ELTM5C: Games-Fixing Reality

In Part 3 of “Reality is Broken” Jane Mcgonigal describes games in which large groups of people are working collaboratively to solve some of the world’s largest problems. Another four fixes are outlined.

11. Build a sustainable engagement economy The ordinary work of getting on with society requires the existence of a large number of collaborative organizations, most of which rely on the services of volunteers. Competition for person hours is fierce. There are a lot of organizations chasing after volunteers. People are busy though and requests for assistance are not welcome. Playing the “guilt” or “duty” cards is ineffective. How, then, to get the work done?

Compensation? It’s just not effective for encouraging people to sustain work for which pay is not normally expected. Once pay is given that becomes the norm; it’s then expected as a matter of course, regardless of how appropriate this may be. The fact remains that there are many tasks in society for which pay is not normally given—and furthermore that’s probably the way it should be. The challenge, then, is to find ways to get people to participate anyway.

So, how about introducing elements of gaming into the picture?

Here’s an example: The Newspaper “The Guardian” obtained access to hundreds of thousands of filed expense claims and found itself unable to make sense of them in the time required. As a response it devised a gamified, crowd-sourced procedure in which citizens were able to assist in the required analysis. A significant number of irregularities were uncovered.

Consider Wikipedia as a participatory game: It is successful for several reasons: It has a Good (a) game world; Large and many sided (b) game mechanics system (c) Feedback and rewards (d) game community (e) Interaction and conflict resolution. Due, possibly, to all of this the Wikipedia project has been massively successful. It is enormous in size and, as time goes on, the credibility of its information is growing.

Now consider the online game World of Warcraft (WOW), an online game played—often obsessively—by millions of players. Potentially Wikipedia could have been built by the WOW community in 3-4 days if the players had been able to direct their energies to it.

After all, if gamers are so anxious to be engaged them why not channel their efforts to real-world projects?

There are already some examples of this, albeit at a smaller scale. For example, in the project Folding at Home, the participants share the effort required to investigate complex protein shapes.

One wonders though, about the validity of this line of reasoning. After all, much of the work that is required in this world does not lend itself to a gamified environment. Take the case of elected school (or health care) boards. To them is entrusted the proper governance of a whole school district. How acceptable would it be to add game elements to the processes of setting school priorities, deciding which schools to close and debating educational policy? Somehow the word ‘game’ just plain trivializes a deadly serious pursuit.

Additionally, it seems trite to say that WOW gamers could have built Wikipedia. Take a glance through several articles. It is not hard to see the care and dedication with which most of the articles were prepared. Contrary to what some think, the articles are of generally good quality—and getting better. I’d be lost without it. To just assume that a group of people, with nothing more in common than a love of online entertainment, would actively take an interest in this is to seriously misunderstand humanity. We all have our interests. For many, yes, it is in working at intellectual/professional pursuits for the betterment of society. For many, though, just everyday survival is about all that can be managed and a welcome, relaxing release of frustration might be all that separates them from despair.

I brought son#1 to work at 7am, after folding a load of laundry and washing a load of towels. Went to work where, in addition to working on numerical analysis of this year’s various performance indicators I helped untangle a developing HR situation, responded to several public requests for information, visited the Registrar’s office for forms for son#2, did a job for OH during lunch, met with several colleagues, picked up sons 1 and 2 after work, prepared supper and, of course, cleaned up afterwards then folded that load of wash from earlier this morning. I figure I’ve done my share. I have nothing to give now and am just writing a bit; my therapy. Heading out to pick up OH from work at 10. Save the world? Not today.

12. More epic wins. Our world is facing many large-scale issues including: hunger, climate change, economic crises. These require equally large scale action for which mission support is vital. Social participation games such as Groundcrew and Lost Joules are examples of how this can be done. Assuming that people are willing to put the time in, some of this just might work. But who does the work?

13. Ten Thousand Hours Collaborating Perhaps you’ve read “Outliers?”  In that bestselling work, author Malcolm Gladwell did a lot to make popular the idea, based in large part on work by Anders Ericsson, that mastery of skills generally comes after significant (ten-thousand hours is a popular way of saying it) practice. Young gamers spend huge periods of time; certainly enough to qualify most them as masters at…something besides twiddling thumbs and fingers on game controllers. Because modern games are collaborative it’s to be expected that today’s young people can be especially good collaborators, likely having spent those magical 10,000 hours at it by age 21.

Of course, the skeptic can’t help but present a few pertinent items:

  • Is it valid to state that “collaboration” is a skill in the same sense as is, say, playing a musical instrument or playing a particular position in hockey?
  • Data set of one: I suck at softball and I am pretty sure I have spent my 10,000 hours at it. At least it feels like it. Just kidding—sort of.

Besides the time spent by the participants, today’s games offer an excellent platform for collaboration. Consider Little Big Planet where players join with up to four others and get to explore the world, virtually, together.

Still, one wonders, if this will translate. Just because you play well with others in a gaming environment it’s not necessarily the case they you’ll play nicely elsewhere, is it?

“Emergensight” is the ability to thrive in a chaotic environment. Effective collaborators apparently have this in droves, adept, as they are, in complex fast-moving environments. That said, as far as I can see there’s no telling whether there is a causal connection and, if so, in which directions(s) the effect works.

Much of rationale behind what’s stated in the book is based on the findings of Positive Psychology.  Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, for example, in “Character Strengths and Virtues” delineated 24 categories down into six categories:

  • Wisdom & knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

Several well-designed games including Lost Ring take advantage of this by building in characters that exemplify each of these categories.

I have to admit to having something of an overriding bias toward what I shall term “Classical Psychology”—you know, the one most people refer to when they drop the term “Psychology.” Think about it for a minute: classical psychology is somewhat “negative” in nature, tending to dwell on and study those traits that are generally unwanted or the absence of desired characteristics. By contrast, Positive Psychology strives to do more-or-less the opposite; to study strengths and desired characteristics.

It’s just…well…

At this stage the field of Positive Psychology is not developed well enough to satisfy the huge skeptic that lurks within me. Yes, it’s true that many bright, skilled people have devoted significant amounts of time researching the field; fleshing it out. Classical psychology, though, for all its flaws has at least a 100 year head start. As such it’s easier to find platforms on which people more-or-less agree, all wrapped up there in DSM4 and DSM5. Positive psychology is not there just yet.

Please do not misunderstand; this not, in any way, an attempt to slight that emerging field. It is, though, an effort to remind…myself, if nobody else…that positive psychology has a way to go before it can produce so trustworthy a document as the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual. Yes, THEY are pretty controversial documents; it’s been fun following the proceedings that led to DS5. Here’s a fascinating glimpse into that. It’s just that we know or at least can access the debate and data that left us with them. As for Positive Psychology—while there’s no doubt (at least in my mind) that it contains quite a large amount of value, I’m pretty much equally sure that it’s still in need of lot more refinement.

14. Massively Multiplayer foresight is something that happens when a sufficient number of good people turn their attention to a problem.

World Without Oil was a massive online thought experiment/game in which contributors supplied “what if’s” as they considered our future in the absence of easily available petro-energy. The game was played by around 9000 individuals over 32 days, representing 32 weeks of progress through that scenario. It was found that, at first, many of the contributions were rather dark in nature but as the game wore on, the players shifted and instead began supplying potential solutions to the problems that had been uncovered.

They became SEHI’s (Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals); players on a more global playing-out of gaming environments.

The term Superstruct was coined to represent the act of extending on existing structures, not to enlarge them, but instead to take them off in new directions. This requites individuals who are empowered to collaborate at more extreme scales. The Institute for the Future produces annual ten-year forecasts. The first superstruct was built to help produce one of its ten-year forecasts. Players were expected to move in new, novel directions while still having a clear goal in mind. Players were tasked with tackling these five “super threats;”

  • Disease and other threats to health
  • Hunger
  • Moving to sustainable energy
  • Security, both personal and organizational
  • The need for government dedicated to a sustainable way of life

Overall, approximately 9000 participants contributed ideas and information in an effort to “Vanquish” these threats for the year 2019.

From this, other superstructs have emerged including ones dedicated to:

  • Producing wearable energy producing devices.
  • Providing people with low cost access to seeds
  • Organizing humanitarian efforts in places difficult to service.

Evoke, a new game to assist young people in mobilizing to positively changing the world, was designed to be played on just about any type of electronic equipment, including low-powered, low-bandwidth devices that are often all that are available in third-world regions. Early results seem to be encouraging. Visit the site–it’s intriguing, to say the least.

I’m tired.

Reading “Reality is Broken” was a stimulating exploration of how the things that make games great could potentially also make our world a better place. It was not just thoughtful; it was well-written. The author is a gifted storyteller who skillfully weaves interesting, relevant exemplars all through the main ideas. What’s more the ideas and the terms are fresh—at least to me; a breath of clean air wafting through my poor dusty mind.

But, yes, I’m tired. After making my way through this worthwhile read I’m still left somewhat unmoved. Yes, games are fun, powerful and most importantly effective in getting people to act.

But they’re still games.

And life is not always a game.

Not to me, at least.

Think about it—there’s a line between “applying principles of psychology to influence others to perform necessary tasks efficiently and well” and “manipulating others so that they do what you want them to do.” The most important point of distinction between the two is the issue of deciding just what it is we want others to do. We don’t need to just get clever and sly at manipulating people.

In developed countries governments, of all types, rely on the messy process of advanced democracy to help with the decision making: committees, public debates, white papers—that sort of thing. Larger corporations utilize much of this but usually have to layer in an added focus on profits. Individuals and smaller enterprises? Well, they essentially follow their own rules. Sometimes the actions are informed by a well-developed structure of ethics and responsibility. Sometimes not.

The thing, then, is to keep a close eye on what we do. “Making a game out of it” can be a very positive thing for all who decide to participate but the experience must be appropriate. Care should be taken that choice is always available. Game dynamics are certainly powerful for many, but not all. They’re also insidious. It could easily become the case that the game becomes the thing and attention comes off that which the game was supposed to accomplish.

I’ll freely admit to perhaps being too old for much of this. Games don’t have the effect on me that they have on today’s typical electronic gamer (who’s more likely a 20 or 30 something. I’m nowhere there.) I’ll also admit to preferring other things (music, reading, writing, being a generally non-gaming geek yes that’s possible) to games—and that’s just a personal thing. But, I don’t dislike games. I play all types in moderation. I do other things too.

My teaching specialties are mathematics and physics. They’re generally hard to teach and hard to learn. Please don’t believe the total bullshit from those who would like you to believe they are easy. If, after all, they were easy then there’d be no need for people like me. Those who insist otherwise are either just “touching the tops of the trees” or are outright lying to you. Come on!

Hard yes, but I don’t HAVE to use game-based tools and strategies to build learning activities  to get them done. I don’t have to, but sometimes I will. Maybe even ‘frequently.’ Like all educators I have a full toolbox. Just as you don’t just use a hammer to build a house, you also don’t try to teach with just one method. You bring in the right tool to do the job. Sometimes you even get to choose between several.

And at those times, learning situations infused with game-based elements might be just the thing.


11 thoughts on “ELTM5C: Games-Fixing Reality

  1. I think I have a similar view to you. Or possibly even more cynical and sceptical.

    We don’t need 9000 people to faff around on a computer to sort the world’s environmental problems. I could write out the answers on a sheet of A4.

    The problems are glaring and the solutions are easy. Just, people, government and companies don’t want to do it. Sounds like a glorified focus group to come up with something that anyone with half a brain could spot. And for what value?

    Low cost access to seeds. Um, try collecting and drying them?

    Wiki? I don’t rely on it for serious research, but I’ve noticed some of it has been OK. It is still inconsistent though, by which I mean wrong.

    I did sign up for Project Gutenberg for proof-reading at one point. My bit for literature and humanity. It bored the socks off me. Better things to do in life. I’d rather write about the evils in life and try and bring things to attention that people may not be aware of. That to me is meaningful.

    I liked maths. That may not surprise you. But as with every subject, the teacher makes so much difference. You can manage the subject with a mediocre teacher, fail with a bad one and excel with a good one. For the brightest kids it doesn’t matter, but for the others, the teacher makes one hell of a difference. Our physics teacher was crap. On her first day she happily told us she didn’t want to be a teacher but she failed at research so became a teacher. So inspiring eh?

    If you want my A4 list of how to save the world, do say. In fact I could even write a blog post about it.

    1. You’ve really hit the point there about fixing the world. We do pretty much know what needs to be done. The real problem is getting those who can effect the changes to do so. The one good thing those games like “world Without Oil” really could do is to mobilize the people to speak out to the point that the leaders have no choice but to act. The sad fact is, though, that the games are likely only played by those who already understand the issues and are happy to do something about it…but they are not the people we need to be working with.
      And I freely admit to being part of the problem. If people like me didn’t demand cheap food, clothes and energy then we would not all be in this current mess.
      As for teachers your experience has been the same as mine. Teachers need to be aware of the fact that they are the ambassador for the subject. The students attitudes tend to be shaped by what that person says an does, for better or worse.

  2. There must be something wrong with me, apart from the age, as I can not make much sense out of this reasoning. Why would games be needed to fix the reality? I don’t see Wikipedia, for example, as a game. I value the effort and have contributed real money, not game $$, to its fund drives. It’s a collaborative effort, period. I don’t see the value in turning serious collaboration efforts into a game. Good people can come together, as we have done since the stone age, to solve real life problems. But I agree that there might be a place for game-based elements in learning – for young students…not for adult learners. I would have quit any of my professional courses if forced to play games to learn the content… Why try to turn life into a game when it isn’t?

    1. Agreed. I’m with you too.
      This whole thing is making me reflect–as always–on our young people. I’ve always considered it vital , as part of my job, to see the world from their points of view too, regardless of whether I agreed with those points of view . It’s been my experience that people tend to have sound 9at least to them) reasons for their opinions and decisions. If I find their decisions and points of view alien then it’s generally a good idea to find out why they made them, rather than just putting forward what I think is a superior one. Typically when i do this what I really see if a great big gulf between them and me. I’m right. So are they. It’s just that we see it all much differently.
      This, precisely, is why I have been paying so much attention to this book. The fact is I find much of this hard to take because it does not fit my idea of the world at all. I have to admit, though, that it’s my students’ world too and they’ll be charged with stewardship of it long after I’m gone. If they have to see and do things differently I will try and meet them halfway.
      But I still feel the same as you. Life’s not a game.

  3. Thanks for this great series of posts, Maurice! I fully agree with you, and probably I am an old-fashioned no-nonsense learner and non-gamer who does not “get it” – or I have read too much tech-critical books in the meantime (Jaron Lanier, for example – who calls Wikipedia a “siren server” and puts it in the same category as facebook. One of his argument is simply “You don’t know what you miss”, that is: which concepts of encyclopedias have not been implemented because of Wikipedia’s influence).

    I simply don’t understand why anything needs to be “fun” or “playful” – I was always able, willing and motivated to learn and to get stuff done even if some part of that was boring, tedious and dreadful at times. I think this is normal? The big goal is motivating enough. The final result might be even more rewarding just because each single part of getting there was not entirely fun. Why do we need to be “motivated” (like a rat in a laboratory setup) for every single micro-step in a bigger task or project, and why aren’t we able any more to get anything done alone, without “interaction”?

    Sorry, for the random rant – but reading this in my social media break was just perfect 🙂 Actually my break really makes me remember the times before 24/7 availability, and I am able to revive the joys of reading and writing all on my own, disconnected.

    As far as I recall there is also ample scientific evidence that “groupthink” and collaboration does not necessariy improve results – a single person should better brainstorm alone than doing a “brainstorming session” in a team which results in sort of dumbing down and mediocre results (I think I have read this in Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’ but I can’t say for sure).

    1. I’ll start my mentioning that I can’t wait for you to end your summer break from social media 🙂 We need more subversion!
      Thanks for weighing in here. I feel that much of what you said illuminates better that which I have been trying to say. Like you, it also seems to me that calling in the group does not necessarily mean that things will get better. “It” does not scale well. It’s been my experience that EVERY idea gets better when you share it with others and gather input from people who know what they are talking about. That said, you don’t have to go to a very large group in order to get everything you need. Most of my projects have worked well with working groups consisting of 5-7 people. From time to time, when you need to do research, yes, you do have to expand the group, but by then you are more doing interviews and surveys than actively engaging.
      The one good thing I find from going to the crowd (that’s a pun on cloud; could not resist) is that by gathering and acting on input you are also assembling massive buy-in. Now, THAT is generally worth the effort. If, for example, I need to implement a new way of doing things in education. I WILL consult with a massive number of people. Far more than I need to to get the information needed. No I expand the group in order to ensure that I have sufficient interest and buy-in to get the job done. Having an excellent plan is NEVER good enough. You need to make sure that people are willing to make the changes and do what is needed. Now, the online ‘gamified’ version might be a great help for that.
      All the best–hope the thesis is going well!

      1. I agree – I also like to share and refine ideas with a rigorously selected group of capable individuals. Very often that group reduces to my significant other 🙂
        If the group becomes larger than exactly the number you mentioned then all kinds of group dynamics comes into play… lots of passive members who simply “like” an idea, “idea repeaters” so to speak, who reinforce the most popular, probably the most common and convential, but not the best idea. In these negative accounts of groupthink I’ve read these interactions are considered detrimental.

        I don’t have any “scientific data” related to this, but I do e.g. recall that it was not too helpful to discuss “unconventional” or “risky” ideas related to my career with too many people. If I would have listened to the crowd here I would still work as corporate employee (Needless to say, however, if you are still successful afterwards, they have always supported it and “knew it”, of course). But a small number of selected, sharp individuals is fine. I am just trying to imagine what would hav happened if I had setup a “poll” on some gamified platform.

        (Thanks for asking – I have just submitted the thesis :-))

  4. You say it all in your last paragraph. ‘Tiny’ also had a nice response … ‘life isn’t a game.’ Serious problems require the attention of serious folks. This ‘gaming thing’ might, as you suggest, be AOK in small doses and at the right time. The though of large scale application … it’ll pass (we can only hope). D

  5. johnlmalone

    There’s a lot here to digest but tow things I can comment on. First, I generally subscribe to the 10,000 hours concept and secondly, gaming may teach collaboaration but to say such skills are transferred into work and life areas may be drawing a long bow. And besides, people always engaged in effective collaboarative behaviours before gaming came along

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Wittgenstein’s thought problem that we use the term “game” without being able to define it well is still relevant.
    I agree opinions about electronic gaming are correlated with generations. I cannot get excited about gaming. But then I also always preferred individual sports. I could get excited (read: agitated) about my youngest spending too much time on electronic games, but he’s graduating college this year so that excitement/agitation is limited now to holiday vacations when he’s home..
    I was never persuaded that the positive social aspect of electronic gaming balanced out the negative of being connected to an alternate reality. Will the phrase “skin in the game” which connotes the importance of concrete connection be replaced by “thumb in the game?” Probably. The phrase, “sounds like a broken record” is already meaningless to those who don’t know what an LP is. Nonetheless, gaming is prominent and and as you say we should learn to use it rather than be used by it.
    Cognitively, I still feel that the most commonly used and marketed electronic games for youth draw more for kinesthetic/spatial aspects of brain function than verbal (even “Words with Friends” is still spatial) and so I do wonder and worry about the long-term impact of that on the skills of a future workforce.

    1. Absolutely! You raise a very important point. I think we are already seeing some of it. I just drove back from my in-laws and, even though driving 110 km/hr on a 100 road I was passed, over and over, by young people doing between 140-150 in large over-powered pickup trucks. Now, that, by itself, is nothing much. The bothersome part was that far too many of those trucks were driven by drivers much more intent on the content of the screens resting on their crotches than they were on the traffic through which they were ploughing. And that’s only the start. A friend of mine who serves on one of our warships tells me about the younger officers on board. While off, instead of socializing in person they all sit in the mess at the same tables but each playing their own game on Nintendo DS. Alone together, I think someone has termed it.

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