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Can Games Really Change the World?

It's a lofty question with grounded answers.

The idea that games can change the world sounds pretentious to me. It’s a notion I believe, sure, but in a distant sort of way, like how I faintly accept that my vote counts in the grand scheme of things. What changes, at least in the traditional sense, could games honestly cause? Then again, why not? Why couldn’t games actually change the world? That’s where Jane McGonigal comes in.

I had the opportunity to listen to McGonigal speak recently, and there are several reasons why gamers should take note. She's the author of the best-selling book on the science of how games can be good for us, Reality is Broken, and you may have noticed her making rounds in the media. She has appeared on Fox News to describe why people should play games, been on the Colbert Report, and given a TED talk. She also taught game design at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the creative director of Social Chocolate.

Why does any of this matter? McGonigal is knocking hard on a door that many people simply pass by: how can we use the effects of games to meaningfully cause change? Needless to say, McGonigal has a very directed take on games and their impact on people. Here’s where the bread meets the butter: she’s not all talk. She creates games based on what she advocates for, and she’s got research and plain facts to support her claims.

Her talk began at the core of one of her many arguments: games affect the emotions of players. Of course gamers know this; we enjoy playing games and frequently describe our reactions to them, like we love playing one game or hate another. But McGonigal shifts this perspective by discussing the emotions gamers actually receive from playing games—such as creativity, contentment, pride, and even love—instead of just the overt, reactionary feelings. She stated that these emotions also stay with us for up to 24 hours. Whether we know it or not, we take away part of the experience with us.

She subtly reinforced this claim with a very interesting idea: MMO thumb wrestling. She had everybody in attendance lock thumbs with their surrounding neighbors using both hands. Everybody got involved and enjoyed the game, and that’s exactly what she intended. Apparently, holding someone’s hand for just 6 seconds is one of the best ways to release oxytocin, a chemical that makes us more open to other people, into a person’s bloodstream. And she had us accomplish this lasting feeling through a game.

These are ideas, supported by research, of how games can have a positive influence on people and cultivate skills. These are also ideas many people have heard of before, albeit with relatable results, but McGonigal doesn’t stop here. These ideas are only the foundation, and this is when she brought in the real-life examples of games and change.

The first was a simpler story of Kevin Richardson, a Nickelodeon games division producer, who took the notion of a camera-monitored speed trap (the kind that sends the speeder a ticket by mail) and turned it into the Speed Camera Lottery. Based on the period of time this Stockholm speed camera was active, a random winner would be periodically drawn from those who drove under the speed limit and given 10% of the fines collected from actual speeders. At a particularly busy intersection, speeds reduced from 32 kph to 25 kph in just 3 days. It’s a small change, but it’s one that illustrates people responding strongly to a game.

A much more pointed example of game-changers, if you will, is Foldit. Foldit is a game I’d heard of before; you may have, too—it’s been in the news lately. It’s a game about protein folding developed by Bungie, pioneers of the Halo series, for the University of Washington. By playing the game, players explore and manipulate proteins as 3D structures. Computers examining protein structures require extensive resources, and that’s why gamers were brought in: to take advantage of the pattern-happy human brain. Foldit players recently unlocked a structure of an AIDS related enzyme, one that the scientific community has been trying to unlock for 10 to 15 years. (Foldit players were even listed alongside the authors of the research published in the journal Nature as “Foldit Players.”) A game was specifically engineered to solve real problems and is reaping seriously beneficial rewards. Foldit works.

Then McGonigal described games from her studio, explaining further how games and change aren’t so opposite terms. The first was World Without Oil. The game challenges its players to ask “what if?” as if the world was actually facing an oil crisis back in 2007 when it was released (e.g., what would happen to transportation, how would war be waged, what would happen to NASCAR, etc.). Some aspects of the game were based on fictionally high gas prices. Then gas prices actually reached those fictional heights in our world. The information generated by gamers modeled how events were occurring in our world fairly accurately, like home foreclosure rates or patterns in the US.

Other games she showed us from her studio were Evoke, a game about changing the world, and Find the Future. The latter brought 500 people into the New York Public Library for a night to write a story, and they did so by playing games. These few examples showed more variety than I was expecting, and perhaps most surprisingly to me, they appear to have captured the "fun" element in some form. These were games influencing change in the world, in however big or small of a way, and they were actually accomplishing what they set out to achieve.

Most people are only concerned about playing games to have fun. I strongly agree with the sentiment: games should be fun in some form. Games about ending world hunger, for example, at least for me, conjure images of a crudely crafted edutainment game. In a Q&A after her talk, she made a point about games enabling change through actual entertainment, one that doesn’t fall under the title “edutainment.” (And even if I misheard her, I think that is a very, very important distinction.)

Many people who are naysayers about games are simply uninformed. A surprising number of senior aged men and women were at her talk. At the beginning, McGonigal asked people in the room to raise their hands if they played games for at least 10 hours a week. Several people, mostly college students, including myself, raised their hands; in response, I heard several older voices go “wow,” or “oh my God,” and several expletives. By the end of the talk, those same people were talking about how interesting the presentation was, many with a smile on their faces. It may or may not have changed their perspectives, but at least they might see some of the many benefits that games bring to the world.

I think it’s important that we know how games affect us. Sure, we play games to have fun, to lord dominion over an anonymous opponent, to experience a story, and many other reasons as unique as the individual playing. McGonigal makes many great points about games actually having a real impact on our world, and her claims honestly have merit. If the hobby we love so much can impact us and the world in some way, that’s something worth understanding. Even if a person just uses this information to educate someone else on the validity of games, that’s a good start. But as gamers, if we can receive a better understanding about what games mean to us and what that can mean for the world, that’s knowledge worth sharing.



Esteban Cuevas Staff Alumnus

10/13/2011 at 12:01 AM

Great piece. Presentations like this are far and few between where I live. Many take our medium in low regards. That's unfortunate. Luckily, there are some stories like the Foldit game that garner national attention and give gamers a positive spotlight. On the other hand, we have to help cure AIDS in order to look good in the mainstream media's eyes. However, beyond the simple entertainment factor, there's a lot interactive entertainment can contribute.


10/24/2011 at 05:43 PM

McGonigal sounded great on the Colbert report, too. I hope that writing like this opens up video games to an even larger market than they have already. One day we might even be able to create crowds as large as our most popular sports.

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