Changing the world, one video game at a time

Even in the age of technology, playing video games is often a guilty pleasure. Many expert studies have warned of the dangers associated with gaming, so there are definitely some negative stereotypes out there. But one expert is making some waves with new ideas that put a positive spin on gaming, and she claims that  implementing these ideas can solve global problems.

Her name is Jane McGonigal, and she thinks gaming can make the world a better place. McGonigal is a game designer whose self-proclaimed goal is to “try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.” One of the reasons McGonigal thinks this is possible is the same reason the nay-saying experts claim video games increase violence: the feelings you get while playing a video game are transferred over to real life interactions.

So, if you are playing the part of a medieval hero, and you have just conquered a level 10 demon with the flaming sword of justice, chances are good that you will feel strong and powerful for several hours after. You may even feel downright heroic. Maybe you won’t drive by that stranded motorist on your way to work the next day, or you’ll volunteer to help grandma shovel the snow in her driveway.

Another reason McGonigal is so optimistic is that modern video games not only make it possible to team up with other players, it is often a necessary part of completing a task in a game. Complete strangers working together towards a common goal? This is not a foreign concept to most gamers, even those who aren’t very social in real life.

Gaming also motivates people to accomplish something in a way that many employers only dream of. In a video game, McGonigal says, every goal is attainable, even if it is barely attainable. There is conflict, and there are hurdles to jump, but the gamer perseveres. And they have fun doing it. We can make real life goals just as attainable through the use of video games, and McGonigal can prove it.

A few years ago she launched World Without Oil, an online game whose premise is a global oil crisis. Participants were encouraged to imagine what it would be like to live in such a world and to come up with creative solutions by living as if it were true. In a TED presentation, McGonigal claims that most of the players stopped driving cars and quit using oil—and they are still oil-free today.

Can making problem-solving fun actually motivate more people to think critically and creatively to find solutions? Perhaps it is so. In this online video, Swedish scientists were able to get more people to use the stairs–despite the nearby escalator–by making the stairs fun. It is the same idea behind Wii Fit: a game console that revolutionized active gaming and made exercise fun for the gaming generation.

Gaming can provide people with social skills they use outside of gaming. However, gaming is often excellent motivation for picking up other skills. There are  online communities devoted to games that some people may not be aware of. These communities work together to solve problems like game “bugs” and to share  strategy and custom content.

More than a decade ago, a friend brought me my first computer game: The Sims. I was new to computers and new to gaming, so I searched online for people who could help. What I found was an immense community of “Simmers” willing to lend me their expertise. It soon became clear that just playing The Sims wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted to create new custom content to use in my games and share that content with others.

Over the course of the past ten plus years, love of the game led me to learn how to use 3D modeling programs, UV mapping programs, and photo editing programs like Paint Shop Pro to create content for The Sims. I also learned HTML and how to use programs like Dreamweaver and FTP to build a website, so I could share that content with others. I did so entirely online, with the help of the Simming community—for free.

It’s no secret that the military has been using simulation training for years in order to help prepare troops for combat, a sometimes controversial subject. Video gaming, in this context, is a tool for training, and the Army is spending big bucks to make it happen. Gaming is also helping troops on the front lines relax and unwind.

With all this goodness, when is gaming a bad thing? Too much of anything, no matter how good, can be a bad thing. Thousands of people around the world have become addicted to online games like World of Warcraft. Too much gaming has ruined relationships, careers, and educations. When a person spends more time gaming than immersed in the real world, life can pass them by.

I’ve also mentioned expert studies. Some studies suggest that violent video games make gamers more aggressive. Researchers at the University School of Medicine in Indiana say the brain scans of kids who played violent video games showed a decrease in self-control and inhibition, among other things. They stopped short of saying the results proved that kids became violent because of violent video games, but the implications are cause for concern.

Of course, not all video games are violent. Thanks in part to published research and concerned parents, non-violent video games [like The Sims] have become increasingly prevalent. There are certainly game designers like Jane McGonigal creating games that [she hopes] will make the world—and the gamers who inhabit it—a better place.