[AI] Saving the world, one hit point at a time

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Tue Sep 28 02:56:34 EDT 2010


Half a billion dedicated gamers. Games where they battle poverty,

war and disease. Epic win

by Samantha Murphy

NEXT time you fancy spreading a bit of digital carnage, try doing it

with a virus. Not a worm or a trojan horse, but an influenza virus,

mutating and spreading across the virtual globe. See how many people

you can infect in 180 days, but be warned, if you don't get your

strategy right your virulence will diminish and your would-be pandemic

will fizzle out.

Welcome to Killer Flu, a video game in which you play the role of

H1N1. Pushing yourself to pandemic proportions is much harder than you

might think, which is precisely the point. Killer Flu is a "serious

game" - an increasingly popular genre of online games designed to deal

with real-world issues. If that sounds preachy and dull, think again.

Killer Flu is fun.

This growing trend isn't just about raising awareness. It also aims to

tap into the problem-solving skills of gamers to tackle real

challenges, from who should do the dishes to battling global warming.

As Jane McGonigal, one of the leading designers of serious games,

likes to phrase it: "Reality is broken. Game designers can fix it."

McGonigal is director of games research and development at the

Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. She also runs

Avant Game, which is not your average game-design company. While

others are trying to make games more like reality, Avant Game is

trying to make reality seem more like a game.

McGonigal says she first realised that gamers' skills could be applied

to real-world challenges in 2001, in the days following the 9/11

attacks on the US. She had been part of an online discussion group

about an alternate reality game (ARG) called The Beast, which was

designed as a promotion for the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence.

ARGs invite players to solve fictitious mysteries using real-world

tools, such as websites, email and phones. Players often interact in

online forums to share their insights.

Though the game had finished, in the wake of 9/11 many of the players

returned to the forum to discuss whether they could apply the

strategies they had used in the game to help in any way. They set out

to get information to the friends and relatives of missing people,

spread information about how to help rescue workers, and pieced

together the events that had led up to the attacks.

"They had a debate about whether this was appropriate," McGonigal

says. "They thought, 'this is reality, not a game, yet we have these

skills that seem so useful'. That was the big 'aha' moment for me."

Video games already serve a multitude of serious purposes, such as

training and education. The US military famously uses simulations to

train soldiers; some have been turned into a series of commercial

shoot-'em-ups such as America's Army.

Now, though, serious games are being targeted at everyday,

recreational gamers (see "Playing for real"). Most are educational

- the gaming equivalent of a TV documentary. But others are setting

their sights higher, aiming to solve some of the world's problems.

"There are 500 million gamers globally who spend more than an hour a

day playing games," says McGonigal. "That is an extraordinary

concentration of time, attention and emotional engagement." Committed

gamers log an average of 25 hours a week. "Game developers are just

waking up to the fact that they hold an enormous amount of power over

people's attention and engagement," McGonigal says.

Consider World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game in which

players explore a virtual world called Azeroth, completing quests,

fighting monsters and interacting with other players. WoW is the

world's most popular game of its kind, with more than 10 million

subscribers at the last count. The average WoW player spends 12.5

hours a week in Azeroth.

Virtual farming

Another popular online game is Farmville, a Facebook application

with more than 80 million players. Participants manage a virtual farm,

cultivating crops and livestock and selling them for "farm coins"

which can be invested back in the farm.

Edward Castronova, an economist at Indiana University Bloomington,

explores why people play such games. There are several powerful

motivators, he says, including immediate positive feedback from

completing missions, a sense of empowerment and significance,

adventure, the connection to others - and the taste of victory.

"For a lot of people, contemporary reality sucks. And everybody wants

to be a hero," he says. "But where are they going to go to be heroic?

Maybe you wouldn't sacrifice your life for a fantasy life, but what

about the person who poured your coffee this morning? That person is

looking at this choice: I could either work in a coffee-shop or be a

starship captain."

For a lot of people, contemporary reality sucks. And everybody wants

to be a hero. But where are they going to be heroic?

To many people, gaming for 25 hours a week looks like a terrible waste

of time. McGonigal begs to differ. She argues that games like WoW

bring out admirable qualities in people. To achieve "17epic wins" -

those fleeting moments of glory that come from completing a mission -

requires focus and collaboration. Players also display "urgent

optimism", which McGonigal describes as "the desire to immediately

tackle an obstacle, combined with a belief that you have a reasonable

hope of success".

Bringing these qualities to bear in Azeroth clearly won't make the

world a better place, but McGonigal believes game designers could tap

into them to achieve epic wins in the real world.

Douglas Thomas of the Annenberg School for Communication and

Journalism at the University of Southern California, San Diego, says

gamers tend to have other positive attributes: they relish

intellectual challenges, they are independent, they know how to gather

resources and information, and they can solve problems. With John

Seely Brown of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, he has argued that

gamers carry these attributes beyond the confines of the game into the

real world (Harvard Business Review, 14 February 2008).

Gamers are also experts at collaboration. WoW involves raids in which

a group of players aim to defeat a monster. "It can take 25 players

working in coordination 6 to 8 hours to get things done," says Thomas.

"No individual is a hero, so you do get this notion of a joint action

that may be very powerful for activism."

If the idea of gamers turning their back on Azeroth to tackle the real

world seems far-fetched, consider that today's gamer is a far cry from

the stereotypical slacker living in his parents' basement. Thomas's

colleague Dmitri Williams studies gamers and their behaviour. He

reports that the average age is 35 with a gender breakdown of 60/40

male to female. Around 40 per cent of American adults are regular

gamers (Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 13, p

993).

"Society often thinks of gamers as dropouts and burnouts who are not

interested in doing anything important," says McGonigal. "But it's not

that they don't care. They're just not seeing the opportunity to make

a difference in reality. We have to provide those

opportunities."McGonigal and other designers are now trying to do

exactly that.

It won't be easy. After all, games like WoW are a deliberate refuge

from reality. Unlike the real world, they are designed to be solved.

In contrast, real life is complicated, messy, and constrained by

physical reality.

The answer, says McGonigal, is to make real problems more game-like by

providing typical gaming motivators, such as unlockable missions and

the promise of power or status in return for success, or "levelling

up" in gamer parlance.

This approach has already been successfully applied to some real-world

problems. The rules of frequent-flyer programmes, for example, are

complex, reward-driven and immediately gratifying. Members are

motivated not only by the promise of free flights, but also by

achieving higher status, a real-world form of levelling up. The

website Chore Wars, meanwhile, turns household tasks into a

competition, awarding players points and status for completed chores

using Dungeons and Dragons as inspiration.

The latest of McGonigal's attempts to make reality more like a game is

called Evoke. It is an ARG that blends gaming with real-world

actions. Every Wednesday at midnight, Evoke players, called agents,

are given a new mission that challenges them to work together to solve

a problem such as water safety, food security or sustainable energy.

First they are told about the problem via a graphic-novel-style

introduction. It is then up to them to do more research and come up

with solutions.

For instance, when challenged to change the global economy, some

agents set up an exchange system offering services in return for a

currency they could in turn use to buy services from other agents.

Agents blog about their ideas or actions. Fellow agents then

collectively allocate points based on the blog posts, which push

agents higher up the rankings. Inspiring ideas earn "spark" points,

for example, while an informative blog will get you "knowledge share"

points. Evoke began on 3 March and attracted over 19,000 players from

all over the world.

The game also has a concealed purpose. Taken together, its 10 missions

add up to a bigger task - the creation of a business plan for a social

enterprise. The game concluded on 12 May and the best ideas it

produced are now being compiled. A few will be put into practice with

funding from the World Bank Institute.

McGonigal argues that Evoke achieves its aim of making reality more

like a game. She points out that you don't get positive feedback and

points for good ideas in the real world, and no one is breaking down

your goals into neat little steps. "It's never going to be more fun

than World of Warcraft," she says, "but it's more fun than trying to

save the world without it."

Untapped skills

Evoke's designers say they are pleased at how the game went. "There

are a lot of really good ideas," says Robert Hawkins, the World Bank's

senior education specialist and executive producer of the game.

So what do gamers think? Joanne Pinner is an avid WoW player. She

agrees that gamers possess an enormous amount of untapped skill. "Many

of the innovations and strategies they take the time to construct show

degrees of potential that could truly change the world."

But Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who

designed Killer Flu, has reservations about games like Evoke. "I'm not

sure that collective intelligence and collective action necessarily

produce reliable answers," he says.

Liam Burke, a 26-year-old web designer from London who plays video

games for 35 hours or so per week is not impressed either. "Most of

the 'missions' look suspiciously like homework," he says. Williams

agrees: "If you say 'hey kids, let's learn,' it's game over."

Despite these reservations, the serious games movement is attracting

the attention of powerful people. First lady Michelle Obama has called

on game developers to help fight childhood obesity. Next week's

Games for Change Festival in New York City will bring together

game designers, academics, NGOs and journalists to explore the

potential of serious gaming. White House Chief Technology Officer

Aneesh Chopra will make the opening address.

McGonigal thinks it is time for the movement as a whole to level up:

she has challenged game designers to create something worthy of a

Nobel peace prize. Now that really would be an epic win.

Playing for real

Real Lives 2010

(Educational Simulations)

A reality TV take on The Sims or Second Life allowing players to

experience living anywhere on the planet. Players can choose to live

as a Bangladeshi farmer, a Nigerian policeman, an American attorney or

thousands of others.

Darfur is Dying

(mtvU)

Players must avoid capture by the Janjaweed militia, then navigate

life in a refugee camp. More than 50,000 players have followed through

with at least one of the real-world actions suggested in the game,

such as writing to President Barack Obama to urge his support for the

people of Darfur, according to mtvU.

World Without Oil

(Avant Game)

An alternate reality game released in 2007 which simulated the first

32 weeks of a global oil crisis. Players were asked to imagine how the

crisis would affect their own lives and come up with practical

solutions.

Play the News

(Impact Games)

Players take on the role of leading figures in real-world news events.

They learn the background of the news event and then try to influence

how the story will develop. Players rank one another based on the

accuracy of their predictions.

Food Force

(United Nations World Food Programme)

Drought and civil war have ravaged the fictional island of Sheylan in

the Indian Ocean. You are part of a team setting up the World Food

Programme's relief efforts.

Fate of the World

(Red Redemption Games)

Scheduled for release later this year. The object is to steer

civilisation through the next 200 years as the climate hots up.

Samantha Murphy is a writer based in Pennsylvania


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