Nov 2, 2012

Jane McGonigal & Video Games That Make a Real Difference

Tomorrow's videogames will be more than mere fun to the next generation of gamers. They'll be lush, complex, emotional experiences- more involving and meaningful to some than real life.

This is good because Jane McGonigal, a game designer with an apparently simple idea, contends that some of the billions of hours we spend playing games can be used to solve real world problems, and it can be done by playing games.

McGonigal says reality is broken, and explains that we need to make it work more like a game. 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. Her game-world insights can explain — and improve — the way we learn, work, solve problems and lead our real lives.

Here is an exert from McGonigal's interview with NPR:

MCGONIGAL: Well, since I first gave that TED Talk in February of 2010, there have been a lot of games that have really innovated to show exactly how you can fail and fail and fail, trying to solve a real problem in a game, and still eventually get to success without any harmful consequences.

So, one of the big breakthrough games has been a game called Foldit, which was created by scientists at the University of Washington. They wanted to teach gamers how to participate in a scientific process called virtual protein folding, where you're trying to understand how proteins in the human bodies fold and unfold. And, if they fold in unstable configurations, you can get diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's.

And, because it involves so much 3D spatial manipulation in this virtual world, moving these protein parts around, they thought gamers might be good at it. You know, like, think about Tetris or any of these games that involve manipulating objects in space. Gamers definitely have this skill.

Now, there's no consequence for failure if you fold a virtual protein the wrong way. So the gamers are just playing this crazy game, folding and unfolding and folding and unfolding, being wrong 99.9999 percent of the time. But, because they have that resilience and that ability to learn from mistakes and to collaborate - they've had hundreds of thousands of gamers working on this together - just this fall, they actually solved a real scientific problem that researchers had been working on for more than a decade.

They actually were able to come up with a stable configuration of a protein that could stop the HIV virus from replicating in the body. And I think this is a great example of an epic win where you can fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. There's no potential down side to trying. There's no negative consequence to being wrong in this environment. And yet the gamers were able to come up with a real win, a real breakthrough that could help make a medicine to treat or cure AIDS.


What do you think: is McGonigal on to something?  How well would these ideas translate to the real world?  As an ex-gamer, this idea seems great to me.

You can find more about McGonigal and her thinking at, as well as more games with 'real life' applications.

Source: NPR + TED

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