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Can games change the world?

The answer is yes, according to Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games — or, games designed to improve real lives and solve real problems.

Game Designer Jane McGonigal
Game Designer Jane McGonigal

On 3rd May 2011 she gave a lecture at the National Museum of Science and Technology ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ in Milan presenting her revolutionary theories on the potential of games to achieve social change.

Before attending the event I have to admit I was among those dismissing games as a childish pastime. However, Jane made me change my mind.

Is playing-games a sound way of investing time?

The idea of game-players as inactive people wasting their time is  based, according to Jane McGonigal, on a misconception of what productivity is. In fact, productivity should not be understood just as output in purely economic terms but as the ability to produce more:

  1. positive emotions

  2. stronger relationships

  3. meaning

  4. a sense of accomplishment

and games can do all this!

People playing
People playing

Games are  ‘unnecessary obstacles we volunteer to tackle’

For example, in golf we decide to put a small ball in a tiny hole and to do that we stand far away from the hole and use a golf club. If we needed to complete such a task for a practical reason, if would be much easier to just take the ball and walk to the hole or build a machine to do that. However, human beings enjoy complicating their life without having any real practical purpose for that. This is because humans like the surprise, the challenge and to play with others.

When you really think about it, playing games is a very hard work, you need to concentrate a lot to achieve your task. A game gives us the opportunity to develop new skills and be productive.

The healthy stress and the 10 powerful emotions

Games produce eustress, i.e. the type of stress a person chooses to experience voluntarily, as it is the case when playing a game, and not the stress originating for example from an excessive workload in the office. Playing games make us more ambitious and positive. It generates 10 very powerful emotions:

  1. Joy

  2. Relief

  3. Love

  4. Surprise

  5. Pride

  6. Curiosity

  7. Excitement

  8. Awe and wonder

  9. Contentment

  10. Creativity (the belief we have the power to create something new)

It’s contagious!

All these positive emotions bring about a general state of happiness, making us more successful in life and super-resilient. This would then have positive repercussions in other aspects of life such as better grades at school, more promotions at work, etc.

Furthermore, according to research, every time a person experiences an emotion, this then spreads to other 6 people who are around that person.

From the virtual to the real: games with a social impact

The most innovative idea presented by Jane McGonigal is that, given all these positive effects both for gamers themselves and for those around them, it seems worthy to think on how games could be used to benefit the whole society.

One of the games she has designed is Urgent Evoke, a crash course in changing the world. The game, developed for the World Bank Institute, takes 10 weeks to be completed.

The goal is to help people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to the most urgent social problems (food security, water shortage etc.). To play participants are requested to complete certain actions in the real world and submit evidence for it (a post/video/photos on a blog, etc). It combines playing, learning and taking action in the real world. In this respect it represents a way of transferring all the benefits of playing games into the real world to benefit the whole society.

Another interesting example is the Italian game Critical City, developed by Focus, a social cooperative based in Milan. It’s a social game where people have to go out in the city and do unusual things. Then they put evidence of their actions on the web and the other players vote their favourites. Some of the tasks have a social relevance: for example, players were requested to fix something they saw on the street (a litter bin with a loose screw, a road sign covered by tree branches etc.).

Further details

The event was organized by Meet the Media Guru. I suggest you sign up to the newsletter so that you won’t miss out on forthcoming events.

If you wish to delve further into Jane McGonigal’s theories, she has also written a book: “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”




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