Saving the World with Games

Sup dawg, we heard you like games, so we wrapped a game around your game…

1,096 words

People love to play games. They’re fun, of course, but they also teach us valuable real-world skills. Chess teaches pattern-matching and strategy, Dungeons & Dragons teaches exploration and collaboration, Olympic sports teach physical coordination, and others such as soccer and Halo teach many types of skills simultaneously. In all cases, games provide safe environments for learning as well as clear criteria for success. It’s better to learn to run fast when you’re on a field because you want to win a game, and not when you’re running from a sabre-toothed tiger because you don’t want to get eaten. Games create artificial environments and structure incentives in ways that make us better equipped to prosper in reality.

As technology allows us to measure things that were previously unknowable, we will design new games that improve our ability to live in this increasingly complex world.

Jesse Schell gave an excellent talk at the 2010 DICE Summit:
(I’ll quote/paraphrase the applicable parts of both talks, so feel free to keep reading and watch them later.)

Schell observes that many of the unexpectedly wildly popular games from the past couple of years (such as Farmville and Guitar Hero) “are all busting through to reality.” He predicts that increasingly inexpensive data sensors will become ubiquitous, and will record where we go as well as the things we buy, read, eat, drink and talk about. This data will enable corporations and governments to reward our behaviors with game-like ‘points’, when really those points are just a way to trick us into paying more attention to advertisements, and we will consent to this because we will be able to redeem those points for discounts and tax incentives. Schell concludes:

The sensors that we’re going to have on us and all around us and everywhere are going to be tracking and watching what we’re doing forever, […] and you get to thinking about how, wow, is it possible maybe that, since all this stuff is being watched and measured and judged, that maybe, I should change my behavior a little bit and be a little better than I would have been? And so it could be that these systems are just all crass commercialization and it’s terrible, but it’s possible that they’ll inspire us to be better people if the game systems are designed right.

Jane McGonigal recently gave a compelling talk at TED that approaches similar ideas about how gaming can save the world:

McGonigal observes that games, and especially immersive massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, always offer quests that are perfectly tailored so as to be both challenging and possible. She offers four useful descriptive terms for these activities:

  1. urgent optimism — gamers tackle obstacles without hesitation, and they expect to succeed
  2. social fabric — games require trust and collaboration, and as a result the players develop strong relationships
  3. blissful productivity — gamers work hard when playing because they enjoy it
  4. epic meaning — game narratives make it easy for the players to see the big picture

These are part of a larger argument that gamers can save the world if they play games that are designed to have positive effects outside of the magic circles of the games. McGonigal cites an example from Herodotus in which the ancient Lydians survived a famine by distracting themselves from hunger with dice games, and she makes an argument that we can similarly use contemporary games to solve contemporary problems. That example breaks down, however, because we don’t need games that distract us from our problems like the Lydians did — we need games that enable/encourage us to face our problems and overcome them.

She goes on to describe an example of a game she worked on at the Institute For The Future called World Without Oil, which was “an online game in which you tried to survive an oil shortage.” The game provides online content to the players that presents a fictional oil crisis as real, and the game is intended to get people thinking about that problem and how they might solve it. But just as the first example is missing the direct applicability of the game to the real world, this one is missing the application of the data from the real world to the game, and both directions of influence are important.

When the ubiquitous sensors described by Schell are combined with McGonigal’s vision of games designed explicitly to save the world, the content surrounding the games (that presents real-world crises as ‘quests’) will no longer be fictional, and can instead be based on real-world data. The games will provide frameworks for understanding and leveraging all of this new data about the world. They will motivate us to act for the greater good through both monetary rewards such as tax incentives and social rewards that play to our instinctive desire for the esteem of our peers. Some games might make the model of the real world immersive, so that we as players can ignore distractions and concentrate; others might be similar to the digital tree that grows inside the dashboard of the Ford Fusion Hybrid, and will provide subtle yet constant feedback for our behavior.

We live in a world in which ‘all models are wrong but some models are useful,’ and as that world becomes increasingly interconnected and complex, the games will provide us with the data collection tools and data processing shortcuts that enable us to act intelligently. In this future we will design game-like incentives that teach and encourage us to make wise long-term decisions, so that we can outrun that tiger and save this planet. Which is important, because we only get one shot at each.

Note: the remainder of this post contains spoilers of the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

In the book, Card’s characters play war games that they do not know are actually quite real. The protagonist Ender, who is just a child, excels at the games because he thinks they are games. He uses ruthless tactics to win, unaware that he is actually committing those atrocities in the real world. Ender, unburdened by the extreme pressure resulting from real-world consequences, believes that he is merely playing a game and is thus able to save humanity from an alien threat.

Of course the games of our future need not be so ethically questionable, but the point — that games can simplify the world to enhance our focus and remove our hesitation if we are less sure that they are actually real — is still important.