"Why games make us better and how they can change the world", the subtitle says. You'd think you have to be a game designer or a gamer in order to benefit from reading Jane McGonigal's book. Once you start reading it, though, you realize that a Prime Minister, a mother or an engineer would all find great value among its pages. In this article, I will focus only on the part that impacted me the most, and leave the rest at your inner curiosity.
So, how can games change the world and make it a better place? Here are a few ways that Jane McGonigal shares with us:
Crowdsourcing, shorthand from outsourcing a job to the crowd, means inviting a large group of people to work together and tackle a big project. The scale and involvment of this crowd exceeds what an organization is capable of doing alone. It's faster, better and more cheaply.
Here are a couple of examples:
Investigate your MPs expenses
In 2009, one of the biggest scandals in the British Parliament's history occured. Hundreds of Members of Parliament (MPs) were suspected to illegally cover personal expenses from the contributions of taxpayers. Naturally, the public was outraged and demanded that the issue got investigated. The Goverment then shared a collection of data of more than a million expense forms and receipts. The files were saved as images, which made the information even more difficult to analyze and operate with.
As a result, the Guardian launched "Investigate your MP's expenses", the world's first massively multiplayer investigative journalism project designed by Simon Willison. He set up a website where anyone could examine the public records for incriminating details. After only 3 days, more than 20.000 players had analyzed more than 170.000 electronic documents. The crowd of gamers did tremendously important work, with real political results (at least 28 MPs resigned, new expense codes were written etc.), faster than any individual organization could have and they did it for free.
Folding@home is a system created by biologists and medical researchers at Stanford University, as an attempt to tackle how proteins unfold and what shapes they take. Why is this important? Proteins are the building blocks of all biological activity and they can be arranged and folded in almost any imaginable combination and form. This makes it almost impossible to predict what form a protein will take. The challenge here is that sometimes, for unknown reasons, proteins stop folding corectly. Protein misfolding is believed to be connected to Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis and even many cancers.
Computers could have simulated every possible shape, but it would have taken 30 years to test all the shapes 1 protein could take, out of the 100.000 proteins in our body. Therefore, Sony launched the Folding@home application for PS3 where gamers could accept a protein-folding mission. More than 1 million gamers on six continents contributed to the cause and within 6 months, they collectively achieved supercomputing milestones never achieved before.
2. SOCIAL PARTICIPATION GAMES
Social Participation Games are designed to give players real-world volunteer tasks that feel heroic and satisfying.
This is a Web and mobile phone app that allows you to micro-volunteer on-demand and on-the-spot. Players browse a list of missions enlisted by real nonprofit organizations that can be done in just a few minutes, right from where they are. Within a few months of its launch, players had collectively completed more than 22.000 missions on behalf of more than 20 nonprofit organizations.
Lost Joules is a game seeking to motivate people to consume less nonrenewable energy and create a sustainable engagement economy. It allows players to place bets on their real life energy usage, which, if successful, earns them in-game currency and challenges them to achieve energy-saving missions.
3. FORECASTING GAMES
Forecasting games combine collective intelligence with planetary-scale simulation. They challenge players to reimagine and reinvent the way we do things.
World Without Oil
World Without Oil was designed by Ken Eklund as a massively multiplayer thought experiment: players spent 6 weeks imagining how their local communities, their industries and their lives would be affected if the world ran out of oil. The game produced more than 100.000 online media artifacts and tackled issues like how to design and build homes in a world without oil or how to parent in a world without oil.
This one is my personal favourite. The scenario of the game stated that humanity had 23 years to go before becoming extinct and challenged players to manage to delay the extinction. What I want to share with you here are a couple of solutions that the players of this game generated:
Energy-harvesting clothes - what you wear every day, your clothes, could be equipped with small solar panels that collect energy that can be used to power your laptop or mobile phone
Seeds ATMs - have Seeds ATMs installed worldwide where people can go and get free seeds in order for them to grow their own food.
The reason why I chose to share these examples from the book with you in more detail is because they all bring us to an essential perspective:
Games can harness the collective wisdom coming from many different areas of knowledge in a fast and effective way.
Game design is applicable in multiple domains: from medicine to energy saving, from civic involment to reinventing the way our world works.
If you design a game for a real-world problem and you design it well, players don't need to be specialised in those areas in order to solve it. For example, gamers contributed to protein folding without being biologists or doctors.
Games have the power to bring together hundreds of thousands, even millions of people and that exceeds by far what a single organization is capable of achieving.
With the right design, games have an incredible potential to create democratic work structures, even national or global organizational structures that can radically reinvet the way we co-exist and lead.
Jane McGonigal shifted my perspective and deeply extended my horizon in terms of what's possible to achieve through a game. By the end of the book, she even talks about a thousand-year game. I'll leave you with this, just think about it. A thousand-year game!
McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Vintage Books London