How gaming can make a better world

About ten days ago, an interesting video of a speech was aired on TED talk. For those of you who don't know what TED is, it is quite literally a meeting place of some of the world's greatest thinkers: economists, philosophers, doctors, environmentalists and so on. These are people who dedicate their lives to making the world a better place.

So imagine my surprise when I was notified of a talk from someone who said that gaming fit into that ideal?

Enter Jane McGonigal, game designer. She says that the video game-playing youth of today -- that's us, by the way -- have within us the power to save the world. I know, I know, sounds crazy, right? Well, put down that energy drink and listen in. Jane's mission is to "try to make it as easy to save the world in real life, as it is to save the world in online games." The basis of her theory lies in a few things: motivation, an investment of time and the need to be rewarded. Remember that time your guild downed Ragnoros? Or triumphantly came through to the end of ToC? Yogg-saron? How did you feel then?

That's right, you felt satisfied.

When we gamers are confronted with a major problem, we put a lot of time and energy into "solving a problem." Why do you think serious raiding is, well, srs bznss? All it really is is a cooperative form of problem-solving. Why do we spend so much time solving these problems? Because, says McGonigal, "gamers tend to think that we're not as good in real life as we are in online games."

Honestly, I see her point. How willing are you, after a long day, to help your little sister with her homework or go and take out the trash? I'm guessing not a whole lot. Yet when you log in, how often do you band with complete strangers to go down a boss? Random heroics, anyone? As McGonigal says: "As soon as you log in to a game like World of Warcraft, you are met with a host of characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission." We don't have that sort of collaboration in real life. We don't have that kind of resource to call up our friends to change the world at the drop of a hat.

Another interesting idea McGonigal touches on is the fact that there's always something to do in game. Usually, these "world-saving missions" are [mostly] suited to your level (or enough to be challenging). But there's no unemployment in World of Warcraft. No matter what your level, there's always something for you to do, whether helping a farmer find his lost dog or listening to some guys in clashing robes telling you that this giant robot or that wayward dragon must die.

A very important thing McGonigal touches on is positive feedback. As someone who helps design games, I know the nuts and bolts of making a player feel like this task is worth their time. Positive feedback comes in many forms: a thank-you, some kind words, a physical gift, etc. In WoW, you get things like loot, levels and reputations. It feels good when you accomplish something, and it's tangible in one form or another. We don't get that kind of positive feedback in reality.

Here's a fun statistic: the average child within a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours gaming by the time he or she is age 21. Funny thing -- the average North American education, from grade 5 to high school graduation, is 10,080 hours. We have an entire generation of young people who have run a parallel form of education by their own will. It is said that spending 10,000 hours on something will make you a virtuoso at it.

So let me break it down for you: We have a generation of expert gamers -- gamers who, as humans, are attracted to four basic principles:

  • Urgent optimism

  • Social fabric

  • Blissful productivity

  • Epic meaning

Urgent optimism is basically self-motivation. What motivates you to hop online and try to down ol' Sindy? That does. We believe that we need to try this and try this right now, because we believe that we will eventually succeed.

Social fabric is something that I won't get into, as the fact that you're here on a World of Warcraft website says enough. No matter which way you cut it, this is a social game, and we are darn good at it. 'Nuff said.

Blissful productivity is the idea that we are happier working hard because we feel optimized as human beings. We're accomplishing something. That always feels good, right?

Epic meaning Which sounds like the more appealing situation: "Please, brave adventurer, I hath run out of milk! Run to yon corner store, as I cannot drink my coffee this way!" or "Please, brave adventurer! A horrific, galaxy-trotting army of horrific demons (led by a dark titan) has come to our world, and only YOU can save it!"

You decide.

McGonigal says that the next leg of her epic journey is trying to figure out how to get us to invest this time and energy into the real world rather than Azeroth. Along with her colleagues at the Institute for the Future, she has been developing immersive games to try and change the worldy habits of gamers. One game they've developed features a world without oil. There are resource shortages. Riots. Rising prices. How are you going to handle it? What would you do?

Another cool game shows a classic end-of-the-world scenario. A gigantic computer system has deemed that the human race has 23 years to live. What will you do? McGonigal encourages gamers to blog about their progress, their thought processes and their ideas.

All in all, I found this talk to be immensely interesting. It's a really nice twist on all the unfortunate press and blame the gaming culture gets. Just goes to show that there is hope for us yet.