other players about where to find a Poke Gym or where rare Pokemon have been sighted.

 

Self-transcendence

What is even more astonishing is that the game seems to promote almost altruistic tendencies in people. Players can work together by setting lures, which are little traps that attract Pokemon the same way using bait attracts fish. One person might pay for a lure and launch it somewhere, but anyone else in the vicinity can benefit from it. Players enjoy this social aspect of the game, as the lures they have generously set attract other humans as well. While there is no reward for helping other players, Pokemon Go has developed a community of people helping one another out by setting lures or giving directions simply so that others may enjoy the game. This is especially pronounced in the case of setting the lure, since the player may never see or talk to the person that benefits from the help. Although we have to be careful drawing any grand conclusions regarding human nature from a video game, it is interesting to note that as soon as people are in a non-competitive playful environment, the possibility of genuine altruism emerges.

 

Pokemon Go promotes self-care because it is played only for the sake of itself. The enjoyment one get’s from catching Pokemon is not from completing the game, which is currently impossible. In fact the game is very up front about the fact that it is impossible to complete it. Neither can the game be lost, since there are no time limits and no life counter or points. Rather, the enjoyment from Pokemon Go is generated from process itself. Unlike so many other games that are focused on competition, skill acquisition, and achievement, Pokemon Go demands only the desire for adventure (and good walking shoes). We can say that Pokemon Go promotes the mental state of flow: the mind set in which a person becomes so engaged with the activity that they forget everything else and become one with the activity. Some might see achieving such a mind state in a video game as a form of dilly dallying, but that is exactly why it is healthy. Entering into a mind state of flow has consistently been shown support overall happiness, improve academic and work related performance and relieve stress (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Whether the condition of flow is acquired through a video game or diligently working on a tax report, the benefits are the same.

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“Pokemon Go takes me to Black Lives Matter Protest” by Jesse Samuel Anderson.
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We cannot forget that play is intrinsically community oriented. Culturally in the West adults have many forms of entertainment available to them, but there is an important difference between being entertained, and playing. Entertainment can be a passive form of consumption; play and playfulness, on the other hand, demands participation. Pokemon Go encourages players to explore their community by making landmarks in the real world appear on the map as either Poke Gyms—places to battle with other players–or Poke stops (locations to pick up game items). Poke Gyms are often important locations such as the entrance to a museum, a famous sculpture, or a historic site. For example, the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago is a Pokegym (guarded by a Gastly). By making actual landmarks integral to the gameplay experience, Pokemon Go makes its participants explore their own and other communities.

 

Pokemon Go has been a global success for many reasons, but as I have shown today, one of the most important reasons people enjoy it is because the game is inherently playful and encourages collaboration and altruism. To be playful is a virtue that directly takes us towards flourishing because it promotes balance, happiness, community, altruism, and self-love. So the next time you see a group of grownups running around trying to evolve their Bulbasaur, don’t just roll your eyes. Think about joining in the fun.



Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Video: Aquinas’s Third Way of Proving a God: Logic or Love? | Fr. Stephen L. Brock at Lumen Christi

Fr. Stephen L. Brock is our Spring 2017 Visiting Scholar and on the faculty of our June 2017 Summer Seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence.” In doing a little internet surfing about him, we came across a lecture he gave on February 5, 2015 at the University of Chicago, sponsored by our institutional partner Lumen Christi. Bringing the small world concept closer, he’s introduced by our very own principal investigator Candace Vogler.

Fr. Stephen L. Brock is Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas and is the author of Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action. He has written numerous articles on various aspects of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, and he has edited several collections including Thomas Aquinas and the Subject of Metaphysics. Fr. Brock leads week long seminars for graduate students in Rome on the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

What motivates humanitarian workers?

World Humanitarian Day (August 19) was established in 2009 by the United Nations to “pay tribute to all those affected by humanitarian crises and those who lost their lives in humanitarian service” and “celebrates the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.” August 19 was chosen because it commemorates the day in 2003 when 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

World Humanitarian Day is also a call for further action and donations to help those in conflict and disaster, which affect more than 200 million people a year.

 

Humanitarian workers include those who risk grave danger to rescue people, and who have dedicated their lives to alleviate the suffering of others. While helping others may produce feelings of purpose and meaning to the giver, or provide connection a feeling of moral good to the worker, we don’t always hear from those who put themselves in extraordinary situations to help others in dire circumstances.

 

“My sincere belief is that emergency food is the only hope for most refugees and displaced people,” says Lucy Wasuk, who works for the World Food Programme in South Sudan, and whose work often puts her in danger. “The greatest risk is entering ‘no man’s land’— where there are unknown militias, and child soldiers, where boundaries are uncertain and UN access is restricted. In 18 years of field work, my most frightening experience was being detained by a child soldier. We had missed a small village in Jonglei State in our 2003 plan, so (local authorities) forced us to stop there. They asked for the team leader, and I was taken and locked in a small hut with an armed boy some 12 years old. His gun was pointing at me — so close, it almost touched my face. He was tired, hungry and almost dozing off with his hand on the trigger. Anything could have happened. I was at his mercy for six long hours until our security officer came from Khartoum and negotiated my release.”

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Humanitarian worker Lucy Wasuk. Photo: WFP/George Fominyen

Wasuk discusses the rewards of helping secure food and education for children and communities in her young country. Once, a community named a tree for her. Another time, she helped a child working as a cattle raider go to school. The child became a businessman who now supports others working for Plan International, a WFP partner.

 

It is reflecting on her work as a response to her experiences as child where Wasuk sees her truest motivation. “Most of my life was spent in the camps, from Bombo refugee camp in Uganda to the displaced people’s camps of Khartoum. My career was not a surprise choice.” [Full story Sharing Humanity: Lucy’s Story – Medium.com]

 

World Humanitarian Day offers the opportunity for us to hear from humanitarian aid workers about why they do this work, and learn their insights, specific motivations, and stories behind their deep commitment. Continue reading “What motivates humanitarian workers?”

Dan P. McAdams on “The Mind of Donald Trump”

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Our scholar Dan P. McAdams  is a psychologist whose work focuses on stories people tell about their lives and how their narratives help create their respective personalities. “Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large,” he wrote about his research in  The Virtue Blog last October.

Recently, McAdams published a piece in the June/July issue of The Atlantic analyzing how the personality of Donald Trump might shape his presidency, writing “A large and rapidly growing body of research shows that people’s temperament, their characteristic motivations and goals, and their internal conceptions of themselves are powerful predictors of what they will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them.”

McAdams investigated 4 areas of personality construction: Disposition, mental habits, motivations, self-conception; in doing so he explored Trump’s telling of early childhood memories, self-referential language, authoritarianism, focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating, and persona as warrior.

In the August/September issue, readers responded to the article. McAdams also wrote about the piece, noting “Composing an evidence-based psychological commentary on a presidential candidate—one that draws exclusively on well-validated constructs in personality and social psychology and relies on reputable biographical sources—constrains an author in many ways. For one, there have been only 43 U.S. presidents, which is a small sample size for comparison . . .While some supporters of Trump may dismiss any effort to make psychological sense of the man, some detractors will not be satisfied until he has been psychologically eviscerated. I tried to perform a fair-minded interpretation—sticking to the facts as we know them and to some of the best ideas in contemporary psychological science.”

Read “The Mind of Donald Trump” in The Atlantic here.

Read comments and Dan P. McAdams’ response here.


Dan P. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, and Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Valerie Wallace is Assistant Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Save the date for a debate in NYC!

“Happiness without Religion: A Philosophical Debate”

September 10, 2016 | 3pm | The Catholic Center, New York University | 236 Thompson Street, New York, NY

  • Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • R.R. Reno, First Things
  • Jennifer A. Frey, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • Thomas Joseph White, OP, Executive Director, Thomistic Institute, Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • Register at thomisticinstitute.org/upcoming-events

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What Makes a Scientist Good? A Psychological Exploration

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Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Photo by Chris Smith.

Why do people do what they do? Why is science so important to some people? What does it offer to them that other activities do not? Considering the ends of science is one starting point for considering the particularities of virtue in science. Addressing the role of virtue in science entails understanding the purposes of science. Most people would agree that its purpose is to systematically expand human knowledge and enhance human capabilities to control their world. However, perhaps more interesting, from a psychological perspective, is that individual scientists have their own reasons for engaging in science that may be more or less aligned with this general purpose. What are these reasons? What goals, virtuous or not, actually drive scientists in their work? What goals do they think scientists should pursue? 

 

The career paths of scientists can be challenging and treacherous, given the explosion of advanced degrees in science (see Emanuele Ratti’s post on this). This has led to an increasingly long pathway to a permanent position in academia. Psychologically, this situation is ripe for individuals on all sides to focus on extrinsic rewards – seeking publications, status, and financial success – rather than intrinsic ones. Moreover, stressful environments promote the stress reaction, heightening self-protective pursuits rather than pursuing goals driven by intrinsic motives (like curiosity or valuing the contribution one can make to other’s lives) and the common good.

Purpose and meaning are ideas with a long history in psychology, stemming from the work of Victor Frankl. Purpose is the pursuit of a meaningful goal intended to influence the world in a positive way (see McAdam’s work on generativity). This corresponds with both rich intrinsic motivation (a pursuit driven by one’s values and interests, rather than by external incentives) and the pursuit of the common good. Further, there is a wealth of evidence that pursuing such goals leads to high levels of performance. Thus, I invite you to consider an approach to virtue in science focused on the what, why, and how of goal pursuit through ‘purpose’.

Purpose can be broken down into several components. For example, how one engages in the pursuit of a goal is important, and the form this engagement takes matters for the evaluation of virtue (see this post on the Virtue blog). Virtue after all emerges not only from seeking the good, but from pursuing that good well, that is, through productive and moral engagement. If I pursue my research goals unethically (i.e., through dishonesty), then, while I am doing so, I am enacting a vice. If, on the other hand, I pursue my research in a way that is honest, diligent, and collegial, then I may be developing at least a budding virtue.

Personal meaning is also essential to purpose. For Frankl, meaning can be experienced through ‘(1) creating a work or doing a deed; (2) experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’. The pursuit of scientific goals emphasizes the first two forms of meaning. Meaning is a personal response to one’s experience. This is why meaning is deeply related to ideas like calling and vocation (see Michael Steger’s post exploring this).

Finally, purpose relates to moral goals – pursuing that which is good. This is a challenging dimension of science, as knowledge unrelated to use is difficult to call moral or immoral. One can, for instance, pursue knowledge which, through misuse or abuse, can cause harm. On some level, it is easier to evaluate the ends of engineering, which are more concrete, than the ends of more basic science, like sequencing the genome of a species. Nonetheless, the pursuit of good ends is essential to virtue (see this post from Jean Porter).

Virtue enables expert purposeful engagement in science. This includes pursuing moral goals, having moral motives for those goals, and pursuing those goals through the effective and moral means. This also necessitates, given the technical nature of science, the judgment and expertise to accomplish these goals effectively. Ideally, this judgment and expertise includes both tacit knowledge of how to conduct scientific research effectively and the capacity to articulate and communicate one’s understanding to others. While I have begun to describe a potential psychology of virtue here, I intend to further explore engagement, personal meaning, and the pursuit of the common good as they relate to specific virtues in future posts.

Why is science important? It is unique for the power of knowledge it generates. However, given this power, there is also an inherent moral responsibility among scientists to direct their pursuits appropriately and to work to ensure the proper utilization of their findings for the common good. Any scientist who fails to do so cannot be called virtuous.


This post originally appeared on Origins. Natures. Futures., a blog out of the University of Notre Dame’s  Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing. Timothy Reilly is a post-doctoral fellow in Psychology at CTSHF, whose research examines interventions to enhance psychological well-being, college student development, moral identity, the role of practices in self development, and virtue development. 

A New Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago

 

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Howard Nusbauum (center) is also a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.Photo by The JJ Effect.

The Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago aims to deepen scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in choices of everyday life. Research at the center is geared towards individual development of wisdom and the circumstances in which people are most likely to make wiser decisions. Core research projects at the center include a range of topics including epistemic humility, stress resilience, individual differences in wisdom, and impact of language.

 

The center connects scientists, scholars, educators, and students internationally who are interested in studying wisdom. Through the wisdom research network and annual wisdom research forums, the center provides guidance for dissemination of current wisdom studies as well as initiates new research in wisdom. The Center for Practical Wisdom website provides a space for networking, a database of the latest wisdom-related articles, publications, and news items, wisdom based research tools and measures, and forums for online discussions.

 

The John Templeton Foundation provided seed funding for the Center while collaborative efforts are supported by a variety of sources including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and federal agencies. Affiliated organizations to the Center for Practical Wisdom include The Institute for Human Flourishing led by Nancy Snow at the University of Oklahoma and the Wisdom and Culture Lab led by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo, among others.

 

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The Center’s accomplishments and resources are shared through social media, the Wisdom Research YouTube Channel, and the Center for Practical Wisdom e-newsletter.


Jean L. Ngoc Matelski-Boulware is Assistant Director of Communications & Research at the Center for Practical Wisdom.