Put on Your Game Face


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture as a part of the NYAS Science & the City series, called “Virtual Humanity: The Anthropology of Online Worlds,” described on the site like this:

Online games offer immersive, three-dimensional worlds populated by thousands of characters who form intense relationships, functional economies, complex societies, and rich cultures. Often these virtual connections not only mimic real-world interactions but sometimes even supplant them. But just how far can virtual worlds take us?

Entering the lobby for the lecture felt eerily like logging in to the “Tree of Souls” in the film Avatar.  While waiting for the elevator, we were bathed in an otherworldly blue light (Na’vi mood lighting, anyone?):


At the Virtual Humanity lecture, anthropologist Thomas Malaby and game designer Lee Guzosfki spoke of online gaming (World of Warcraft, Sims, Second Life, etc) and how we can harness this wonderful addiction to “play” in a second reality and use it to collaborate as a global community, to create and build worlds, solutions, and solve real problems.  We were reminded of specific examples, most notably the community science problem-solving site, Foldit and the gamers who figured out the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that scientists alone were unable to understand for almost a decade.  (Click here to read more about the phenomenal Foldit/AIDS collaborative discovery in Time Magazine.)  From the article by Matt Peckham:

How amazing is this: U.S. gamers, playing a protein-folding game called Foldit, have helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade.


The solution represents a significant step forward in the quest to cure retroviral diseases like AIDS. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, severely compromises the body’s cellular immunity, making sufferers dramatically less resistant to infection. It’s considered a global pandemic, infecting more than 33 million people worldwide, with nearly 3 million estimated to become infected and 2 million actually dying from it annually.


To date, there is no cure, but we may be a trifle closer, thanks to a freebie science-angled computer game.


You know Foldit? As in The “solve puzzles for science” crowdsourcing experiment that encourages gamers to fiddle with proteins (and link amino acids) in an attempt to come up with their optimal “folded” states? Think 3-D tinker toys, except the solutions here could actually save lives.


Gaming for good and specific games like Sims Sweatshop can raise awareness for certain issues by putting the gamer inside the issue (almost literally), in a completely immersive setting, creating a deeper sense of empathy for the subject or cause being played:


The Science & the City lecturers also spoke about the increasing obsession we have with gaming.  Guzofski noted the ironic and funny Sims game description:

Real life getting you down? Is there a huge science project due? Don’t have enough to pay the mortgage? Did you get stood up at the mall? Or did you decide to take a swim but somehow every single ladder was removed from the pool so you were stuck in the water until your skin pruned? Welcome to The Sims 3, where you can escape real life by downloading a game about real life… only you control absolutely everything. Customize your character and live life to the fullest. Or, completely screw it up — the choice is yours.

Guzofski also said that collectively we’ve spent as many hours playing World of Warcraft as we have developing as a species on this planet.  Imagine that.  (Click here for another positive gaming perspective from The Economist, called “In Praise of Video Games: Why World of Warcraft is Good For You”.)  From the article:

The scientists conclude that video-game players develop an enhanced sensitivity to what is going on around them, and this may help with activities such as multitasking, driving, reading small print, navigation and keeping track of friends or children in a crowd.

Online gamers also learn to build environments that they create and control.  I’ve linked to Felicia Day‘s World of Warcraft/Guild video spoofs before, but they’re worth re-embedding.  This is “Game On”:

Click here to read an absolutely essential article describing several amazing new social problem-solving and narrative games.  The article is called “Video Games for Social Good.”  It lists several games that allow the player to become a creative problem-solver, addressing the world’s biggest issues and presenting them to a collaborative global team.  This includes graphic novel games, like Evoke (“a crash course in changing the world”).  These games have incredible theatrical spirit and riveting and absorbing narratives.  They drive the player to want to change the “world.” The narrative often carries over into real life.  From the article:

EVOKE is an on-line game published by the World Bank that is based on a graphic novel set in Africa. In the comic, readers are encouraged to perform quests, earning points by accomplishing real-world challenges. Currently 19,000 game players have envisioned solutions for the comic-world/real-world game like solar-powered boats, community gardens and local libraries.

EVOKE trailer (a new online game) from Alchemy on Vimeo.

For some more impressive gaming stats and information, definitely check out  Jane McGonigal’s inspiring TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World”:

Like Guzofski, McGonigal says (in the above TED Talk) that

so far, collectively, all the World of Warcraft gamers have spent 4.93 million years solving the problems of [that world]… To put that in context, 4.93 million years ago… our earliest primate ancestors stood upright…  It turns out, that by spending all this time playing games, we’re actually changing what we are capable as human beings.  We’re evolving to become a more collaborative and hardy species.

 (Slides are from McGonigal’s TED Talk)

McGonigal continues:

The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. Now 10,000 hours is a really interesting number for two reasons: First of all, for children of the United States, 10,080 hours is the exact amount of time you’ll spend from 5th grade to high school graduation, if you have perfect attendance.  So we have an entire parallel track of education going on where young people are learning as much about what it takes to be a good gamer as they’re learning about everything else they learn in school.

This is what McGonigal describes as an “epic win” face on this slide:

And, if you’re feeling so inclined, you can check out this longer lecture about the psychology of gaming from Stanford: “Gaming for Greater Good”:

I was also really intrigued by this recent article (click here) on the FastCo.Exist blog about the collective problem-solving site, The Foresight Engine.  The site is described by Co.Exist as:

a forecasting model that allows for the discovery of social wisdom and the giving of exposure to outlier ideas…  “games,” conducted with hundreds or thousands of individuals, are tackling everything from ways to cure neurological diseases—”How would you advise the President to reinvent the process of medical discovery?”—to ideas for rebuilding the city of Christchurch in New Zealand after February’s devastating earthquake.

Click here for FastCo.Exist’s article, “WeTopia: What Would Happen if Zynga Made Games for Good?”  And click here for InformationWeek‘s “Feds Turn to Video Games to Solve Problems: From NASA to National Park Service, Agencies Research How They Can Work Together to Create Games to Meet Social, Health, Economic, and Other Challenges.”

Who knew?  You can log in to solve real-world problems.  The land of avatars is a game-changer, a collaborative universe with a narrative that overlaps the real-world seamlessly in really impressive and important ways.  Soon, we’ll all become global colleagues in this game called life, and “life” will become harder to distinguish from the digitally enhanced ecosystems that are crowdsourced and user-generated, pixelated, vivid.

See you one the other side? Perhaps it’s time we put on our game face and prepare for the “epic win.”

There are 5 comments

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  1. Brian

    And I brought up the molecule game subject in class first :p

    But more about this well written post – Like I said, I distrust the finger pointers calling things
    bad, plus I pay attention to the “wisdom” of the crowd, or cloud. I always
    thought video gaming could be guided toward usefulness (more than just making
    new military pawns).


    I wonder if the elapsed years in World of Warcraft are relevant.
    It strikes me like the disingenuous marketing line: We have 35 years of
    combined experience (where a co. of 10 adds up everyone’s 3 years’ experience).
    The gaming time seems like it could be relevant, and on an evolutionary course.What do you think could happen?

  2. Stephspiro

    Thanks, Brian!  The Foldit news is *huge* and it was the first thing both speakers brought up at the gaming talk at NYAS, and Tiffany Shlain also mentioned the Foldit discovery after her Connected screening.  I hope all of this good press encourages people to create more games for good.  The gaming vs education parallel really fascinates me.  It’s super sci-fi!!  

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