Should Real Life Be More Like Videogames?

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Game researcher Jane McGonigal writes in the Wall Street Journal today that real life isn’t good enough anymore:

Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer’s sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? The real world just doesn’t offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy.

….In a good game, we feel blissfully productive. We have clear goals and a sense of heroic purpose. More important, we’re constantly able to see and feel the impact of our efforts on the virtual world around us….When we play, we also have a sense of urgent optimism. We believe whole-heartedly that we are up to any challenge, and we become remarkably resilient in the face of failure.

Well, sure. After all, games are deliberately engineered to be addictive, and they do it largely by producing an artificial world in which failure has no serious consequences and success is all but guaranteed to anyone willing to put in a moderate amount of effort. That’s why we call it “entertainment.” But this is nothing surprising. Lots of other leisure activities make you artificially “alive, focused and engaged in every moment” too: gambling, skydiving, and snorting cocaine, just to name a few. The difference, McGonigal thinks, is that the artificial thrills of gaming can be put to real-life use:

In 2010, more than 57,000 gamers were listed as co-authors for a research paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The gamers—with no previous background in biochemistry—had worked in a 3D game environment called Foldit, folding virtual proteins in new ways that could help cure cancer or prevent Alzheimer’s. The game was developed by scientists at the University of Washington who believed that gamers could outperform supercomputers at this creative task—and the players proved them right, beating the supercomputers at more than half of the game’s challenges.

More recently, more than 19,000 players of EVOKE, an online game that I created for the World Bank Institute, undertook real-world missions to improve food security, increase access to clean energy and end poverty in more than 130 countries. The game focused on building up players’ abilities to design and launch their own social enterprises.

After 10 weeks, they had founded more than 50 new companies—real businesses working today from South Africa and India to Buffalo, N.Y. My favorite is Libraries Across Africa, a new franchise system that empowers local entrepreneurs to set up free community libraries. It also creates complementary business opportunities for selling patrons refreshments, WiFi access and cellphone time. The first is currently being tested in Gabon.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pretty skeptical of this. With rare exceptions, real life is just never going to be much like a videogame. But it’s certainly an interesting idea, and I’d love to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: Here’s an article about McGonigal and gaming that we published on Monday.

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