Fixing Reality with Online Games

The online game StarCraft is a televised national pastime in South Korea. With hundreds of licensed pros divided into twelve teams (each with a major sponsor such as Samsung), two major game channels Ongamenet and MBCGame each run a “Starleague” viewed by millions of fans. In South Korea, this is bigger than the halfpipe at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

While StarCraft involves individual team members constructing bases to protect against alien invaders, World of Warcraft (WoW) is highly collaborative with teams of elves, dwarves, gnomes, trolls, orcs, and other “races” competing in “guilds” of players from two warring factions, the Alliance and the Horde. Creative communication and teamwork among avatars is critical to success in WoW.

“Collaboration, creativity, local insight, courage… 10 missions, 10 weeks.” This could easily be a WoW quest. But it’s actually a tagline for the latest alternate reality game by Dr. Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future. Called EVOKE, it’s designed to be “a crash course in changing the world.” While it entices you to help solve the world’s problems, the EVOKE video looks like a trailer for the latest Hollywood blockbuster:

“Each quest is a question only you can answer,” the EVOKE narrator says. Online games such as WoW enable large groups of people to pool their knowledge and skills to overcome obstacles. Dr. McGonigal designs online games like WoW — except that the quest is to tackle a global social issue such as poverty, hunger, disease, and climate change rather than to defeat the Alliance or the Horde. She takes threats to human existence — global food shortage, fuel wars, pandemic, refugee crisis, and upended democracy — and asks the gaming public to collaborate on how to avoid these all too possible futures. Her AvantGame website asserts that “reality is broken” and that “game designers can fix it.” Through online games on the global internet, game designers and gamers can intervene to solve impending problems. And she has gathered more than 10,000 potential solutions to global problems from game participants including executives from P&G and Kraft.

Her latest game, EVOKE, was developed for the World Bank Institute. By completing the 10 missions, you can become a World Bank Institute certified EVOKE social innovator. In this video taken after a recent TED appearance (not yet posted to TED as of this writing), Dr. McGonigal talks about EVOKE and shares her passion for the transformative power of online gaming:

“People who spend a lot of time failing in game worlds are less put off by failure in the real world,” says Dr. McGonigal. “They’re more likely to stick at it and get to a successful conclusion whereas other people would quit. Because games teach us that failure isn’t actually scary. It’s an opportunity to learn because, obviously, to do amazing things, we can’t just give up because we fail.”

Games teach us that failure isn’t scary, it’s an opportunity to learn. To do amazing things, we can’t just give up because we fail.

With a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in performance studies, Dr. McGonigal has been working in the game industry and in games research since 2001. Her previous projects include The Lost Ring, World Without Oil, Cruel 2 B Kind, and I Love Bees. She is an expert on applying game design and game theory to real work and real business, and has consulted and developed internal game workshops for leading technology companies in Asia, Europe, and the U.S., as well as more than a dozen Fortune Global 500 Companies. MIT Technology Review named her one of the top 35 innovators changing the world through technology, for her role in pioneering the field of alternate reality gaming, and Harvard Business Review called her theory of alternate reality business one of the Top 20 Breakthrough Ideas of 2008.

Todd Howard, the game director for Bethesda Softworks, plays Fallout 3 in his office. Photo: npr.org/Her views are similar to Stanford’s Dr. Brian Reeves or Google’s Eric Schmidt, who suggest that multiplayer video games can provide good career training — workplace collaboration stimulates innovation (see “Turning Work Into Play with Online Games” in Resources). “Everything in the future online is going to look like a multiplayer game,” says Schmidt. “If I were 15 years old, that’s what I would be doing right now.”

A recent NPR piece asserts that video game jobs are on the rise, and asks why doesn’t the real world work more like an online game? This is precisely what Dr. McGonigal asserts: instead of making games more like reality, let’s make reality more like a game. She walks her talk.

Dr. Jane McGonigal is an advisor to the 2010 Serious Games Summit in San Francisco and a keynote speaker at the upcoming Disruptive Effects Symposium at the University of Minnesota. Her book “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Help Us Change the World” will be published by Penguin Press in January 2011.

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