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Games: G4C – Saving The World, One Game At A Time

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Posted November 23, 2012 by Claudio Medina in Games
Jane McGonigal

In 2010, a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference gave a face to gamification and alternate reality games in the video games community. That face belongs to a bright, optimistic, young designer, Jane McGonigal. If you haven’t heard about her, you’re probably living under a rock or have been too busy actually playing games.

In a clever presentation, McGonigal pointed to the humongous amount of time players spend developing skills and solving problems in online games. As an example she stated that at that moment WoW players had reached 5.93 million years of collective playing. That’s even more than Duke Nukem Forever’s development time. Impressive.

As part of the board of the IFTF (Institute for the Future), Superbetter Labs AND the non-profit organization Games for Change (G4C), McGonigal has been pretty busy developing apps and researching new ways to harness that interest into solving real world problems. Her designs go from serious games such as World Without Oil, which simulated the scenario of the first 23 weeks in a global oil crisis, to more light-hearted ones like SuperBetter, that aims at having a ‘positive health impact’ in your life.

The SuperBetter iOS app gives you daily missions called Power-Ups such as ‘Hug yourself’, ‘Dress without a mirror’ or ‘Chug a glass of water’ to level-up and ultimately reach your epic win, which could be anything from getting fit to reducing stress. Wohoo. How fun is that?

Not much.

Gamification has gotten really popular in the last few years and the number of related courses, books, and conferences keeps rising. McGonigal is just the most enthusiastic advocate in a list that includes designers such as Gabe Zichermann and Seth Priesbatch. It’s too early to tell if this model is actually having an impact or working as expected, but it’s hard not to approach it with skepticism.

Zichermann defines gamification as:

Using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. (…) The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place.

For any experienced gamer, this is evidence of a misconception of how games really motivate us to play them. Specifically video games. The spirit of what makes people passionate about gaming seem to be lost in a pastiche of rewards that are more related to positive psychology bullshit than anything else. Not to mention how naive it seems to add a ‘gaming layer’ to all real world problems and pretend that solutions will arise merely as a result of artificial incentives. Which, by the way, McGonigal expects will eventually replace lucrative compensations for achieving goals.

The spirit of what makes people passionate about gaming seem to be lost in a pastiche of rewards that are more related to positive psychology bullshit than anything else.

A sense of accomplishment is indeed an important aspect of video games (whether it is a primary aspect of them or not is debatable), but is a notion that should be dealt very carefully when mixing them with reality, which is by nature complex and full of contradictions. There are two warning signs that could be used as examples.

One is the way some of these games may unintentionally distract from attempts to explicitly find solutions for problems. As analyst Heather Chaplin points out, the fact that SuperBetter pretends to connect you with your family and friends through those support missions seems pretty twisted and pathetic when a personal encounter would probably be more sane. McGonigal is basically the Rhonda Byrne of videogames and every product she creates feels more and more like The Secret or some self-development book. One of her latest creations was the Thank You game for billionaire entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey. A FB social game based on gratitude, where your daily objective was basically to thank people. Maybe you should try to giving them a call instead?

The other one is how openly attracted big corporations have been to this model, identifying it as a way for establishing systems that compensate employees with illusions of rewards, making business much more cheaper for them. That the equivalent of your dad yelling ‘Yes! You are now a lvl 2 gardener!’ after you finish mowing the lawn instead of giving you a euro; isn’t that brilliant, kids?

It’s not that there’s something wrong with making games that help us deal with and reflect upon real world problems,because this is something that cinema and fiction have indirectly been doing for years. It’s just that the whole approach seems wrong and has this really bad odour. A fake, corporate, extreme right-wing, dangerous smell. Not to mention the fact that throwing a bunch of game-related terms into an application doesn’t actually make it fun. They don’t even look like video games, for crying out loud.

Another person who is developing games with a focus on experimental design and social criticism is Italian Paolo Pedercini, who operates as Molleindustria. Pedercini projects actually feel like games: they are innovative, deep and sometimes they even put you in the shoes of the object they are criticizing  He sticks it to the man and in this way they make us reconsider our lifestyles in fun and surprising ways. They feel more like a step in the right direction, although sometimes the message can be blatantly in your face.

McDonalds Video Game

Some of his games, like McDonald’s Video Game, put you in control of a McDonald business from the slaughter of animals to dealing with environmentalists. Lovely. And this year’s Unmanned has been awarded at the IndieCade and the Games for Change contest. Yes, the same Games for Change where McGonigal works. This despite Pedercini tweeting ‘Jane McGonigal Jumps the sharks. Once again.’ in relation to the Thank You game. That has to be good PR.

It’s hard to predict where this movement is heading. There seems to be authentic interest in the benefits games can have in our world and on future generations (The children! Think of the children!), based on the public response and acceptance of gamification. But it seems important to connect with what gamers actually want, to understand their primary needs and probably be more subtle in this pursuit. Should the gameplay be subordinated to those changes, or the other way around? Can those serious problems really be approached by ludic interfaces that sell themselves as games? Is this even responsible?

Infographic on what kids are playing


About the Author

Claudio Medina


  • http://twitter.com/Fearganainim Fearganainim

    Some interesting ideas here. While most of us play games like WOW and Day Z to escape the mundanities of real life, the notion of having game mechanics attached to our everyday existence is alarming to say the least. 500 HP for getting out of bed, brushing your teeth,having breakfast, going to work,and levelling up by the time you get to the bus -stop as a way of keeping our lives more interesting doesn’t bode well for the future.
    No doubt there is a room full of boffins somewhere crunching all of the available data, trying to figure out how to make us better killers.
    Welcome to Ramp.

    • http://www.claudicar.me/ Klaus

      Terrifying.
      Thank you Fearganainim :)

  • http://www.ramp.ie/ Lisa McInerney

    Obviously the concept of reward or recognition for achievement is a powerful one, and most of us are best motivated when we know our work will be acknowledged. But this “level up for hugging yourself” idea is just juvenile. We shouldn’t need manipulative tools for getting through daily life. Oy, save us from self-help pop psychology.

    Fearganainim’s right. Gaming is about escapism, not about being a more productive little teamster.

    • http://www.claudicar.me/ Klaus

      Agreed Lisa!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695132914 John Green

    From Homo Ludens to Homo Economicus to Homo Ludicrous.

    • http://www.claudicar.me/ Klaus

      Brilliant. Whole article in one phrase!

  • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

    I’m reminded of a puzzle game that was released not too long ago. It was about solving the sort of complex protein folding problems in molecular biology that normally takes whole clusters of dedicated computers weeks to get through. Human brains, being really quite well-equipped to intuitively work out shapes in 3d, turned out to be really bloody good at it, way quicker than the machines. It could seriously help the whole field of molecular biology by freeing up huge amounts of computer power and generating results and solutions orders of magnitude faster than the fastest machines.

    The game was, by all accounts, actually quite fun, colourful and accessible to anyone, not just microbiology postgrads. That’s the kind of gamification I can get behind. All this “gain 50xp for smiling at someone” bollocks reeks of asking people to realise they’re essentially a pack of Pavlov’s Dogs, and to revel in that kind of reactionary existence, rather than taking the initiative and, say, doing something good because it’s the right fucking thing to do, not because you’ll get to imagine a friendly little “bleep bloop!” noise and your gamer score will increase.

  • Pingback: Wrong Target | Games: G4C – Saving The World, One Game At A Time

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