(2010-03-15) Hon Games Can't Change World

Adrian Hon says that Serious Games (Computer Game) can't Change The World - inspiring other people to Change The World doesn't count (as much). On the whole, though, Urgent Evoke – and the rest of these projects – appear to be more like networked creative writing exercises than games that improve the world in a direct, measurable way... I find games like World Without Oil and Urgent Evoke very interesting, because I like the idea of people writing about the future; you don’t know what you think until you’ve said it out loud, or better yet, written it down. In a way, these games help people think things through (Sense Making), which can only be a good thing. I also give a lot of credit to them for inspiring people, particularly younger people who spend a lot of time online (even if the player numbers need a lot of improvement).

The Democratic Party and the Barack Obama campaign won the game – they got Obama elected, one of the biggest achievements there is. Was there a big change in politics, in the way things are done in Washington? Some people say yes, other people say no. Did Obama’s election save the world? Clearly not; it hasn’t even saved the US. While major financial disaster may have been averted, the new healthcare bill hasn’t yet been passed (although I’m optimistic). Millions of people are unhappy with the massive bailout given to the banks, doing anything about climate change is still incredibly difficult, corporations can now buy ads to influence elections, and there’s the small matter of two wars going on. All of these problems are incredibly important – probably more important than the election. So where did all the Obama campaign volunteers go? Why aren’t they still making calls and knocking on doors in their millions? It’s because they’re tired, they’re uninspired, and they don’t feel they can make a difference any more... he beauty of Obama’s “Change” slogan was that it was something that everyone other than Republicans could agree on. But “save the world” is even better; everyone, even Republicans, can agree that saving the world would be a good thing. The problem is that when you start getting more specific – as Obama has done – two things happen: people start arguing, and they also get bored.

(Some interesting critique of the Real World Game mentality, including challenging its Extrinsic-motivation mentality.) If we develop games that make people rely more and more on external recognition – on achievements and rewards and points – they will not be prepared for when things go badly. Every leaderboard has the worst player as well as a top player. As Anthony Storr writes in Solitude: Children who feel that they have to be compliant to the extent of partially denying or repressing their true natures are bound to remain dependent on external sources for the maintenance of self-esteem.

It is people who save the world, each in their own way, through perspiration as well as inspiration.

See comments, esp by Jane McGonigal.

2018 follow-up: part of the problem is tied up into something I call the “mapping problem”, in which it’s very challenging to design a game to ‘solve’ specific kinds of problems – especially ones that we don’t fully understand – whereas gamification proponents have always claimed a one-size-fits-all solution.


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