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English: Game designer and author Jane McGonig...

Jane McGonigal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently watched a TED video with Jane McGonigal talking about how gaming (video games) can be used to make a better world. Her arguments make sense – about how so many young people are so involved in these games that it creates the perfect platform for them to become more involved in certain issues and develop certain mindsets while doing this activity. Some notes from the talk:

  • The world spends three billion hours a week playing online games (WoW gamers have spent a collective 5.93 million years solving virtual WoW problems)
  • Gamers commonly experience these emotions: a sense of urgency, a bit of fear, lots of concentration, optimism, surprise, and the focus needed to tackle a tough problem
  • Games give us a platform to be the best version of ourselves – more likely to help others, more likely to work at a problem, to try again after failure, etc.
  • Main goal: how do we take these characteristics of gamers and have them apply it to the real world?
  • Some reasons why games are great platforms: goals are always within reach, there’s always other collaborators, lots of positive feedback (ie. leveling, points)
  • Those in turn cause optimism, self-motivation, and hope of success. It also builds up a person’s trust and cooperation.
  • Conclusion: gamers are practiced, empowered, optimistic people. The kind of people we need to solve world problems. The kind of people that could help solve these problems if the real world was more like a game –> games for the purpose of social good.

When you define games and gamers in this perspective, then it does sound like a promising idea. Supposedly, the world has the talent to make itself into a better place, but perhaps these people are just using their talents in the wrong places right now. However, when I think more about the actual games, certain metrics, game functions, and why the majority of users play in the first place, I’m unconvinced that this idea will work.

First, why do gamers even get into games in the first place? (When I say ‘gamers,’ I’m referring to the more hardcore groups – people who play WoW or Starcraft for hours at a time, for many years consistently, etc – which is also the group that McGonigal refers to. Social gamers probably aren’t included since they rarely get into the same mindsets.) The top reasons I can think of are:

– that they like the theme – usually fantasy, sometimes Sci-Fi, or gang / mob related, or war related

– they like the style of play (first person shooting, or MMORPG, or strategizing and battling others, or just leveling up)

– they enjoy the time they have to game (take their mind off real life, don’t have to worry about any problems, have a chance to catch up with actual or virtual friends)

– they enjoy the challenge of solving some sort of problem, or tackling a challenge / mission, and basking in the glow of accomplishment

(Confession: When I used to play SC, the parts I enjoyed the most were playing with and chatting with friends sitting next to me, and destroying enemy bases. Not sure how this can be transferred into a helping-the-world mentality.)

A battle in Starcraft II (Credit: Wirebot)

Except maybe the last reason, what it comes down to is that games are just a form of entertainment. It’s a hobby and a way to ‘relax’ for many people. Gamers are unlikely to want to come home after a long day at work to spend another couple of hours figuring out real life problems and how they could actually affect someone else’s life. And if the problems they encounter in a game is too reflective of problems they see in society, ie. obesity, poverty, I can’t imagine them to be too interested.

Furthermore, true gamers tend to really care about game functions. This could include a variety of aspects, ie. how a character’s movement is controlled (mouse, keyboard, controller), the types of weapons and attacks that can be used, the UI/UX of the game environment, quality of art and animation, stacking of challenges and rewards, etc. For a game to capture the long-term attention of a large number of hardcore gamers, it has to be really well designed. It has to have enough content to keep entertaining for a minimum number of hours – or have updates to constantly add more content to the game.

After watch the TED video, I then found a related blog post with ten actual ‘social purpose’ games. I tried a few of them out, and unfortunately most (if not all) of them supported my initial thoughts about why games-for-social-good might not work out:


This is a ‘goal setting’ game that encourages users to pick a certain personal physical, mental, or emotional target, and work on a series of tiny challenges designed to help towards that goal. This is a pretty unconventional ‘game,’ and unlikely to attract players who are not already motivated towards a certain New-Year-Resolution type of goal and just looking for a channel to help them achieve it. First, it’s not really helping the world; and second, it’s not really a game.


Think of it as biological Tetris. It’s a pattern recognition game that works to stabilize amino acids, which helps scientific research.

It’s a good concept, but the actual game is pretty hard to get to. In order to get to the actual game interface and start playing, a player would first have to download it, register, re-adjust to a old-school 8-bit UI style, and go through a series of funnel conversion steps. I didn’t even actually get to the game before I gave up.


Two strangers / players from different locations in the world must learn how to speak and communicate in order to navigate through this game. Assuming they’ll actually be from different parts of the world, this game promotes communication across languages and cultures.

This game has potential, and I like the concept of mixing cultures. It also has a fairly good UI / design in the beginning. The only aspect that might turn people away is how they have to connect with random people on Twitter just to start an initial game. For a better conversion funnel, it should have a computer generated person to be the ‘other player’ in the first few games so a user can get the hang out it – kind of like how WoW works when you first create a character.

Budget Hero

Lets players see what happens to the national deficit when they increase funding for certain programs or make cuts to others. The goal is the balance the national budget.

Again, very relevant concept, pretty cool interface, and is a simple easy-to-get-to online social game. The bigger problem is almost the opposite of the last game: the first-time-experience for a user is too much instead of not enough. There’s a lot of facts and features a user has to learn before he can actually start playing.

Conclusion: McGonigal has a great idea that’s perhaps attainable in the long-term, but needs a lot of work and passionate people/game designers dedicated to it. In the meanwhile, it’s great that some gaming companies are starting corporate social responsibility initiatives (ie. donating a portion of revenue to schools, non-profits, etc.) It’s also promising that there are certain social games out there aimed at educating younger kids about nutrition, basic rules of physics, etc. One step at a time to turn gaming into a field that’s more value-added to society.