How Gaming Can Change The World

Research into the nature of games points to reasons why they are equally valuable to the world as reality.

A year ago, games researcher Jane McGonigal developed SuperBetter as a game-based method for recovering from the traumatic brain injury she was suffering from at the time, and has now announced the upcoming launch of a Kickstarter project aimed at funding a published game guide. In the 5-minute video below (and in a longer TED talk here) she gives her take on how games can change behavior and the world.

Jane’s thesis challenges our notion of what it means to play a “game.” A glance at traditional definitions of “game” will lead the reader to notions of a game as an abstraction of reality (and therefore less valuable than reality) or a mere form of entertainment: games are what children play, reality is what adults engage in.

Jane argues that it is in fact this very abstraction from reality that makes games valuable. Games can provide an environment where:

  • difficult things are possible, encouraging optimism
  • things are naturally interesting, provoking curiosity
  • players have a sense of agency, providing motivation
  • actions are immediately meaningful, inspiring awe and wonder
  • there are plenty of collaborators ready to tackle complex tasks along with the player, as in MMORPGs, fostering trust and cooperation

In her other works, Jane goes on to describe how games are in fact developing important skills within societies (and have been, since the advent of dice) - skills that will be critical to overcoming global challenges facing humanity.

Games as design for the better

Jane’s charge is in opposition to the idea that reality is the only proper training ground for developing these skills. The primary difference invoked between games and reality is that games are narrated by a designer, while real life is complex and unscripted. Other opponents to the rise of gaming often point to the value of the classroom.

As for the narration issue, it’s worth noting that to the extent that games are designed and “less than real,” so too is the professor’s lecture. Both can be well designed, constructed for efficiently challenging others towards real learning. Alternatively, either can be a mind-dulling exercise built to captivate people just long enough to accomplish some short-term goal – beating the game or passing a test – doing nothing for long-term or valuable learning.

In a discussion of how to build systems for understanding the impact of pollution and CO2, professor and game programmer Greg Niemeyer of UC Berkeley talks about the critical difference between telling someone something important – however critical it is – and having them experience the meaning behind it themselves. Games provide an means through which difficult environments can be more directly experienced in this way.

On the inherent value of reality

It’s also worth considering the inclination to view reality as a value in itself. This is sometimes based on the complexity of reality as the source of it’s value, as noted above. Kevin Slavin of the game design firm Area/Code has noted that it is again abstraction of reality from complexity to simplicity that shows the value games have, by isolating key concepts. The value of virtual currencies in games like Farmville (“who would pay $1 for a sheep that doesn’t even exist?” is the question often asked) helps illustrate the strong social component of the things people actually value – something doesn’t necessarily need to be tangible and ‘real’ to be valuable.

More often than not, though, the argument is simply “reality is just better – period.” Psychologist Joanna Starek studies the nature of self-deception, and takes issue with the absolute value of reality, most notably in a Radiolab episode on deception. She primarily studies athletes, finding a relationship between those who are able to perform better than others who are their physiological equals, and their ability to better abstract themselves from reality (as measured by Sackeim & Gur’s classic self-deception test) - in this case, the measurable physiological reality of their ability to perform. In short, the athletes who recognize the reality of potentially over-exerting themselves fall short of their physiological equals – “reality” does not necessarily translate to “better.”

As we see increasingly more innovators abandon the traditional conception of “games” as subordinate to “reality,” we will see more developments encouraging behavior change for the better through the values McGonigal points to above. These will range from the Epic Win to-do application with individual-level implications to IBM’s CityOne Smarter Planet game with global-scale implications.

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