The World Bank’s First Experiment in Online Gaming: Letter from the Front Lines

Prior to 2010, I did not consider online gaming a likely venue in which to witness state-of-the-art anti-globalization activism, 4th generational warfare, or organized resistance to global institutions. But then I participated in Jane McGonigal’s 2010 World Bank Institute collaboration, Urgent Evoke: A Crash Course in Changing the World.

I should have suspected fireworks from the beginning: the game’s official slogan was, “This is not a game.” 

I caught wind of the McGonigal/WBI project in March 2010 via the blogosphere. A Harvard business school PhD published a link to an intriguing YouTube video. Suddenly I was being confronted by the leader of a clandestine organization, Alchemy, whose words produced a cascade of endorphins in my innards.

“Wherever you are, Whoever you are, if you found this message it’s your destiny to join us.”

Game designers published a sequence of graphic comic-style episodes, with each episode presenting a futures scenario provoking players to undertake research that could build capacity to begin solving global problems today: social innovation, food scarcity, electricity infrastructure, water crisis, the future of money, global gender inequality, crisis networking, etc.

The game design was remarkably sophisticated. Gamers could issue points for creativity, innovation, and other qualities of posted comments and solution options. Moderators could issue bundles of points. Top gamers would be flown to Washington D.C. to participate in World Bank forums, while dozens of Evoke Agents would be offered mentorship opportunities or $1,000 seed funding for social innovation projects. The game was rolling along smoothly for five weeks or so; but that’s when a group of ultra-sophisticated activist gamers showed up.

Several users — chief among them “Panamericana” and “Sarah O. Connor” — identifying themselves as Argentinian, with expertise in a variety of world-class software tricks, intentionally disrupted gamer culture, blasting comments pages with critiques of World Bank practices, “the hypocricy of constructing a game to solve problems the World Bank would create,” etc. When moderators attempted to block the users, they appeared in greater numbers under a host of different user names, offering persuasive rhetorical flourishes about democratic gaming standards and the questionable ethics of forum moderators, eventually forcing Jane McGonigal herself to post direct responses on the Evoke site. Allegedly, Panamericana violated the rules and threatened Jane McGonigal in some way. For several weeks, all the top-scoring gamers, while striving to win the grand prize trip to World Bank headquarters, were also being recruited by the Argentinian activist gamers to participate in an Evoke offshoot called Delta Squad, a sort of proxy website for sharing data on cyber warfare, DIY cryptography, et cetera.

I got my invitation to Delta Force soon thereafter, in the form of a sweet message from Sarah O. Connor, who self-identified as Panamericana’s girlfriend.

Hi Cameron, I’m Sarah, Panamericana’s girlfriend,
I was waiting for you to come back,
we need you in Delta, check my posts to find out
what we are up to.
I think we desperately need a visionary like you,
apparently they broke the mold after people like you.

Of course I  joined up — how flattering! — if nothing else,  to see what this was all about.

I entered the online equivalent of a discomforting trailer, the kind occupied by the token villain in a television cop drama, with hundreds of newspaper articles pasted on the walls with circles around them, demonstrating some self-righteous form of premeditated action. The Argentinians posted pictures: “Panamericana” claimed to be a former Argentine Air Force special operations pilot, which seemed credible judging from numerous hand-held photos obviously taken from inside a fighter jet cockpit; his girlfriend, “Sarah”, posted pictures in which she and her girlfriends were dressed in sexy revolutionary outfits holding machine guns. Because of the apparent authenticity of the Air Force pictures, I gave the sexy machine gun photos the benefit of the doubt. 

Delta Squad users were posting mostly DIY cryptography manuals and such like, which were probably very interesting, but completely over my head. After a week of this, I posted a comment on their main page saying, “Thanks for the thrills, but you people are weird. I live in an American suburb.” I deleted my account.

Jane McGonigal’s collaboration with the World Bank proceeded thereafter, for a total of 10 weeks; but honestly, from a gamer’s perspective, the innocence was gone. The activists had introduced a radical alien culture to the Edenic bubble of Urgent Evoke. Was I participating in an educational immersion — A Crash Course in Changing the World — or were these missions an unprecedented form of gamer exploitation? Here I was spending thirty hours a week searching for solutions to food shortages in Africa, offering advice to doctoral students and NGO workers writing business plans for new companies to assist in the honorable and dignified pursuit of improved quality of life and sustainability; but I could not shake off the question of how to analyze and evaluate my gaming experience.

This was not the purely fictional World of Warcraft. This was a game about the future of the actual planet, designed by a powerful institution. This was a game that explicitly told you: “This is not a game.” Was the World Bank providing global citizens an opportunity to anticipate global food shortages, infrastructure meltdowns, and other terrible outcomes?Many gamers were paying by the hour to participate from internet cafes in Africa, where frequent blackouts are the norm. Was this the future the World Bank was offering?

As time went on — week 7, week 8, finally week 10 — many of the gamers who invested the most energy in Urgent Evoke began venting their frustrations. I recall one gentleman from rural India in particular who claimed to have spent 50 hours a week researching local solution options, blogging, networking, and communicating with moderators. He hoped to receive World Bank funding for various initiatives in his village. First off, he paid for internet access by the hour, viewing this as an investment that would produce ample returns, once the World Bank listened. Second, when the game was over, and a few big winners were selected to present their particular business plan to World Bank headquarters, the rest of the gamers were left in the lurch, nothing to show for their efforts but a digital Evoke Certificate  investing the gamer with a credential —  something like Certified World Bank Social Innovator.

For most, this was a major sleight. There was no comprehensive follow up website where gamers could monitor the progress of their solution options, check if their new friends were actually implementing the companies they claimed to be designing, etc. While there was a website where gamers could donate money to fund the ideas of other gamers, donations were just enough to fuel the frustration.

Overall, despite the admirable attempts of perhaps hundreds of programmers, moderators, comic book artists, and staff, the Evoke project did not obtain the magic confluence of forces required to marry the noble desires for positive humanistic outcomes of thousands of highly-invested gamers with a viable sequence of “next best steps” in the present.

Better luck next time, I suppose.

Season 2 of Urgent Evoke took place in the summer of 2011, but this time the gaming context was significantly reduced to educational institutions in 20 countries, precisely to remove the activist culture from creative engagement with Evoke scenarios. While this move makes sense from a World Bank Institute perspective, effectively targeting pre-teens and teenagers, it would appear that the activists made a mark on the history of online gaming for transformative social innovation. Evoke, the first experiment of its kind, will go down in history as a demonstration of the power of small insurgent groups to disrupt large sociotechnical systems, at low cost, with amplified costs to the dominant institution. Panamericana and Sarah Connor forced WBI to reassess its expectations, operations, and project goals.

In a world of accelerated sociotechnical change, with complex adaptive systems out the wazoo, the World Bank’s first experiment in online gaming demonstrates some powerful insights. Chief among them, in my opinion, is the old cybernetic quagmire, as mentioned in the concluding chapter of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock:

There is, in the words of W. Ross Ashby, a brilliant cyberneticist, a mathematically provable law to the effect that “when a whole system is composed of a number of subsystems, the one that tends to dominate is the one that is the least stable.


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