Game-Changers

Warning: unedited stream of consciousness follows, may be difficult to comprehend.

Skyrim: Yeah, you wouldn't be doing this in Real Life

I don’t know how many of you out there have heard, but a couple weeks ago a highly anticipated video game came out. You may have heard of it: Skyrim. Many of the guys in my dorm pre-ordered a copy and when the video game came out they spent a good portion of their night and early morning playing the game. I watched a few of the game trailers and walkthrough’s on YouTube – I do that a lot with many video games – but I never considered purchasing the game myself. I’ll explain. While I enjoy watching people play video games, I myself am not a fan of playing them. First off, video games these days are pretty expensive, around 50-60 dollars each, which seems like a quite a bit of money to me. Second, video games are time-consuming, and I frankly would rather spend my time doing something a little more productive than leveling up a character inside a metal box. I’ve just never really seen the appeal in sitting in front of a tv screen for hours on end playing a video game that will have no effect in real life other than making you a little more sleep-deprived. I’ve played video games before, but I’ve rarely had the desire to continue playing a game after playing it once or twice if I’m by myself. I occasionally play online computer games or free downloadable games, but I rarely stick with them and only play them for an hour at most when I really need a break from reality. Party games I understand, it’s far more entertaining to be playing games with your friends, but individual games I have a hard time continuing, even if it’s an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game for those of you who don’t know, and don’t get me started on those, monthly fees? bleh). And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate or judge people who play video games or call themselves ”gamers,” I have plenty of friends who play plenty of video games and are quite good at it, I just personally don’t see the appeal (probably cause I’m not very good at them either).

Even as a fan of science fiction and fantasy genres, I don’t find the desire to play video games such as Skyrim. Finishing video games is a tremendous time commitment and can even be dangerously addicting. I appreciate the games like Skyrim for what they are worth, and enjoy learning about the game world and even learning about the stories, but I just don’t consider playing the game myself a priority. It’s kind of odd actually, that I enjoy writing and reading and even watching sci-fi and fantasy stories but I don’t feel the need to actually immerse myself by playing them.

Jane McGonigal at TED

But I came across another TED video (TED videos are really great, consider spending some time on there if you’re bored instead of Facebook) featuring Jane McGonigal (yeah, like the Hogwarts Professor) who is a game developer. But she doesn’t develop ordinary games,  She develops Alternate Reality Games which are games that are “designed to improve real lives or solve real problems.” Now that sounds interesting. Games that can actually have a real impact on the world around us? Sounds like a productive form of gaming, turning video game addictions to something beneficial. I admit I’m pretty skeptical at the thought of ”educational-games” that try to teach kids while being ”fun”. Usually, the games fail to achieve both their goals and I don’t really buy into research that says kids actually learn better in a game-environment. I’ve even been part of a study where I had to play a game that was supposed to teach me about cancer treatment. I played the role of the doctor and I had to diagnose the patient based on an interview in which they told me what symptoms they were experiencing, examine and identify the cancer on a medical image, and then position the lasers correctly to minimize damage to healthy tissue. It was all interesting I guess, but it’s definitely not something I would want to pick up and play on my own, and honestly, I don’t think I left that room any wiser or smarter. But the idea is nevertheless, different and a lot of research has been done on it, so it must have some sort of effect. I know strategy and simulation games certainly have benefits (Starcraft 2 is being called the next “chess”), but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

McGonigal explains how she wishes to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in gaming and apply it to the solving real problems instead of just virtual ones. I think this idea is really cool. I’ve occasionally made jokes in reality that relate to video games like “level up!” or “___ joined the party!” and I think that actually constructing games that award people for completing ”quests” in real life would motivate a lot more people – especially the hardcore gaming community – to contribute to society. But blending the virtual and real can be just as – if not more – dangerous than addictive gaming.

McGonigal’s ARG games follow similar trends. They are all real-time event-based, meaning that the games only last for a certain number of weeks, with each week bringing a new mission. Therefore, all the games she has made are over now, the most recent one being EVOKE, a game funded in part by the World Bank Institute. Upon completion, participants are even granted Social Innovator Class of 2010 status by the WBI, which sounds really official. From what I can tell, the games feature videos that brief players around the world about missions and instructions, and then for a given time-span, players create and share ideas and conduct research on the real-world problem (like world hunger, disaster relief, overpopulation, oil shortage). I’m not too clear how it goes from there, but I think players are then supposed to actually implement their ideas in the real world, but I haven’t seen any actual documentation of that. I have to admit the the instructions to these games aren’t the clearest, so I’m kind of at a loss at how exactly these games are supposed to be played, but from what I can tell, they certainly generate neat ideas.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

But generating neat ideas aren’t enough of course, people actually have to implement them. And while I think it’s great that games like these encourage people to help solve world problems, I still don’t think these are actually ”real” games that would attract the hardcore gaming crowd – people that play Skyrim for instance. The problem with these kinds of games, games that encourage alternatives from sitting behind a computer all day, is that players usually play video games so they don’t have to be active, they would much rather sit then go outside and implement a project. Sure, some people might find it interesting, but for the serious players, the ones that actually train day and night to improve their gaming, skills, they’d much rather play a visually stunning, well-written video game then a game that tries to do the same but has an obvious educational aspect. Once a game brands itself as an educational game, it loses the attention of hardcore gamers. I think gamers don’t want to be told that they are learning something educational or relevant to the real-world, after all they are playing to escape from the real world and use their brain to learn about math or science.  But that doesn’t mean gamers aren’t learning. A well-written game could certainly prompt creative thought and discussion. Many games these days deal with deep philosophical questions dealing with life, power and even love. It’s just that their primary intent is not to be educated, but simply to be entertained, and have a say in the direction of the entertainment.

Anyone remember her?

Therefore, in order to attract more of the gaming community into games that actually have beneficial real-world impacts and foster creativity, innovation and social responsibility, I think the games should contain the following things:

  • Education should not be explicitly stated as a goal: I know, this seems like it’d be lying, and in a way I guess it kind of is. You have to trick your audience into playing the game by having the game appear as any other game would do, with no do-gooder intentions that could turn people off to the game. In a way you are trying to get people to do the right choices, for the wrong motivations (the advance in the game rather than for the good of society) but hopefully a good enough game will have a large enough impact that gamers will realize the benefits of doing those actions without the game rewards. The game may have educational aspects, but it shouldn’t be stated to the players, it’ll feel like you’re forcing certain ideas on them. If you want to attract the gamers that play World of Warcraft or Skyrim, or even Starcraft and Minecraft, you’re going to have to attract them the same way all the other gaming companies do. This means stressing an interesting story line, innovative game features, and stunning visuals.
  • Don’t Teach, Play: This goes with the above point. Many problems with educational games is they just throw a load of information about a certain topic at you, and then you have to “play” the game (which usually results in just quizzes or something of the sort). Players don’t want to sit there reading a bunch of text, if given the chance, they will simply skip ahead, and then the game has lost its purpose. If you want to teach or get a point across, do it in a way that is engaging. Better yet, don’t teach, but encourage the players to come up with the ideas and get them enthused to learn about the topics themselves.
  • Encourage MMO-style games: In real life, you’re going to have to talk and interact with other people, and social skills are an important skill to have. While there have been some problems with MMO games in which players interact harshly and rudely to each other because they can hide behind anonymity, MMO games encourage interactions and teamwork. Social responsibility is a responsibility to the community, so having games that encourage interactions is important, and if you can find some way to get people to interact and collaborate  in real-life as well (which can also be potentially dangerous), starting online is the easiest way for people to get in touch and share ideas. To avoid the potential stranger-danger, have the game encourage groups of friends to actually physically meet up when playing, perhaps there is some bonus?
  • Interesting Story: I know, I mentioned this at the end of the first point, but I really think it’s important. The story and premise of the game is often the selling point, and even more so for a game with intentions of solving real-life problems, education and inspiring creativity and life-style changes. The story has to make sense and weave in these elements seamlessly so that players won’t question the reasoning behind them. If the goal is simply to “recycle 20 cardboard boxes” without any justification, the player is going to see right through the ploy and realize that the game is just trying to manipulate them to recycle more. The Quality of the game needs to be excellent.
  • Incorporate both real-life actions and on-line actions: McGonigal’s games do this for the most part. The idea is to have a game that allows gamers to sit behind a computer and do what they do best (although her games often require research and writing, which gamers aren’t always fond of) while also requiring the gamer to go outside and do something active and beneficial to the game’s progress. That way, there is a sense of balance that won’t throw traditional gamers out of their comfort zone too quickly. This also include incorporating real-life elements with virtual elements. For instance, if they succeed in an online portion of the quest, give them a gift certificate to a environmentally-friendly restaurant, or if they volunteer at a local animal shelter, they can receive the virtual code for a limited edition item in game.

Yay, Fun! Does anyone else feel cramped?

Well, those are just some of my ideas that I have on the matter. I have some more thoughts and points, but they would require a lot more writing and probably some research to back up my claims. Also, my writing is atrocious, I’ll be surprised if anyone can follow it. I think ARG gaming is a really intriguing topic and method to get our technology-dependent society to do something beneficial, but I also think there is plenty of room for improvement. I’m really interested in participating in one of these games myself and I”ll be keeping a lookout for EVOKE season 2. Games at their worst can be isolating, addicting, unhealthy, destructive and a way to avoid real-world problems. Games at their best can promote community and teamwork, inspire innovation and creativity, promote socially responsible and healthy ideas, and solve real-world problems. Perhaps people can change the world with Games. But until then, I probably still won’t be playing or purchasing any video games, there’s just simply so many things I should be doing. Like studying tomorrow.

EDIT: Here’s an interview of Jane McGonigal with Stephen Colbert on his show, it’s short but succinctly addresses both the positive and negative of video games (with Colbert playing somewhat as the Devil’s Advocate).

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