Stairwell Philosophy – Can we game our way to a better society?

Spied on the blog of one Daniel Floyd, behold ye a video in which Jane McGonigal discusses how video games can help us make the world a better place.

Lots of interesting ideas in there. World of Warcraft (and the assorted games that seek to emulate it) keep players playing with a simple formula of quantifiable objectives and the eternal grind towards the next fanfare of a completed quest. I haven’t played in years and yet even now I get a little grin thinking of the coolness of finally making it to a new level, accompanied by fanfare and drums and a glowing fountain of light erupting from my avatar.

I find this to be a curious parallel to situations where an old industry meets a new way of handling business and the old school tends to be resistant and shun the new. The music industry at first vehemently opposed the idea of electronic music, but are gradually coming to accept and capitalize on the opportunities of the online market. The movie industry once wailed that VCRs and the ability to watch movies at home would be the death of them, but folks continue to line up on opening weekend and then buy the DVD on top of that.

So it is perhaps that gaming culture has been overlooked for solutions to problems in the physical world; namely, how to get people to work together to solve big issues. Some key points outlined in the video were that in a game the characters look to you to solve their problems, most of which are generally within your capability to solve (sometimes alone, sometimes with friends), and then rewards to give a sense of accomplishment upon completion and incentive to do it again. In multiplayer games there’s sometimes griefers, but most places you go you can find people who want to work together.

A recent favorite of mine is Left 4 Dead (and the sequel), which for the uninitiated involves trying to find your way through a zombie-infested city to get to an evac point. Numerous types of enemies will try to isolate and eviscerate the players, and you need the other players to watch your back and get you back on your feet. In short, trying to rush in on your own will just get you killed and leave your teammates without a valuable fourth gun. Playing this game with my friends is a hoot, but for me just as fun is jumping into a random game with strangers. Like the classic zombie movies, I enjoy the feel of four strangers having to learn to trust each other and eventually working together as a team.

So, how can we make this happen in the physical world? There’s more than enough problems about that could probably be solved if folks just got organized, and when you think about it it’s hard to say why more people aren’t concerned about them. Perhaps it’s because a lot of the big problems don’t touch your daily life. War and famine and disease kill thousands every day, but it happens to people you’ve never heard of or met and thus in your mind never happened at all. Worse, by the time it does show up on your doorstep it’s usually too late to do anything about it.

Individual folks may look at the world’s big problems and (perhaps rightly) say ‘well I can’t possibly help with that all by myself’. They might buy a wristband or add a dollar to the price of a movie ticket to ‘raise awareness’, but most folks don’t make any big push to solve big world issues, nor do they see a way they could hope to do so. People do want to help, however, and buying ‘awareness’ and contributing to similar activities gives people the feeling that they’re a part of something that may possibly eventually do some good maybe. You might not believe you can individually save the world, but you’re pretty sure you could contribute to large groups of people who could do something about it. If you thought you could just send in an application and go join a group to get out there and make the world a better place you probably would. (Well, actually you can, but I digress.)

Then there’s the matter of being ‘allowed’ to help. Just about everyone who has to answer to someone else’s authority (boss, politician, etc.) has a plethora of ideas on how they’d change things if they were in charge, if only the higher-ups would listen to their obvious wisdom. Being an actual politician or CEO or lawyer or doctor generally requires years of lisences and degrees and expensive training, but in a game you just sign in and set about saving the world. In addition to the usual fare of battling cyborg space zombies and ninja wizards, there’s plenty of games about running a company or a country, and a few that even set you to work on simulations of real issues. The one in the video about a world without oil sounds interesting, and another game about trying to make peace in the middle east is allegedly so realistic (which is to say, extremely difficult) that if you were succeed you might be able to put it on your resume.

There are certainly some advantages of tackling such problems in gaming form, noteably the fact that if you lose the game you don’t plunge millions of people into violent civil war. Additionally, gamers are willing to put up with quite a bit of failure in order to achieve victory. A lot of folks who consider themselves in the hardcore crowd actually prefer to fail along the way to victory; if they can play the game start to finish without dying once they may feel the experience lacking in challenge, diminishing the success.

Removing penalty for failure isn’t always possible, but perhaps the drive to succeed in the face of it can be harnessed. Many of mankind’s greatest achievements came about not through a lucky break or a quick tactical strike, but by months or more often years of tough grinding work with very little to show for it until the end. One of the surest way for a civil rights movement to persevere is to hang on and educate people until the old generation passes on to make way for the new, and medical research often involves day after day and year after year of testing and experimenting.

This brings us to projects like folding@home, and its assorted kin. Folding@home helps to spread the workload of testing protein folding combinations to try to make medical breakthroughs. It amounts to flipping through the world’s largest keyring, but with nearly four hundred thousand people each splitting up the work it can go a good deal faster. Additionally, when you run the program on your PS3 you get an ongoing scoreboard tracking your contribution. People can form teams to track their shared progress. Some folks even dig out old computers and organize their own server farms to crunch code faster. Of their own volition, with their own money, and for no reward aside from seeing a counter go up and knowing they’re doing something to help, ordinary folks are working together and essentially setting up their own medical testing labs to help with the search for medical breakthroughs.

Games can also get people thinking. For example, if you gather a hundred random people in a room and ask them about their zombie plan you’ll probably get at least fifty responses (and probably a full hundred if you get a room full of gamers). It’s a fictional problem that we’ll (probably) never have to deal with for real, but that doesn’t stop folks from brainstorming how they’d survive against the legions of the undead. (My advice, incidentally, is to go north where the zombies will freeze and be immobilized and easily dispatched.) Yet at the same time most folks probably don’t have a plan for what they’d do in a situation that may actually happen to them.

What would you do if a sizeable fire broke out right now in your house, too big to defeat with a fire extinguisher that’s waaay on the other side of the house anyway? How would you escape the house from where you are right now? What would you grab and take outside with you, if anything? For myself, I have a memory stick that I keep within arm’s reach at all times so that if I had the need to flee from some impending doom I’d have my writings with me, and if I happend to be in my room at the time I could try to tuck my laptop under my arm as I go out the window. Evacuation time: approximately 12-15 seconds.

This could very easily be (and in the indie zone perhaps already is) a video game, or at least a level in one. You could play as either a firefighter trying to get in and then back out of a burning building, or a survivor inside trying to either escape or just stay safe long enough to be found and carried out. Points could be awarded for speedy rescues/escapes, and procedureally generated levels would train people to quickly identify escape routes when in unfamiliar settings, as well as identifying dangers like potential backdrafts and smoke inhalation. You probably know your own house well enough to find your way around while crawling under eye-stinging smoke, but a hotel is another matter. It should also include co-op elements. Left 4 Dead makes teamwork an absolute necessity for survival; by the same token, this game could give bonus points for dragging other players along to escape routes and/or helping to highlight the way out for others. This would probably be pretty simple to make and when you get up off the couch you’d have some useful life skills.

In addition to getting people to learn useful skills, the other side of the coin is teamwork. A lot of the world’s big problems are probably too big for any individual to handle, but to paraphrase the old saying a small but dedicated hardworking team can change the world. If we can get forty people to pay real money to team up online to slay a pretend dragon for an equally pretend reward, surely we can get folks to team up to solve real problems that really affect our lives. It probably helps quite a bit that the problems facing Azeroth are much more organized than the ones on Earth. Bowser and Ganondorf will patiently wait to take over the world until you’re good and ready to foil them, but African genocide and AIDS don’t take a day off. We’d all like to save the world but we can’t agree on what problems deserve fixing first.

I don’t have an easy solution for getting people to agree which issues deserves first billing, but as with the above fire escape game idea we can get people interested in learning how one goes about solving certain problems so that we all know a little more about how to get by. This may be aided by setting more realistic goals and milestones. If you’ve got any experience in the corporate world you’re probably familiar with the eternal quest for “numbers”: minimum quotas of cell phones sold, windows washed, profit margins expanded, TPS reports filed, etc. When the target numbers are too low productivity will drop off because nobody’s being pushed hard enough. This is why lots of folks intentionally place the target numbers a bit higher than can actually be achieved so that people will always be trying to work a little bit harder. The problem is that A) the company may forget that unnatainable numbers are unattainable and punish employees for failure to meet them, and B) it’s just as hard to get motivated to reach an impossible objective as it is to get motivated to achieve a pointlessly easy one. In short, if you have control over neither failure nor success you’re probaby not going to try very hard at the project or put in effort to get better at the task.

In video games it’s different. When you’re trying to unlock an achievement you’ll keep plugging away at it even if you fail repeatedly along the way. You’ll go hit up GameFAQs or ask your friends for advice on how to get past a tough part. You might even do some digging into the source material and find some tangential learning to get into the heads of the developers and learn how to solve the problem before you. It helps that at the end you have a little badge to show off for your troubles, but to reiterate a point in the video you can also keep going because you know believe you’re capable of succeeding. Research and effort equal success, and the only qualifications you need in order to give it a try are game time and pocket money.

Well according to this WordPress status bar I’ve been rambling for somewhere in the realm of two thousand words, so I suppose it’s about time to get to the point. Can games help us be more helpful, productive, problem-solving people? I’d say it’s possible, but we’ll have to lasso together some elements of the game industry that haven’t seen much of each other in quite awhile. Namely we’d need developers willing to close the gap between regular ‘just for fun’ games and educational entertainment, as well as gamers who will support these ideas financially so these kind of games can keep being made. The rest of the art medium has been doing this for generations; the world is full of books and movies and music and visual art that endeavor to deliver a message to people. Games have a unique ability unlike any other form of art to put you in the experience, with greater potential to make you feel like a part of the story, and if you look past the standard fare of ‘experiencing entertainment’ to ‘experiencing life simulations’ the possibilities for handling serious issues are quite diverse.

Everyone has seen this iconic image of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a man, but rather a lot of people don’t know that the other fellow Nguyễn Văn Lém was a Viet Cong soldier, and further that there was a good deal of controversy on whether or not it was a legal execution (since Nguyễn Văn Lém may not have been in active duty at the time and thus may not have been a ‘legal’ target under the Geneva convention). The general faced an age-old question to which there is perhaps no ‘right anwer’: is it an evil act to kill an unarmed man whose first act, if I let him live, will be to arm himself against me? Now, it’s one thing for me to just tell you about all this and for you to think about it. It’s another to experience it and have to make the decision yourself. Imagine a game where you play as the general and you have to make the call of whether to execute a man and risk damaging public opinion of the war or let him go and risk the deaths of your friends at his hands. Or perhaps you could be the soldier who captured Lém and you’d have to decide whether to take him back to the general, knowing what would most likely happen. You’d have to make a tough decision that probably won’t turn out well either way you go, and that’s the sort of decision that makes for interesting stories.

Mind that this would actually make for a pretty good story if played out with allegorical characters: a general who wants to get his troops through this war alive, a soldier questioning his commitments, and a life hanging in the balance who may or may not deserve death for his opposing alliance. Going right in with folks’ real names would certainly be shocking to many and viewed as disrespectful by many more, but if the subject matter were handled very carefully you could use an interactive experience to educate people about the story behind a photograph that defined a war while at the same time itself being shrouded in ambiguity. How better to understand the decisions people make in tough times by being those people and experiencing those times?

Gaming is just beginning to take its baby steps in this direction with expanding good/evil options in games (mostly courtesy of Bioware), diversifying the decisions away from ‘pet kitten/launch kitten into sun’ and more towards ‘take mystical artifact to save your kingdom but the locals will die without its protection/let the locals keep the artifact but many more of your kingdom’s people will die in the coming battle without it’, which is to say decision points with few or no ‘good’ options and you’re forced to do something you personally find distasteful in order to serve the greater good. Or, as is the impetus for most such decisions, to survive.

If we can teach people how and why people in the past made tough decisions, it then follows that we can teach people how to deal with tough decisions ahead. Instead of just watching an instructional safety video you could play a simulation of escaping a collapsing building after an earthquake. You could learn about wilderness survival by simulating building a shelter from materials found in the wild and foraging different potentially-edible flora and fauna (and watching your character’s symptoms develop if you develop sickness or malnutrition from not eating right).

There’s already some examples of these sort of games on the market. There’s more than a few games to be found in which the player investigates crime scenes or takes a case to court (though they tend to drastically dramatize the nature of these professions to make a more entertaining game). Some games build the gameplay mechanics around good habits to fend off certain diseases, giving folks (especially kids) a greater awareness of how their illness functions so they feel like they have more control over their lives.

As for current events, how about putting gamers in command of the war in Iraq? There’s a careful balancing act going on there, a situation choc full of difficult decisions with numerous moral/social/economic/etc. rammifications and no clear right answer to any of it. Can you track down insurgents to prevent them from making attacks on your homeland while at the same time maintaining good public relations with the locals as your troops and tanks are rolling through their cities? Will you use methods you find distasteful in order to gain an edge against your enemy or will you try to maintain the moral high ground at greater risk to those under your command? When the job is done (or when public opinion turns against you and the people call for their troops to come home from a senseless war) can you safely pull out without leaving the area undefended and/or destabalizing everything the soldiers worked and fought and died for? Again you could either present this situation either allegorically or realistically; either way, if presented maturely it could help get people thinking about important real world issues from new angles and points of view. Even if nobody makes a miraculous breakthrough on the matter we’d at least have people more knowledgeable about the situation and what might be done if it comes up again.

To finally and at long last wrap up this three-thousand-word post before it collapses upon itself and forms a neutron star, Jane McGonigal’s insightful video games have the capacity to teach us useful skills if we can craft entertaining games that encourage us to learn and use them, ideally not by simply attaching a controller to a study session but by crafting a game that’s entertaining and that we want to succeed at so that we’ll voluntarily want to learn this useful information to succeed at the game and at life.


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