Games for Change at West Coast Green

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Later this month I will be leading a panel at West Coast Green — a conference in San Francisco that brings together leaders in the field of green technology. Entitled “Power Up: Changing the Real World with Games” (thanks to Nathan for the great name!), the goal of the panel is to share examples of different games that have been designed to address systemic problems in the environment and green space. I will be joined by Professor Byron Reeves of Stanford University and Dr. Tad Hirsch of Intel’s People and Practices group, who are both strongly interested in this space.

The goal of the panel is two-fold. First, I’ll be talking about E=H2O, a game that we recently ran at the Institute for the Future in conjunction with the IEEE that was designed to get players to think about how their lives would change in 10 years as a result of the future challenge of providing water and energy to an growing population that increasingly relies on abundant quantities of these resources.

Second, and the reason why I am writing this post, is to address the question of “why use games for real world change.” I’ve written a bit about this in the past, but this is a good opportunity to draw together some disparate threads and make one argument for the power of games.

Games have traditionally been associated with leisure time – as something we play to get away from the real world, and that by stealing away our “productive” time, in effect pull us away from changing the world. But, as likely comes as no surprise, I believe that the world needs *more* games – games that don’t provide escape from the challenges that we face, but rather that are designed to connect us to these real world problems.

A lot has been said in the press about games and their ability to tap into human desires for progress and measurable success and though there is undoubtedly a lot to this – which is why companies like foursquare are so popular right now, in my talk I would like to push the envelope a little and briefly cover three reasons why I think games are an ideal technology for helping spur real world change. These are not new ideas, and draw heavily on work done by the usual cast of characters – Jane McGonigal, Ian Bogost, Tracy Fullerton, etc., but my hope is that grouping them together will be useful to people who are looking to persuade their colleagues, friends, or even themselves, that games can be used for more than escape. I’m not trying to explain how games might be used to change the real world, but rather I am interested in why games have such a hold on us.

My Three Reasons for Games are:

1. They provide an equal playing field;
2. They provide a space for shared attention and experience; and
3. They provide freedom to play, experiment and fail.

1. Equal playing field.

For me, the single most powerful thing that games provide is a space in which the concept of fairness is far more tangible than generally experienced throughout the rest of our lives. Many games take for granted a level field of play and present even starting conditions to all participants. There is no guaranteed equality of outcome, but in these games there is equality of opportunity.

This equality of opportunity is something we strive for in other, more complex systems that we interact with on a daily basis. When we go to school, work, or the DMV, among countless other examples, we want outcomes that clearly link to our actions. Although our merits at work may become lost in office politics or corporate bureaucracy, in games we can reasonably expect that the operating principles of the game system will ensure that our skill in playing the game will come to the fore front. (In many games chance plays a fairly prominent role, but in a well designed skill will triumph over chance. For a more complete discussion of this tension, I recommend you read Caillois.)

2. Space for shared attention and experience

Anyone engrossed in a baseball pennant race (go Giants) will be familiar with my second reason for why I think games are powerful tools changing the real world: games let us experience similar emotions as our friends, coworkers, and even strangers.

By letting us experience a shared sense of anxiety at missing the playoffs, or the joy of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in a particularly heated game of Settlers of Catan, games give us a common ground for conversations, and a strong way to relate to others.

In this sense, games are great at creating instantaneous communities – communities that, because they are linked by experience, are often much more related than communities based on the happenstance of things like location.

3. Freedom to play, experiment and fail.

Finally, and in my mind most powerfully, games provide us with spaces to fail – and to learn from our failures. I wrote about this a couple months ago, but to sum up my previous post, since games occupy a privileged space that is nominally considered outside the bounds of “real-life”, we are not as afraid to fail in them. In my real life I, like most people, am extremely concerned with making sure I don’t screw things up – at home, school, work, I really don’t want to fail. In games, I lose all the time, and its no big deal because I can learn and develop as a result.

In short, games provide an equal playing field; a space for shared attention and experience; and the freedom to play, experiment and fail. Though there are many more reasons to use games in the real world, I think these are the most powerful.

If you plan on attending West Coast Green, be sure to check out my panel!

Guest Baxter Mathias Crawford is a researcher at the Institute for the Future, and part of the team behind Signtific Lab, the massively multiplayer thought experiment. His current passion and research is in the art and science of game design.

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