If the world could only harness the collaborative genius of gamers, many of our most intractable problems could be solved. This was the central argument of the amazing Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development, Institute for the Future, and best-selling author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. (A similar version of her talk can be seen from TED above).
Games can effectively be a platform for engaging people as collaborators. Given the success of some of the best-selling games, the potential scale of collective action is enormous. As an example, McGonigal said Angry Birds has had 1 billion downloads and at some point 1/10 people on earth have played the game. In total, “people have spent a total of 325,000 years avenging these poor birds.” Another game with “extraordinary reach” is Call of Duty. The average players of that game spent about 170 hours a year playing, which is about the same of one full-time month of work. “They are playing like it’s a job.” In fact, the game is so popular it also interferes with work: when a new version recently came out, some 1/4 of all players called in sick to work.
Gamers may be so intently focusing on their games because they get little stimulation at work. They aren’t alone: some 74 percent of American workers were said to be “disengaged” at work, according to a Gallup poll. This lack of engagement costs U.S. employers about $300 billion annually. Plus, a lack of engagement really equates to a lack of innovation, which is a danger for the U.S. economy as a whole. McGonigal said the real story is that “there’s passion and energy but it’s being transferred to the virtual world of gaming.” Instead of seeing this as part of the decline of Western civilization, McGonigal interestingly sees it as a huge opportunity. As NYU professor Clay Shirky, who wrote Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (a book worth a read), noted, Wikipedia took around 100 million hours of collaborative global effort to create. “That’s just three weeks of Angry Birds. We have the potential to create 7 Wikipedias every week.” McGonigal even has a new word to define this online world: the “engagement economy,” which is made possible through “mass participation and skills and abilities.”
So for all those parents out there worried about their kids rotting their minds with online games, perhaps they should put their fears aside. Game playing, which 99 percent of boys and 92 percent of girls under 18 do, actually boosts positive emotions. Gamers associate the following feelings with games: “joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe, wonder, contentment, and creativity.” In games, we are also “working with others.” Being a part of a massive multiplayer community “creates confidence, a sense of agency.”
In a survey of research, gamers were found to be more creative. “And the more time they spent gaming, the more creative they were.” Gamers spend about “80 percent of their time failing. You have to try again and again.” This builds a positive sense of self. For everyone, social games actually lead people “to help each more in real life.” Even casual gaming “outperforms pharmaceuticals for anxiety and depression.” Interestingly, those with ADHD had their symptoms disappear when they started gaming. For those with autism, playing games helped them to “collaborate better and improve their emotional intelligence.” Games “make us resilient and create super-empowered individuals.”
McGonigal then explained how the three “super-powers” of gamers could be harnessed to address some of the world’s most daunting challenges. First, gamers can “summon crowds out of thin air.” As an example, she pointed to a real-world “Farmville,” an app called Ground Crew that enables local urban agriculture organizations to find volunteers in real time based on how far they are from the farms. Ground Crew led to a “1oo-time boost in volunteer participation” for some local organizations.
Second, gamers can “solve the unsolvable.” No joke. McGonigal pointed to a site called Fold IT by the University of Washington that used gamers to manipulate infinitely complex proteins. If proteins “fold in a certain way, you get a disease.” But unraveling the folds is no easy feat: “it’s a Rubix cube with 100 sides.” In a show of force for the gaming world, gamers solved a unbelievably complex challenge related to HIV in just 10 days. Researchers with PhDs had been working on the problem for nearly a decade. Their feat was even written up in Nature, one of the world’s best science journals.
Third, “gamers can see the future.” A new Web site called the World without Oil, which asked users to play games around the idea of peak oil and explain how they would live with oil at $4 a gallon, documented some 100 thousand stories. A year later, “when the world caught up” and gas reached those prices, the stories listed actually provided “an early warning systems.”
So getting on board with games may be the way to go. Kids gaming today will soon grow into adults who game. “It’s inevitable. Soon we’ll all be gamers.”