Can gaming make a better world?

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Jane McGonigal certainly seems to think so. She argues that gaming is becoming increasingly wide-spread and that gamers exhibit the following positive traits while gaming:

  • Urgent optimism: in a game, every problem can be solved. Conversely, solving problems in reality can be impossible and frustrating.
  • Social fabric: gamers must form a team to solve a problem. One is forced to socialize, which is also the reason for multi-player games being so appealing.
  • Blissful productivity: Gamers put in a lot of time and work quite hard to achieve their goals. Compare this to universities where students frequently complain about a lack of motivation.
  • Epic meaning: McGonigal mentions the “World of Warcraft wiki” being the second largest wiki after Wikipedia. I’m not sure what her point is here. It seems related to the previous point, because without the meaning that games provide, gamers would not be motivated.
She then presents three games that helped to shape participants’ behavior in the real world:
  • World without oil: simulates an oil crisis. Participants apply oil-saving habits that they have acquired in the game to the real world.
  • Superstruct: Ups the stakes by simulating a reality where a computer predicts that humanity only has 23 years to go.
  • Evoke: A game designed to elicit social innovations from participants.
McGonigal concludes that games can be used to solve real-world problems. This position is based on a few assumptions, some of which I partially disagree with:
  • There is not enough problem-solving in the world. Not true. The problem is that there is too much optimization, but it all happens locally and/or at the wrong place (investment bankers maximizing their profits, politicians looking for votes, etc.). Many people try to “save the world”, but it often involves fighting someone else and increasing conflict (of which there is already too much). So my guess is that most of the (industrialized) world would profit from people taking it easier and letting the big picture seep in.
  • Analysis is the best tool to solve the world’s problems. Many hard problems are based on emotions: wars, discrimination, racism, obesity, etc. Rational thought is often the wrong tool to solve these problems. Otherwise, rational people would not be obese or alcoholics. On the other hand, the social component of games can be used to influence people on a more emotional level. Compare this to how having more black role models on TV and in the movies must help with reducing racism. Some of the older Hollywood movies were atrocious in this regard... Visualizing something is a powerful first step towards making it a reality.
  • Everyone’s contributions are similar. Expert contributions have a different quality from grass root ideas how everyone can contribute. The “global extinction awareness system” game seems to factor in expert knowledge, but fully integrating such knowledge into game play seems quite challenging to me.
I think that for real-world problem solving, the current games are a start, but they have to become more sophisticated. Instead, I would interpret McGonigal’s arguments differently: She makes a compelling case for using games for education. Game technology could help to transfer experience (via a simulation) and not just dry knowledge. Everything would have a lot more meaning. You could, for example, walk through ancient Rome instead of only reading about it. Peer teaching is desirable, not common in classrooms, and can be the result of the above mentioned social component of games. Another example are foreign languages. To me, learning a foreign language only made sense after I went to a country where it was spoken and experienced it in action. Accordingly, game technology can provide immersive language learning.