Beyond Entertainment

Aaron Lynch

Games have always been seen as a form of entertainment on par with movies, music or books. Growing up in my house, they were a way for us to spend time with one another, but never felt like they challenged us to learn or achieve. Even today, most mainstream video games and board games do not overtly help us progress our own skills or talents or society’s objectives. But what if they could?

Recently, there has been a trend to find a purpose for games beyond entertainment.  Partially because games hold our attention in a way that other forms of entertainment are unable.  Whether games are sports, video games, board games, or puzzles, they add a level of interaction that grabs our attention and motivates us because of a structure of incentives and rewards.

This begs the question: how are games currently being used for impactful and meaningful purposes? I found a few examples of game designers who have formed opinions about how we can harness the power of games to improve ourselves, society and the world.

Games Make Us Smarter

Video games may not seem like an excellent use of time, but Gabe Zichermann argues otherwise. In a TED Talk in Brussels, Zichermann displayed the value video games have on learning and development, showing that they can function as learning tools. Zichermann points out that games hold our attention for longer periods of time than other forms of stimuli because of how rewards are structured into the gameplay. If the attention-grabbing power of games can be harnessed to drive learning, our youth can achieve so much more in a shorter amount of time. Zichermann calls this process gamification.

Gamification is the process of using game mechanics, incentives and reward systems to encourage users to continue to use a product, maintain a positive behavior or attain a goal. Using this idea, game mechanics can have a huge effect on making tedious tasks more meaningful to make positive behavior more rewarding.  Companies have already started building apps and websites that take advantage of gamification for gain, for instance:

  • The popular location-tracking application, Foursquare rewards us for being social. Foursquare uses a badge system that rewards players for trying new restaurants, going a variety of places and meeting up with friends.
  • The Nike+ Running app makes running and exercising more rewarding by tracking progress, visualizing individual workouts and trends, and encourages users to compete with friends, family, and communities.

Games Can Save the World

Jane McGonigal is a video game designer who wants to save the world. According to McGonigal, the world spends 3 million hours a week playing online games. Like Zimmerman, McGonigal seeks to harness the power of the incentives and rewards which exist in gaming: if companies, governments and philanthropic organizations can leverage that power to incentivize a massive amount of gamers to work on problems that previously seem dull or insurmountable, they would be able to incentivize solving world problems.

McGonigal compares the idea of how we feel in life with how we feel in reality universes.  Using World of Warcraft as an example, she describes why games are more rewarding than the real world, games:

  • Challenged players based on their skill, level, and experience
  • Allow for a collaborative experience
  • Create a story that is interesting and epic
  • Offer constant feedback

People are using games to escape from everything that is broken in the real world environment that is not satisfying in real life, so McGonigal created a few pilot games that show how we can use game mechanics to solve real world problems.

In the game, World Without Oil, McGonigal places gamers in a world that is running out of oil. In the game, players are faced with scenarios that force difficult choices and encourage problem solving with the hope that this behavior will be imitated in real life.

Creating an epic narrative in conjunction with rewarding mechanics, McGonigal’s most recent release, Super Better, helps players facing difficult illnesses achieve their health goals.  Players gain points that help them level up their strength in four areas (physical, mental, emotional, and social) and complete quests by interacting with family, friends and pets, solving problems, and taking daily steps toward becoming more healthy.

 Games Increase Cultural Awareness

Brenda Brathwaite, a video game designer most well known for her work on Wizardry 8, started a project working on a set of board games meant to evoke understanding, meaning and historical appreciation.

Through her daughter, Brathwaite discovered that games have the power to evoke strong personal meaning and feelings. While books and movies can be extremely powerful, the interactive and social aspects of games allow players to experience powerful choices that other mediums can only demonstrate.  However, currently few games exist that utilize that potential to teach us cultural awareness and understanding.

Through her project, Brathwaite created a series of games: The Mechanic is the Message. From The New World, an exploration of slave trade and the middle passage, to Train, a game about the holocaust, Brathwaite created six games that explore difficult topics to make the point that games affect us emotionally in a way that we have only begun to understand.

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