Games have been on my mind more than usual lately, both because of Jane McGonigal’s new book Reality is Broken, and Bruce Sterling’s review of The Art of Game Design. Games are fascinating because players perform pointless tasks that under any other circumstances would be considered work, and master arcane skills, all in the name of fun. If the energy put into playing games could be harnessed to external reality, whether economic or political, it’d be like building a social perpetual motion machine.
At the Prevail Project, we’ve been throwing around a few ideas for games. Games are undoubtedly educational, every game must at least teach players how to play the game. The military is investing heavily in games, and in fact, through Axis & Allies and Dungeons & Dragons, many modern games are able to trace their ancestry to Kriegspiel, the war game of the Prussian General Staff. The experiences of games can be immersive, epic, transformative. But aside from warfare, educational games exist in a ghetto of boring vocabulary flashcards and math drills. How can we use games to tell people stories about the world in a way that translates into becoming better citizens? Fate of the World is one such game, where players must solve global crises, learning about energy, climate change, and balancing political constituencies.
Another side of games is socialization. The typical charge leveled against gaming is that it’s an anti-social activity that takes a person out of their community. McGonigal presents research saying that gamers are more cooperative that the average person, and that games provide a social space that introverts feel comfortable in. Schell in The Art of Game Design has an interesting anecdote about designing an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Game) for Disney where the mechanics encouraged cooperation and politeness, leading to a better player culture. Multiplayer gaming with people you know can be a great way to bond. The question is how to make the social aspect of games more real, and not ‘thin’ connections that draw a player away from the real world.
The last area of games that we’re interested in, and on which relatively little research has been done, is the use of games to help collective decision-making. If I may get theoretical, there are basically three ways we collectively make decisions. The first is democracy; we vote for some people on the promise that they’ll do right by us. The second is expertise; we delegate questions to people who claim to know something, and do what they say. The third is economic; we pay people to do things we want, are rewarded for doing useful things in turn. All of these methods have problems. Democracies are slow to make and implement decisions (“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”–Winston Churchill). It’s hard to evaluate the advice of experts, and expert advice is rarely followed, and the economy is in thrall to next-quarter thinking, and many people find their jobs (if they’re lucky enough to have a job) pointless and alienating. But maybe the principles of game design, experiences, flow, the right mixture of emotions and incentives, can be used to improve upon the money economy. If there was a platform for people to experiment with various forms of currency, reputation, and reward, then a diversity of options might help us discover a way to collectively make decisions that is effective, legitimate, and most of all, fun to participate in.