Can games change the world? Busting through to reality versus Escapism

Online games are getting more and more popular and game mechanics are being applied everywhere in an attempt to trigger the same eager enthusiasm to participate in something, as gamers experience during gameplay. I’ve recently seen 2 talks that explore this phenomenon: Jesse Schell’s talk at DICE 2010, and Jane McGonigal’s talk at TED. Both talks touch upon the same topic, the power of games to change our (real world) behaviour, but take an opposite approach, here’s a short analysis:

Schell talks about the future of game design as it invades the real world. He analyses the immense success of Facebook games such as Farmville and Mafia wars. What do they have in common? They use psychological tricks to convince people to spend real money to gain access to features in the virtual world or game. They are “busting through to reality”. Games used to be about escape, but these days we are so cut of from nature and self sufficiency, we have a hunger for what’s “real”. He refers to the book “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want“, by Joseph Pine to illustrate this. He refers to DARPA’s red balloon challenge to show how games can be used to let the masses solve real world problems (read “doing research for the military” in this case). He mentions the already ubiquitous point systems in anything from loyalty cards to drivers licenses and the equally ubiquitous technology collecting data about individuals. All this can be used in games. Schell sketches a future scenario where consumer products are full of sensors monitoring our behaviour, giving bonus points to consumers who behave in ways beneficial to the producer of the product (like toothpaste and dental insurance adding points every time you brush your teeth). He finishes by pointing out that this future scenario has both a negative and a positive side: it could be all about manipulation of consumers by companies and government, but it could also be a chance to inspire us to be better people.

With the exact same ideal in mind, creating a better world and making us better people, Jane McGonigal approaches the issue from the opposite side. She does not want games to invade the real world, to become part of reality, but wants to use the “escape from reality” games offer as a motivational force to solve real world problems from within the game world. Like Schell, she points out we are cut off from nature, facing massive and world threatening problems like global warming and the depletion of the worlds oil reserves, but this does not lead to a “hunger for reality”, instead it leads to a massive “exodus to virtual worlds” (as described in Castranova’s “Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality”, 2007).

She points to the enormous amount of time spent each week on online gaming globally (3 billion hours) and claims that by increasing this amount to 21 billion hours of online gaming a week before the end of the next decade, we can save the world. She points to the emotions felt when a player is on the verge of an ‘epic win’ as the key to motivating players to keep going and to achieve things they never believed could be achieved. In games we become ‘better people’, when facing problems we stay optimistic and keep going until they are solved. The reason for this is that in games you are presented with quests matching your ability, there are always plenty of collaborators around to help you and you keep on receiving positive feedback on your actions via points. McGonigal points out that the average youth spends 10.000 hours gaming before the age of 21, which, according to Levitin’s theory in “This is Your Brain on Music”, should make them virtuosi. But what are gamers getting good at? She points to 4 super powers:

1.urgent optimism (you always believe you can win) fabric (online gaming builds strong bonds and trust between people)
3.blissful productivity (gamers are happy working hard)
4.epic meaning (inspiring missions)

These superpowers lead to super empowered hopeful individuals, and at the moment they exist in virtual worlds, but this can be changed. McGonigal makes a strong case for using the superpowers of gamers to solve real world problems, and to play games that matter.

Personally I prefer to think of the future of games in McGonigal’s terms, as it is centred around the positive emotions experienced within games by the player, and using this for the benefit of all. Schell’s prediction of the future is based on an analysis of successful business strategies… and those usually don’t benefit many, and certainly don’t solve any real world problems (they could possibly make them worse). Games such as Farmville don’t contribute anything to anyone’s life but mind numbingly repetitive tasks. Both talks do point to the power of game mechanics to motivate people to take action, let’s make sure our joined forces are used well!

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