Virtual gamers a 'human resource' in real world's epic of survival



Jane McGonigal, an online game designer of 10 years, has a goal: to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is in online games.

According to McGonigal, director of game research and design at the Institute of the Future, a non-profit San California-based forecasting firm, three billion hours are spent in online game play every week worldwide. While this may sound like a lot, McGonigal believes it needs to be closer to 21 billion if humans are to survive the next century.

"If we want to solve the problems of poverty, hunger and climate change, global conflict and obesity, we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade," she says in a recent presentation on the TEDTalks video site (

Why? Because McGonigal believes we can channel the commitment, concentration and collaboration that people put toward succeeding in games such as World of Warcraft into solving real-world challenges.

Gamers are a "human resource that we can use to do real-world work," says McGonigal. She believes that one of the best ways we can tackle the world's problems is by taking the experience of gaming and applying it to the real world. "In the best-designed games, our human experience is optimized; we have important work to do, we're surrounded by potential collaborators, and we learn quickly and in a low-risk environment," reads her blurb on the TED website.

McGonigal, who did her PhD on why we are "better" in games than in real life, feels that many of us become the best versions of ourselves when we are in a game world: most likely to help in a moment's notice, to stick with a problem until it is solved, or to get up after failure and try again. She says we become "super-empowered hopeful individuals."

There are an estimated 500 million gamers today, and one billion more are expected to join them in the next decade. This mass escapist reaction, however, is not without precedence. McGonigal says that according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, some of the first games were invented during a famine in the kingdom of Lydia. She also notes that new evidence suggests these games may have helped save the culture from destruction by inspiring the people and teaching them tools of collaboration.

"If you have a problem, and you can't solve it alone, evoke it," reads the website for EVOKE, a 10-week, mission-based adventure that's one of the latest of McGonigal's efforts to empower people to come up with creative solutions to urgent social problems. Commissioned by the World Bank Institute, the game is a collaborative environment where players accomplish each mission by uploading blog posts, photos and video, and offering encouragement and extra game powers -- courage, creativity, local insight, resourcefulness, vision, etc. -- to fellow participants.

The story takes place inside a graphic novel, set in the year 2020, that's about a secret group of African problem-solvers. It started on March 3 and runs until May 12, and those who complete the 10 challenges will become certified by the World Bank Institute as this year's social innovators and have the opportunity to compete for online mentorships and seed money for real-world projects. The top players in the game will be invited to an EVOKE Summit in Washington D.C.

Can playing games that matter really change the world? While it may sound crazy, the world is facing issues of epic proportion. If we could channel even a percentage of the reportedly 5.93 million years World of Warcraft participants have collectively spent solving the problems of the virtual world of Azeroth; if we could benefit from the optimism, perseverance and collaborative spirit developed there, I wonder what epic tales of human potential and overcoming adversity we might have to tell.

EVOKE is free to play, open to anyone, and can be joined any time before May 12. For more information, visit urgentevoke.comon the Internet.

Kim Davis is a Vancouver sustainable-design consultant.



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