Designing games to save the world

WoW game screenshot - Flickr photo by wynter

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, notes that the amount of time that young people spend gaming is already large and predicted to become extraordinary.  500 million people (mainly youth) worldwide spend more time gaming than in school and this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion in a decade.  These 500 million noticeably already game enough to make them experts by age 21, according to Gladwell’s Outliers book that focuses on the importance of accumulating 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso.

So rather than wag our fingers at gamers, we should recognize what is great about game playing and why they do it, and then try to channel these skills and energy into saving the world.

Why they do it?

McGonigal cites an economist’s belief that youth are making rational choices to spend more time in virtual worlds since they are better than the real world.  She notes that there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft and hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators.  Youth can at any time participate in a mission that is constantly at the verge of what they can accomplish and be part of an inspiring story.  They get Plus-1 intelligence and Plus-1 feedback on their quests.

What do youth get extremely good at through video games:

1) expressing urgent optimism

2) forming a tight social fabric.  McGonigal believes that it takes a lot of trust to play games with people (since others stay in the games until they end, play by the rules, etc.)  [I’m not sure how solid this basis of evidence is, although McGonigal has interesting anecdotes and alludes to research, of which I’m unsure how scientific it is.]

3) gamers are in such blissful productivity that they are happier working hard than relaxing.

4) gamers take on an adventure with epic meaning.  [She notes that the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia is the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 80,000 articles, which 5 million people access monthly.]

What is great about it?

“Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them — even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.” [note: not sure what studies she is referring to, although apparently in some of her own games she has clearly observed such behavior.  McGonigal has said elsewhere that “Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life….Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours….The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from.”] From “REVIEW — Be a Gamer, Save the World — Videogames make players feel like their best selves; Why not give them real problems to solve?” By Jane McGonigal (Wall St. Journal, January 22, 2011, p. C3)  [essay is adapted from “Reality Is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011. ]

Elsewhere McGonigal notes generally that “Studies [again not sure what studies she is referring to] show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.”  McGonigal also states “research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.”

How to use it to save the world?

The key is to harness all the positive parts of gaming – concentration, motivation, hard work, inspiration — for positive ends. The challenge is not to ignore games but design games that make the real world as exciting as games and in the process give us knowledge and skills useful to solving real world problems.  She says that maybe we should spur developers by offering a “Nobel”-like Prize to the best invention of a game each year that helps solve a really important social problem.

Superpowers add up to superempowered, hopeful individuals.    The challenge is to convince gamers that they are also empowered to change the real world.  We need to make people’s rewards, feedback, motivation be as high in the real world.  We have to make the real world more like a game.

One reviewer skeptical of games (Catherine DeLange) noted that games are everywhere in our life and can be a force for good; “Before writing this review, for example, I went for a run. I was tired and felt like giving up after 30 minutes, but stuck it out for 45. Why? Because I knew when I got home I’d be docking my iPod with my computer and logging my run on a website called Nike Plus. The site not only tracks my progress and records my mood, but also lets me “level up” the more I run. Since I joined up, I’ve run 858 kilometres, so I’m classed as a green runner. When I hit 1000 km I’ll move up to blue, hopefully ahead of my running buddies who joined up with me. I know every extra step I run will get me further in this game.”

McGonigal has tried at least 6 games (World Without Oil; Superstruct; Evoke;  Cruel 2 b Kind;  Chorewars and Jane the Concussion Slayer — the latter to deal with a brain concussion from which she was recuperating).

She also recommends games that others have created.  The Extraordinaries provides players with a mission and instructions on how to solve it; the mission is tailored to the needs of a non-profit and the public like tracking and photographing life-saving defibrillators’ location.  The information is then uploaded to a First Aid Corps database, that tracks the location of publicly accessible defibrillators world-wide, in order to be available to help save lives.  Elude is a game to help caregivers understand what depression feels like: players complete the various game levels twice, the second made significantly harder to mirror the difficulties of achieving tasks while depressed.

1) World Without Oil: piloted in 2007 with 17,000 players.  Gamers are forced to challenge themselves to survive in a world without oil.  McGonigal claims that most players are actively continuing many of the oil-free skills they learned or invented in the game.

2) Superstruct: a supercomputer has determined that world is coming to an end and players have to invent the future of energy, future of food, health, security, social safety net.    8,000 gamers played for 8 weeks and came up with 500 out-of-the-box solutions to these problems.

3) Evoke with World Bank Institute (March 2010).  WBI invited folks in sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing world to partner together and test and develop their social entrepreneurship skills. Over 10 weeks, the gamers worked on 10 missions  addressing  issues like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, water security, conflict, disaster relief, health care, education, and human rights. The stories were told in a graphic novel, that demanded local insight, sustainability, vision, and resourcefulness. WBI succeeded in attracting just under 20,000 young participants from over 130 countries. The collaboration among Evoke gamers in only 10 weeks led to more than 50 social enterprises being launched. “One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically a McDonalds of libraries that has money-making ventures (food, phone service) surrounding the library to make it self-supporting.

While McGonigal’s framing seems a bit pollyannish, for sure we should make lemonade of video games, even if we view them as lemons.  She notes that gamers are now gaming to escape from the real world. She observes that Herodotus said dice games were invented to distract Libyans from their famine; Libyans survived for 18 years, by eating one day and fasting the next all while distracted from their hunger by game playing.  Herodotus ultimately realized the famine was not ending so he directed the Libyans to play a final dice game and the winners were sent on an epic adventure to find a new place to live.  She notes that there is some genetic evidence that this is true: Etruscans appear to have left Libya to found Roman empire around this time.  McGonigal hopes and believes that we can empower young people to make an optimistic future come to pass.

See also earlier post on “Social Capital Games” where we discussed two of McGonigal’s efforts “Cruel 2 b kind” and “Chorewars.”

See also Gaming can make the world a better place (Jane McGonigal TED 2010 talk).

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