Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gamers Saving the World?

Gamers our future saviors?  What?  Those men-boys that live in their mother's basement and haven't seen the sun in weeks?  Ok... you have me listening.

Jane McGonigal has a wild theory, that we can channel gamer's drive for an "epic win" to solving real world problems.  Gamers spend billions of hours a week playing their online games, saving fictional realms, and helping strangers in need.  Jane wants to know, can we harness this drive?  Can we create games that require us to come up with creative solutions to everyday problems?  Will people really carry their game-world habits to the real world?

I think this is a creative and out-there solution-- that just might work.  But I still have my doubts.  Yes, people tend to be completely different when playing as their online avatar.  Yes, they are willing to risk their lives for another.  Yes, they spend hours on quests because the work is "just right" (to borrow a phrase from our Scarlett friends)- problems are presented to us, but only when we have enough experience to make it through the level.  If we die, we can start over.  If we run out of credits, weapons, or money- we can reload.

That doesn't happen in real life.  There is a finite amount of resources that the world needs to share.  People from different countries have different motivations and interests.  I would love to say that we can all work together to create a world that is beneficial to all, but, we are human.  There is greed in the world.  People will fight for power.  There will be conflicts over how to divide supplies and power.  Religion, philosophy, beliefs, etc. will create conflicts.  Game designers can try to design the playing field in the game, but when the gamers emerge from their basements, the real world won't have level playing fields.

Gamers can create deep relationships online, but then have trouble interacting with people in real life.  Wouldn't it be a better idea to try and create the sense of security that the online world offers, but in the real world?  We can't live our lives completely online.  We can't have designers giving us perfectly designed situations for every problem.  We don't live in a vacuum.

In the end, I think Jane McGonical has an interesting theory.  But I would tweak it a bit.  Research has been done (for example, Bronson and Merryman in Nuture Shock), that shows people are more confident when role-playing, we can blame mistakes on the character we are playing.  How about we role play in live sessions?  From the classroom to a club to the workplace, we can integrate these role playing techniques to help solve problems we face in our everyday life.


  1. Rachel - I agree with you, and posted similar comments in my blog. I stated Jane McGonical's premise might actually be visionary, if we could get those gamers out of the basement and focused on real world solutions.

    But that's the problem. The (few) gamers I have know seemed little interested in any world outside of their own (imaginary, manufactured) one.

    But if we could harness their potential, and develop some sort of "crowdsourced" solution to the world's problem, the results could be impressive.

    But first we've got to get them to go vote...

  2. There are some great educational games, but I would like to see more games with useful content, especially the online multiplayer games. Avid players have an incredible knowledge of their artificial world. It seems like a small step to swap in real information. For now the biggest gaming companies are following the buck. As more gaming engines are open-sourced, though, educational MMORPGs will show up. It won't be long before a teacher is telling a class "Today we are going to be learning about quadratic equations as we explore a dungeon north of Dalaran. We will be competing against the class from our rival high school."

  3. I agree that life does not have a level playing field. This does create a slight problem in using games to solve real world problems. We can't give everyone a level playing field because our society functions on things being unequal and different. My mom would say "you need to play the best game you can with the hand you were dealt". Not everyone is born into a situation that is perfect, we all have things to overcome. Some of these things can't be done again. We have to balance creating an environment that harnesses our ability to take risks through role playing while still recognizing that sometimes you only get one shot.

  4. Um...I thought I had posted on this. I must have forgotten the CAPTCHA thing. Booo.

    Okay. Second attempt.

    Rather than merely voicing your skepticism (certainly what I did), you offered a possible alternative, one that could work very well. I respect that.

    What frightens me about turning to gaming for a solution is, along with all you said, the fact that whenever someone says, "But digital reality can't achieve that!", the gaming industry throws itself into making that happen. Think about it. When you tell Siri to tell you a story, she will TELL YOU A STORY. I love Jarvis just as much as the next Iron Man fangirl, but I don't like the prospect of technology thinking for itself. I don't want digital reality to blur with actual reality. We need to emphasize the value of the real world, not encourage people to retreat into their "safer" alternate worlds because of how scary it is out in the daylight. Your solution might work with that.