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Asking Jane McGonigal

“Can gamers save the real world?” That’s the question that Jane proposes, and the answer to that isn’t abundantly clear. It’s something that she’s wrestled with for a while now, mostly with the alternate reality games that she directed, along with her first book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. She has appeared as a speaker for TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), and recently spoke about her ideas at Northeastern Illinois University, all in attempting to answer that single question. The trouble is it’s a multi-parter, and much like Operation Market Garden’s attempt at bringing down Germany in one fell swoop during WWIII, it requires everything to go right in order to succeed.

It’s at this point a person can ask, “Why gamers?”, and it would be a reasonable question. The world’s problems are as epic in scope as its size, and if it has to depend on a community that spends more time building a society and conducting peaceful diplomacy with its neighbors (see Civilization) than looking at a newspaper, well…the world might not have its work cut out for it. Or, like Jane mentions in her TED talk, millions of people out there are more interested in saving the world of Azeroth (see World of Warcraft) than the real world.

The first step in her argument is translating gamers into the proper currency for world saving. The number is one billion, gamers that is. Crude and unfiltered, scattered throughout and half of that number are probably playing Angry Birds at this very minute. The point of this step in the argument is not necessarily to truly convince the nay sayer that the gamer is the vehicle of change, but rather that there are lots of ’em. They are a resource that, in theory, can be tapped to vast amounts of potential.

So now we know there are lots of gamers out there. The next step in her series of arguments is to state the importance of games themselves; that they elicit positive emotions. It is during this step that she lists off the 10 positive emotions created by games: joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe and wonder, contentment and creativity. Let’s take a closer look at this list.

While some of these terms can be easily understood, others might be a little tricky. Like love. Love is already a tricky enough emotion outside of video games, let alone when trying to formulate its meaning inside. The explanation that Jane provides is that love is that feeling shared between gamers while playing a game cooperatively. She calls it a bonding, one that connects the gamers together. She calls it love.

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Which is interesting to say the least, but as someone who’s explored Azeroth, taken up the call for duty, engaged my opponents on various battlefields and have now recently embarked on a free-to-play adventure through a mockery of DC’s universe, I’ve got to say that’s mostly a load of crap. I feel no love for the people I play online with. There is only hate and anger. It’s not necessarily because all of them are bad people (though I’m sure most of them are), but rather due to the system in place that weaves the online experience together.

In regards to the MMO, and especially Sony’s overly crowded online space for DC Universe on the PS3, it goes like this. You, new hero of [insert world here] must wield the hammer of justice in order to smite 15 emaciated zombies of the level 4 and 5 variety. You run up onto the field where they dwell and search for your prey only to discover that there are a good few dozen other people left and right slicing up the zombies already. The zombies simply cannot spawn fast enough to maintain their own life/death ratio.

This was a problem when World of Warcraft launched, back when there were fewer servers to handle the many, back when it wasn’t quite as much of the behemoth it is today. And with only two servers to handle PS3 clients, it is definitely a problem with DC Universe. The reasonable solution to this is to group up and fight amongst these other players. That, of course, would have been madness. The actual solution that is implemented is rather to stalk throughout the zone and spawn-camp zombies before another player has a chance. These other players are not your friends, nor are they your allies. They are obstacles preventing you from accomplishing your task.

And as for the Call of Duty and Battlefield games, they present fast scenarios that are dependent on teamwork. You can’t spell team deathmatch without team, though that doesn’t stop people from running around rogue with nothing but a riot shield and a pistol. This is a problem that seems like it would be solved by people merely using a headset to communicate with other players, and thus creating tactics to defeat the other team. In practice this either leads to people shouting insults to the other team, insults to their own team, or repeated demands about the choppah and how everyone should get to it.

These are hardly people I’d ever think to love. This list looks pretty on the outset but breaks down on a case by case scenario. But, for the purposes of her argument, I’m going to simplify that games can create positive emotions, rather than attempt to pinpoint which ones specifically. The argument that games create emotion is important for two reasons, and the first is that minimal success in a video game can equate to holding onto that feeling for the long term. So perhaps, if you need a boost, it’s best not to play Dark Souls, a game that offers minimal chance at minimal success. However, pop on Angry Birds, net yourself a three star rating and you probably will be feeling pretty good about it.

As for the second part, she said, “We can play games no matter what we’re facing.” Which is an important thing to note that even in our own darkest hours, we can still find light within the game. The example she gives is via the soldiers off engaged in combat. War is an unnatural status for the regular individual, and no matter how much training a soldier receives, an elongated stay in a locale that could end with them dead or wounded can be stressful. Games provide a method to remove that excess stress.

So, to summarize what we’ve learned so far. Gamers are plentiful and games can create various positive emotions, even if we’re negative. The next step in her argument is to show how the use of games has made the world a better place. For example, the sOccket. This was designed with the third world in mind, especially those areas that still do not have electricity. It’s a soccer ball with a battery inside. The actual play of soccer, using the sOccket ball, powers up the battery. Then a light bulb can be inserted into the sOccket’s socket in order to provide light at night.

Another example is the speed camera lottery in Sweden. Like other speed cameras, it will take note of your driving infraction and a couple weeks later you’ll receive your very own speeding ticket in the mail. What it does differently is that if you are driving the speed limit, you get entered into a lottery. The prize itself is part of the money received from the tickets given out due to that specific speed camera.

The most notable example to this date, of how gamers can make the world better, is the recent success of Foldit. If you haven’t heard of it, or don’t know what it’s about, here’s a quick summary. Cells have protein, and protein allows the cells to do what they do. Protein cells fold and unfolds into specific shapes, and the shape that is constructed determines the function of the protein. Trust me on this one; I may not be a Doctor, but I played one in a video game. As for the game of Foldit you are folding and unfolding proteins in order to find specific patters – for science! This game gets the extra notoriety due to a recent puzzle that was posted. Using the construct of the game, players have managed to find the structure of a protein that allows HIV to replicate. Within a couple weeks Foldit players had solved what has baffled scientists for years.

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So can gamers save the real world? I’d actually say no. Looking at the three examples, I would argue that the sOccket avoids the real issue by providing a low cost, temporary solution. The speed camera lottery gives crazy people a valid reason to drive sane, and the results acquired from Foldit’s puzzles will still require analysis. I’m not saying that these examples are bad products, but rather they do not necessarily support the idea that gamers can save the world.

Perhaps it’s a little bit of semantics, but I would argue that the question needs to be rephrased. Instead of asking if gamers can save the world, I would ask if games can save the world. I provide this separation because gamers are unique individuals. The kind of gamer that enjoys Call of Duty might find the pace of Foldit to be a little slow and lacking in the head-shots. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if people who play Bejeweled couldn’t also enjoy Foldit.

Which brings about a simple idea: how can we make life more fun and rewarding? Foldit takes a complex problem and presents it in such a way that solving its puzzles can incite those emotions of joy, pride and creativity. The sOccket takes the fun people are already having and harnesses it. And as for the speed camera lottery? I will drive under twenty five miles per hour for a chance at some extra cash.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2011.

Gentle persuasion

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