Corey and Lori's Quest Log

Corey and Lori’s Quest Log

Serious Fun and Games

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

“Magic is loose in the world!” – Waldo, Robert A. Heinlein

Serious GamesA hot topic in gaming these days is that of “Serious Games.” Serious games have a purpose outside the game – to teach, to build teams, or to solve problems. Games of all types can bring people together and teach useful skills. Games are loose in the world, and rapidly becoming indistinguishable from real life.


Can Gaming Save the World?

Nagath recently showed me this talk by Jane McGonigal at the TED Conference:
Jane McGonigal, “Gaming Can Make a Better World”
Ms. McGonigal’s theme is that players spend billions of hours each year playing online role-playing games. She points out that they learn valuable skills while gaming including how to work with others, economics, risk assessment, accepting challenges, and so on. Players feel out of control in their mundane lives, while games reward them and give them a sense of accomplishment and control. But Jane also thinks games could do a lot more. Her group is developing a series of “serious games” that empower the players to learn and make decisions about important issues such as energy conservation, developing businesses in poor countries, and so on.

Can Games save the World?I like the message, but am a bit wary about it. I know how much time I spend on World of Warcraft, bridge, poker, and other games, and that much of it is “wasted” other than in making me feel good. At the same time, it isn’t really the fault of the games. I’m a PRO-crastinator, an accomplished expert at putting things off. (See my article, Counter-Productivity, for some examples of how to avoid getting things done.) When I try to avoid WoW, I find that I fill those empty hours with other non-productive activities. Jane McGonigal wants to immerse people in games that will cause them to solve problems, but I worry that this will just accelerate the trend towards hiding from real life in games.

Teach Your Children Well

Can we really learn real-world skills by playing games? Orson Scott Card, in his novel Ender’s Game, described such a game. The skill learned in this case was interstellar warfare. Ender, the main character, is tricked into directing an actual battle that he thinks is a simulation. He manages to win it against seemingly impossible odds… but at an incredible cost. The U.S. military has adopted the “battle game” concept with America’s Army and other “serious games” that are designed to recruit young people and then turn them into efficient soldiers.

Many games have been developed to teach less violent lessons, including my Castle of Dr. Brain and Lori’s Mixed-Up Fairy Tales. Students who get to play games in the classroom feel more involved in school and perform better on standardized tests. But so far, educational games have not lived up to their early promise. In the 1960’s, many people believed that computer-based education would allow students to learn at their own pace. Children would learn more, and a smaller number of teachers could handle large classrooms. In the 1970’s, systems like PLATO tried to make it easier to develop educational software. Somehow, these efforts never seemed to make it past the pilot project stage.

Consumer Points

Outside of education, there’s another area where we are starting to see game-like systems, and that’s in product marketing. People like getting rewarded for doing things they had already planned to do, and marketers know that such rewards often encourage them to spend more. “Green stamps”, airline mileage points, the McDonald’s Monopoly game, and similar systems encourage people to spend more, and sellers often consider the promotional costs well spent. I spent most of my time at Montreal’s Expo ’67 playing Skee Ball because I kept winning tickets that I eventually spent on a large stuffed poodle. The prizes kept me playing.

Jesse Schell of Schell Games and Carnegie-Mellon University recently game a talk at DICE (Design Outside the Box) suggesting that such point systems could be taken a lot farther – “points for everything!” Jesse says that marketers could take advantage of our love for prizes by turning every consumer activity into a point-winning game.

Jesse’s video was actually pretty disturbing, and reminded me of the classic novel by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. In that story, huge corporations run the world. Their advertising is so effective that people believe their most important role is to buy things. It’s a good thing that was just science fiction; we would never fall for… mmm, Starbucks.

Gee, thanks, Jesse. Use our love for games to get us to buy products we don’t need and are bad for us.

The problem with making games that really help people instead of exploiting them is that game development costs time and money, and helpful games have no obvious revenue source. Jesse’s talk hints at some less commercial ways we could use game-like point systems, such as promoting use of public transportation. The government could fund a game like this with gasoline taxes, which would also reduce driving and pollution.

Pointing Towards the Future

We know awards, recognition, and achievements can change our behavior. But will that accomplish anything more valuable than increasing product sales? I think it can, but we will need to find incentives for creating helpful games. Maybe that could start with a meta-game in which the developers are awarded – or award themselves – points instead of dollars for designing “better life” games. Unfortunately, game developers need to eat, and starving is a powerful negative point system.

Fun and GamesGames are loose in the world, and it’s up to all of us to decide how serious we want our fun to be. We can let the new games be ruled by greed – That worked so well for Enron and Lehman Brothers, after all. Or we can try to create, play, and live gaming lives that improve our lives and the world around us.


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