How Gamers are Changing the World

// Posted by on 03/30/2012 (1:40 PM)

Although I do not consider myself a “gamer,” despite the occasional round of Mario Kart, for some reason Jane McGonigal’s TED talk “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” and her case study Why I Love Bees, both really struck a chord with me. Since this TED talk was already blogged about, I don’t want to spend too much time on it, except to look at the relationship between gaming and collective intelligence (for a quick refresher, watch this interview between Jane McGonigal and Stephen Colbert. In her article “Be a Gamer, Save the World,” McGonigal highlights the main points of her theory of gaming, as mentioned in her TED talk. Specifically, her research has “shown that games consistently provide us with the four ingredients that make for a happy and meaningful life: satisfying work, real hope for success, strong social connections and the chance to become a part of something bigger than ourselves.” Importantly, she stresses that while these benefits are present almost all of the time within games, there are also present, albeit to a lesser degree, in our real lives.

In discussing McGonigal’s theory in class, I feel as though we focused too much on the “escapist” aspect of gaming, but without analyzing to what extent this occurs, and whether or not this allows for an effect on the real world. McGonigal begins to analyze the escapist mentality by pointing out that “Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer’s sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? The real world just doesn’t offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy.” Taking this further, and fully admitting that this seems to prove games are an escape, I think that gamers are simply looking for more in games, which is different from simply trying to escape their real lives. As McGonigal points out,

“In a good game, we feel blissfully productive. We have clear goals and a sense of heroic purpose. More important, we’re constantly able to see and feel the impact of our efforts on the virtual world around us. As a result, we have a stronger sense of our own agency—and we are more likely to set ambitious real-life goals… When we play, we also have a sense of urgent optimism. We believe whole-heartedly that we are up to any challenge, and we become remarkably resilient in the face of failure… Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family.

Furthermore, I think the online game I Love Bees also makes the same case. Over the course of the game, the players involved, and there were many, were constantly looking to the real world to further their progress towards solving the problem posed by the game. I think this is a clear case of using the impact of efforts in a virtual world to set ambitious real-life goals- how else could they have successfully relayed a personal message world-wide with only a 15-second time differential between two calls?

I think the main component of gaming that allows for gamers to change the world is the concept of collective intelligence. While McGonigal talks about the success of this collective intelligence in games like EVOKE, and in real-life charities and causes, I think the best example of collective intelligence in action comes from the gamers online who are literally working towards curing cancer (oh, and HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s too).

Although these gamers aren’t just people who happen to game while working during the day in some research lab, they’re effectively solving scientific puzzles in ten days that researchers couldn’t solve in over ten years. The game i’m talking about is called “Foldit,” and the results form this online game have been published in Nature, arguably the most prestigious scientific journal out there, a total of two times (and two times = a big deal). This article by MSNBC gives a simplified, easy to understand explanation of the game, and I think one of the most important things to take away from this article is the fact that this game in itself is “one small piece of the puzzle in being able to help with AIDS,” while each individual player is also one small piece of the puzzle, who, with little to no knowledge of molecular biology, can still contribute. This reminds me of Shirky’s point of unmanaged divisions of labor, especially as seen in projects like Wikipedia.

Although I don’t know much about this website (or how credible a source it is), it goes a little more in depth about Foldit, and makes a couple good points that I think are crucial to understanding how the game works to save the world. The paper published in Nature describes the game as:

Foldit players leverage human three-dimensional problem-solving skills to interact with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and algorithms from the Rosetta structure prediction methodology. Players collaborate with teammates while competing with other players to obtain the highest-scoring (lowest-energy) models. In proof-of-concept tests, Foldit players—most of whom have little or no background in biochemistry—were able to solve protein structure refinement problems in which backbone rearrangement was necessary to correctly bury hydrophobic residues. Here we report Foldit player successes in real-world modeling problems with more complex deviations from native structures, leading to the solution of a long-standing protein crystal structure problem.

I think that the most important part of this description is that the players collaborate with teammates while competing with other players. I think this is collective intelligence at its core; a group of players working together, while competing amongst each other, to solve a huge problem that no one person could even attempt to solve on his or her own. And if you still doubt that games like this can save the world, the paper in Nature (remember, Nature  is sort of like a scientist’s Bible) concludes:

“The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the M-PMV PR structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems. Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem. These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

In the end, I don’t think that I can articulate my point any better than that. However, even this concise and informative description raises some big questions. Particularly, if these online games can be as massive as I love Bees was, how can anyone go about properly directing it? In my mind, directing something this massive in itself takes some kind of collective intelligence. So, similarly to the how question, who will make up this collective intelligence designed to direct another collective intelligence? Furthermore, we talked in class about some potential problems that would be perhaps impossible to solve using this kind of technique (especially something like politics, with its wide spectrum of ideologies, and which tends to become a very touchy subject);  do you think that, given a gamer’s urgent optimism, clear goals, and productive tendencies, there could be some chance of solving serious, yet charged problems, like those involving politics?


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Kelsey said...

Good post Tommy, I agree that we do get a little caught up in the escapist aspect of the games people are usually playing. However, I also think that these kinds of games McGonigal is talking about are not the kind of games that go viral. As we’ve discussed and seen throughout history collaboration has been the source of so much innovation. There was an article in the April edition of Wired that made it very clear that using the internet can be the most effective means we have for effective collaboration( Getting that to kind of collaboration through video games that masses are going to want to play is the biggest hurdle that McGonigal has to jump but I think that she is getting close and that perhaps we’ll get to see this happen in our lifetime.

// 04/04/2012 at 10:56 pm