At a recent video game tournament in Denver called ClutchCon, I was moderating a panel discussion on the future of video games, and we got into the topic of leveraging the time and energy spent playing video games into a “wisdom of crowds” approach for solving the world’s problems.
Video games have a way of immersing players into an epic challenge that consumes them physically, intellectually, and emotionally. While detractors commonly dismiss game playing as a waste of time, it more accurately embodies an evolutionary shift in human pastimes causing more synapse-firing per second than virtually any other activity on earth.
It is this heightened level of brain activity that most intrigues me. Educators would love to tap into it. Employers would give anything to see their employees as engaged at work as they are in games. And big thinkers who are heavily invested in solving the world’s biggest problems would drool over the prospects of applying ten gazillion well-focused brain cells onto whatever problem they’re wrestling with.
Passive engagement is far different than commanding someone’s full attention, and games have a way of engrossing players on virtually every brain metric for hours, sometimes days, on end. Gaming’s kill-or-be-killed situations force players to constantly push themselves to another mental state.
The addictive nature of gaming comes from players reaching pinnacle levels of brain activity where they are rewarded with an endorphin-like high. Ordinary kids are suddenly transformed into a swaggeringly ultra-cool superhero persona, and the accolades they receive for their digital accomplishments are just icing on the cake.
At issue, though, is our ability to transition “digital accomplishments” into something of real world value. How can we shine this spotlight of laser-brain brilliance onto problems like curing cancer, mitigating hurricane damage, or large-scale corruption and actually change the world?
In many ways, the path to making some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs is much like slogging our way through a labyrinth of well camouflaged enemy warriors disguised as old school thinking, failed experiments, and self-doubt to find those eureka moments that have been eluding us for decades.
So is it possible to cluster the micro accomplishments of gaming in a way to inch our way towards the macro accomplishments of real world problem-solving? Here are a few unusual insights that are guaranteed to explode your objections to video games completely.
History of Game Theory and Gamification
Game theory did not really exist as a field until John von Neumann published a paper on the subject in 1928. His original paper was followed by his book, “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” written in 1944.
In 1950, the first mathematical discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma appeared as part of an experiment by famed mathematicians Merrill M. Flood and Melvin Dresher. The experiment was part of the RAND Corporation’s investigations into game theory because of its possible applications in dealing with the buildup of nuclear weapons.
The term “gamification” was coined in 2002, but did not become popular until 2010. Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems.
Gamification taps into people’s natural tendencies and uses both physical and psychological rewards to incentivize continuous play.
Types of rewards include points, achievement badges, entry into new levels, or winning some form of currency.
One of the newer approaches to gamification has been to make mundane tasks feel more like games with techniques like adding meaningful choice, onboarding, adding narrative, and increasing levels of challenge.
Jane McGonigal delivering her talk at TED
Enter Jane McGonigal
Jane McGonigal is a famous author and game designer. In 2010 she gave a brilliant TED talk where she speculated that the countless man-hours dedicated to game play is preparing humanity for the future, but so far we don’t know what that future might be.
Author of the best selling book, “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” McGonigal has focused her thinking around the collective intelligence of massively multiplayer online gaming.
She believes gaming has the potential to solve social ills and improve our quality of life.
McGonigal says that gamers around the world are learning four valuable skills, skills she refers to as the “four superpowers:”
1. Urgent Optimism – Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it is always worth trying.
2. Weaving a Tight Social Fabric – Research shows that we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they’ve beaten us badly. The reason behind this is that it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goals, and stay with the game until it’s over.
3. Blissful Productivity – People playing a game are actually happier working hard than most of us are relaxing or hanging out. They know what it feels like to be optimized, as human beings, to do hard meaningful work. Gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they’re given the right kind of work.
4. Epic Meaning – Gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions and human planetary-scale stories. She believes we are headed towards Nobel Prize level accomplishments through gaming.
Widely regarded as the public face of gamification, Jane’s breakthrough thinking has inspired a new generation of contemplative thinkers, including myself.
With this in mind, I’d like to step you through several ways in which we can apply the cumulative brainpower of gamers on real world problems.
Using game modeling for social simulations has been a long-time goal of system designers
Introducing the Four Rules for Game Testing Our Way to a Better Future
As we look around us, we are constantly confronted with things that don’t make sense. We see systems that are poorly run, corruption and inefficiencies happening on a broad scale, wasted resources, people falling through the cracks, and well-meaning individuals having their best intentions compromised.
Game testing is a way of directing the spotlight of human intelligence onto the systems that run our communities, our countries, and our technologies prior to them being implemented.
Much like sitting behind the master control panel of life, game designers in the future will have the ability to simulate every human-based system on a large scale and ferret out the necessary tweaks and modifications needed to optimize them for real-life conditions.
Game Testing Systems Defined
Not to be confused with the product testing that happens prior to a video games being shipped, game testing, in this context, is a way of modeling and simulating real life conditions, and by adjusting and fine-tuning decision-point variables, game designers will have the ability to optimize systems and recommend changes for large scale implementation.
RULE #1 – Every system can be modeled, game tested, and optimized on a broad scale.
All good systems have built-in mechanisms for checks and balance. The best ones not only keep people honest, but also place reasonable limits on the cost of government.
While modeling a system and turning it into an interactive experience with simulated real-life risks and rewards will indeed be challenging, it is still very doable.
The part that most people miss is that simulations like these can be constructed, tested, and improved prior to implementation.
As an example, if the U.S. government had game-tested the Affordable Care Act prior to implementation, they would have found hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways to improve the system before hiring all the people and writing all the operations manuals.
Game testing systems like this can also be applied to every change in the tax code, social welfare, business incentives, legal changes to the constitution and much more.
RULE #2 – Future technologies will enable us to extend the field of play far beyond the digital world.
Whenever an injustice has occurred on an international level, our first reaction is that righting a current wrong should be handled by state-run policing agencies like Interpol or the FBI.
But as with all quasi-governmental agencies, politics, budgets and resources come into play.
With the recent rise in human trafficking incidents around the world, officials are struggling to piece together all the data to grasp the big picture of what’s happening. In short, this is an epic problem.
A company called Insecam has emerged as the first large-scale aggregator of over 73,000 unsecured webcams from around the world. If Insecam were to whole-heartedly endorse efforts to stop human trafficking, the number of cams on their network would mushroom to tens of millions overnight.
In just a few years it will also be easy to visualize a combination of flying drone cams, walking people cams, and drive-by car cams that make their way onto this network, with all of the cameras tied to facial recognition software.
If gamers were given just a few data points concerning sightings of individuals after they were reported missing, or pattern changes in the lives of suspected perpetrators, they could instantly stitch together critical points of intersection, begin building traffic diagrams, and profiles of those in close proximity to the ones being abducted.
If we consider the way Reddit users rallied after the Boston marathon bombing, this is not a far stretch at all. The trick will be to expand it into a global camera network that reaches into even the most remote places on earth.
Adding a series of gamification elements to the mix, such as reward-based incentives, either monetary or non-monetary, the pushback felt by human traffickers will be almost instantaneous.
Any trafficker that has their face plastered all over the 6:00 pm news or pushed out to countless millions on some gamer’s hot-issue hotline will not be in business long.
RULE #3 – Game testing is an iterative process requiring continuous ‘leveling up’ to optimize and fine-tune system performance.
One example that most people can relate to will be game testing our current tax code.
Though an expansive form of testing may start with just income tax, an expanded version of the test could include everything from sales tax, to estate tax, property tax, special district taxes and much more.
The result of this kind of testing may well be one new tax system that replaces all the old ones.
RULE #4 – Future systems will bear little resemblance to those in existence today.
Technology is forcing a natural evolution in the way systems are being designed and operated. But the natural pace of change in most governments is woefully out of step with the pace of what’s happening in the rest of the world.
Competition between governments is generally a good thing, forcing everyone to try harder. But the best-run governmental systems in the future will be game-tested prior to implementation and retested, and retested, and retested.
Each new wave of testing will bring about more change, and the natural pace of system evolution will increase exponentially.
Future generations will have little understanding of how complex and badly our systems were run in the past.
When it comes to gaming, our only limits are our own imagination
Modeling and game testing our systems is a cause with epic meaning. The SIMS games are a good start but need to expand in scope and realism to give meaningful results.
Game designers will love the challenge. Game players will enjoy being part of something far bigger than themselves. Politicians will love it because it gives them a logical path to answers.
While I’ve purposely glossed over many of the details in implementing this strategy, it remains entirely doable and well worth the effort.
At the DaVinci Institute we’ve launched a new game design course as part of our DaVinci Coders School. In this context, it’s easy to see how game modeling and testing will soon become some of the most valuable skills in the world.
But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Am I just giving gamers another excuse for flittering their life away or does this have real potential?
By Futurist Thomas Frey
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything