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A World Gamified – Pt. 4: The Good of Games

March 26, 2012

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of A World Gamified

Video games receive their share of negative press. After the Columbine shooting, many in the media pointed to violent video games as the cause. Some blame video games for America’s obesity epidemic, arguing that games lead to sedentary lifestyles. The list of video games’ sins goes on and on: the “decline” of the American male, laziness, poor grades, Attention Deficit Disorder, etc. Clearly, video games have a major image problem.

You may wonder: can any good come from video games? I think that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” Video games not only can be, but are, a force for good. 

What the Experts Say

There is no shortage of research into the effects of video games. Researchers tell us that video games will help us multitask, make faster decisions, and even improve our test scores. There’s a catch: “It happens that all the games that have the good learning effect happen to be violent.” Wait, what? Is this a problem? “Brain scans show that violent video games can alter brain function…depressing activity among regions associated with emotional control.” (All quotes taken from the article linked above.)

Violent video games positively affect gamers, but with a heavy cost. Those in the media who have blamed rising teen violence on violent video games appear to have a point. However, as the research has shown, games also bring tremendous mental benefits to players. This is contentious territory, so let’s move away from violent video games and ask ourselves: in what other ways can games do good?

Watch the video embedded below. In it, researcher and video game designer Jane McGonigal makes a compelling case for why we need to encourage more video game play:

McGonigal begins by making what initially sounds like an outrageous claim. She says that currently, gamers collectively spend 3 billion (not a typo) hours a week playing online video games. McGonigal argues that this is not enough: “If we want to solve [the world’s problems], I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours per week by the next decade.” If you didn’t catch that, I’ll bold it for you – 21 billion hours of gaming per week will solve the world’s problems. If you think this sounds crazy (and I did and maybe still do), keep watching.

She goes on to break down the four things that she believes games are making us virtuosos at. Let’s unpack each of these things one-by-one.

  1. Urgent Optimism: McGonigal defines this as “extreme self-motivation.” It means that gamers “act immediately to tackle an obstacle with a reasonable chance of success.” This, she implies, makes gamers hopeful that they can solve any problem.
  2. Social Fabric: Here, McGonigal cites research that says we like people better after we play a game with them. However, she doesn’t specify what kind of games these researchers studied. Are they talking about board games, card games, video games, what exactly? I’m reminded of my friend’s comment on multiplayer online gaming: “Deep down I do realize that they’re other people; but it’s easy to forget that.” He went on to talk about how interacting with real people often drew him out of the virtual world. He felt “ripped back into reality [through anger].” Here, McGonigal’s argument fails to compel belief.
  3. Blissful Productivity: This is simple. We (human beings) are happier when we work hard on something that we deeply care about. As Ayn Rand’s character John Galt says in Atlas Shrugged: “Your work is the purpose of your life.” This, McGonigal argues, is why gamers spend so much time in their virtual worlds. It offers them the chance to do work that they actually care about.  
  4. Epic Meaning: Games offer players “awe-inspiring missions” in fully realized, expansive worlds. They give the players the chance to build an epic story for themselves.

Thus, McGonigal contends, video games are creating a legion of “super-empowered hopeful individuals.” But McGonigal acknowledges that the current situation, in which gamers play for rewards and success in the virtual world, is not an optimal one. She says: “We have to start making the real world more like a game.” And there it is, finally: our world, gamified (that is, turned into a game). McGonigal though, doesn’t intend to do this by actually turning aspects of our real lives into games. Instead, she argues that we create and play games that will make us think more deeply about the problems we face in the world.

By this point (if you’ve even made it this far), you probably are questioning McGonigal’s sanity (and perhaps, by extension, mine). But here’s something for you to chew on: she might just be right. Foldit is an online computer game that asks gamers to play around with proteins for points. It sounds simple and on some level it is. But in September of last year, gamers did something astonishing. They discovered something that scientists, engineers, and even automated computer systems hadn’t been able to unlock in over a decade of research. This is what they did: “Over a three-week period, gamers…helped to map out the structure of an enzyme that could be used to help fight HIV and AIDS.” By gamifying the work of science, researchers enabled everyone playing the game (people from all walks of life) to contribute to the difficult and often tedious tasks of scientific research. In the process, gamers solved a problem that had perplexed scientists for over a decade.

What I Say

I know from experience that games are fantastic learning tools. I used to make the world’s most low-tech games and play them with my students. The competition inspired students. They enjoyed the critical thinking, the team dynamics, and nearly all of my students learned something. Games aid memory. They challenge us to think differently about a problem. They force us to make connections that we hadn’t thought of before.

Video games also possess this power for educating. Although I disagree with those who want to incorporate video games into our school curricula (someday perhaps), this feeling comes from my strong belief that some of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have come independently of social stimuli. In other words, we must reach our learning epiphanies alone (I define “learning epiphanies” not as learning, but as those profound moments of particular insight towards solving great problems). Video games, experienced in solitude, provide gamers with the mental space necessary for enlightenment. 

Playing alone: Now go solve problems!

Games also bring us together. People derive great satisfaction from working in teams. While learning epiphanies derive from solitude, collaborative teamwork brings us together to ask tough questions of and challenge one another. One friend said that many of his favorite video game moments came whilst playing with his “real life” friends. When I reflect back on the LAN parties we had in college, sitting in one (or two) rooms playing Age of Empires II, I realize that my friend is right. McGonigal’s statement about social fabric makes sense when interpreted in this context. When we play games with people we know in the outside world, we feel a closeness and a connection with them that is noticeably absent from our normal interactions.

This is an important point because it suggests that games contribute to human empathy. The modern world (and especially American culture) lacks empathy, something essential to a peaceful, emotionally functioning future society. Video games foster empathy by literally putting the player in someone else’s shoes. Currently however, games do little to foster this sense of empathy within the game environment itself. Video game designers ought to explore the medium’s capacity for building and nurturing empathy in the gamer, because true empathy always turns us inward.

Gaming helps us thinking outside the box. But at their best, video games allow us to think outside of ourselvesThat is a truly powerful possibility.

Good Gaming

There’s a good chance that you’ll step away from reading this unconvinced that video games are a power for good in the world. You are entitled to your skepticism. However, this thinking is the Ludditic defeatism of my parent’s generation. Hands are thrown up, sighs are heard. I will sum up their view like this: people play too many video games, video games are bad, and there’s nothing we can do to change this. Wrong.

We must acknowledge that more and more people will play more and more video games. This is a fact. A viewpoint like McGonigal’s takes this reality into account. It asks “what can we do to turn gamers into productive members of society?” The gaming culture won’t change overnight, so rather than try and change that culture or take away video games, we must change the games themselves. We must create games that foster collaboration while also permitting players the opportunity to solve problems in solitude. These games must build empathy and harness a gamer’s optimism and energy towards solving real-world problems. The Foldit success is the tip of iceberg. Imagine the possibilities of a world gamified – a place where gamers work together to save, not some virtual world, but our own.

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