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How games (and gamers) can change the world

Opinion: Researcher and games designer Jane McGonigal has big plans for you...

Gamers have had enough of reality.

They are abandoning it in droves - a few hours here, an entire weekend there, sometimes every spare minute of every day for stretches at a time - in favour of simulated environments and online games.

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Who are they? They are the nine-to-fivers who come home and apply all of the smarts and talents that are underutilised at work to plan and co-ordinate complex raids and quests in FFXI and Lineage.

They are the music lovers who invest hundreds of dollars on plastic Rock Band and Guitar Hero instruments. They are the troops stationed overseas who dedicate so many hours a week to burnishing their Halo 3 in-game service record that earning virtual combat medals is widely known as the most popular activity for off-duty soldiers.

These gamers aren't rejecting reality entirely. They have jobs, goals, school-work, families, commitments and real lives that they care about. But they want to know: Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? Where is the feeling of power, heroic purpose and community?

Reality doesn't motivate us as effectively. Reality isn't engineered to maximise our potential. Reality wasn't designed to make us happy.

Reality, compared to games, is broken.

And so, in 2011, we find ourselves at a major tipping point. We could keep feeding our appetites with games. And we can watch the games industry continue to create bigger, better and more immersive virtual worlds that provide increasingly compelling alternatives to reality.

Or we could try to reverse course. We could try to block gamers' exit from reality - perhaps by culturally shaming them, or by trying to keep video games out of the hands of kids, or, as some US politicians have proposed, by heavily taxing them so that gaming becomes an unaffordable lifestyle.

To be honest, none of those options sounds like a future I'd want to live in.

Perhaps we should consider a third idea. What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality?

What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?

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It's not just a hypothetical idea. I've already posed it as a very real challenge to the one community who can truly help launch this transformation: the people who make games for a living. I'm one of them - I've been designing games professionally for the past decade. And I've come to believe that people who know how to make games need to start focusing on the task of making real life better for as many people as possible.

Let me describe the particular future I want to create.

Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality.

I want gaming to be something that everybody does, because they understand that games can be a real solution to problems and a real source of happiness. I want games to be something everybody learns to design and develop, because they understand that games are a real platform for change and getting things done. And I want families, schools, companies, industries, cities, countries and the whole world to come together and play them, because we're finally making games that tackle real dilemmas and improve real lives.

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