Can gamers change the world?

I was introduced to Jane McGonigal, a video game designer and theorist, through the The Colbert Report, where she was a guest last week. It was quite the interesting talk, as she proceeded to briefly describe her goal to have people playing more online games, and using games to change the way problems are solved in our real world. She posited that the best designed games optimize our human experience, capitalizing on our innate desires of competition, heroism, and importance. We are not as “good” in real life as we are in games, having a desire in games to stick with problems, confront obstacles, and collaborate. She believes that all of our game playing is evolving humanity as a whole…and for the better.

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Watch Jane McGonigal’s TED speech

Her theory may explain why traditional video games, and now online games, have such a draw. The average youth spends about 10,000 hours gaming before the age of 21, and she relates this fact to a quote by Malcolm Gladwell, who says that 10,000 hours is the amount of time it takes to become incredibly proficient at a task or skill. She characterizes gamers themselves as being “optimistic, hopeful superheros” who have 4 main characteristics:

1. Urgent Optimism – Desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, with knowledge that one can possibly succeed.
2. Social Fabric – Playing games together builds trust
3. Blissful Productivity – We are happier working hard than when not working.
4. Epic Meaning – Humans want to be involved in big, world-changing stories and events.

Her theories are incredibly interesting to me, for the main fact that she contrasts the feeling of malaise and dejection in the real world to the escapism of gaming and its rewarding worlds of competition, challenge, and epic success. As our society becomes more fractured, and communities become more fragmented into single individuals, there is not much within the daily grind of reality to inspire the masses like games do, which again, explains their massive and growing popularity?

McGonigal has created three educational games, drawing on gamers and their conventions to bring about awareness and change within the games, and in turn, resultant changes and ideas to use in the real world. The games are:

1. “World without oil” – 1700 players learned skills to minimize and reduce their oil use.
2. “SuperStruct” – 23 years to go before the earth is destroyed, and players were invited to invent the future of energy, food, health, security and social safety net. Gamers came up with 500 solutions.
3. “Evoke” -A game set to empower young people all over the world, and especially in Africa, to start tackling the world’s toughest problem, by teaching collaboration and vision.

I have always loved videogames…and although I do not have as much time to play them as I might like, and would call myself a very casual gamer, I still keep a close eye on the industry and its ever-evolving dynamics and conventions.  I’ve always tried to play games that applied reason and logic, and that encouraged exploration and adventure, rather than mindless button mashers or mind-numbing action games. For me, the fun was in the journey – to discover, learn, and ultimately make a difference within this fictional (yet extremely compelling) world.

In listening to McGonigal, I feel hopeful, as she offers a spin on the stereotype of the lonely, apathetic gamer who wastes away in a basement without a care in the world except to game. But maybe that’s what she is getting at…these people are motivated, but in a different way outside of our reality. They just need to be refocused.

This refocusing is where I feel there is a fine line. Games, while educational from time to time, are more often used as entertainment. The escapism is so extreme is many instances that any attempt to bring these “game” issues into real life problems would distort many people’s ideas of what gaming is. Escapist gaming to save a princess or conquer an army is one thing, but turning those same gamers onto the problem of tackling the world’s food shortage may quickly illicit cries of “educational!” in a negative respect. So many games today also show violence, might, and aggression as the best way to solve the problems put forth, rather than diplomacy, collaboration, and compromise. Sure, one gamer is learning to collaborate with another in a team, but if the end goal is to kill everyone else on the other side of a first-person shooter, well…what are we really learning here?

In order for this to work, there needs to be a shift in the types of games produced…games that reward more positive characteristics over more aggressively negative ones. Ones that have more realistic consequences for doing things that would be viewed as immoral here in the real world. And a fine line would have to be walked between entertainment and educational. Most of the game companies are out to make money first…and education and enlighten the masses second.

I see promise in McGonigal’s theories, and wish her games and her mission success. But there is sadly, a long way to go.  Can we find our way there?

1 comment(s)

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