Getting serious about games

Several recent projects have edged into the territory of games and how a gaming interface – or just the pedagogy behind gaming – might transform journalism, local communities, social causes and even philanthropy itself.

Some of the impetus is personal. I love watching my daughters play Sims – they spend countless hours cultivating and enhancing a reality so that their virtual avatars will be successful, happy, productive and loved. The iPhone game Godfinger allows me and my extended family to connect by peeking in on each others’ planets. And my stepson has mastered the world of Super Mario Bros. so thoroughly that he now makes Machinima films with the characters.

But a lot of the gravity tugging these clients toward gaming is independent. These clients recognize that how people access – and participate in – information continues to evolve. And while many organizations continue to struggle to build digitally literate, of-the-web sensibilities, progressive companies, non-profits and foundations are looking at what comes next.

And what comes next is games.

Last week, Jane McGonigal released a thought-provoking must-read for anyone interested in information, media, education and social change. It’s called “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.” Reading it should spark several new strategies for your business.

First, it should open your eyes to the raw size of the gaming community. In the United States alone, there are 183 million active gamers – people who report that they play computer or video games regularly, according to a May 2010, NPD Group Report. “Regularly” means 13 hours a week or more.

Collectively, McGonigal writes, the planet is now spending more than 3 billion hours a week gaming. Which is why gaming is estimated to be a $68 billion industry by 2012.

And players aren’t limited to the clichéd, sofa-surfing social maladroit. A recent survey of high-level executives, including CEOs, CFOs and presidents, revealed that 70 percent of them regularly play casual computer games while working. When asked why, many said they turn to games to feel “less stressed out.” More interestingly, more than half of the executives said they play during work in order “to feel more productive.”

Most important is why people play and what gaming paradigms can teach existing industries.

Games – whether it’s World of Warcraft or FarmVille – share common defining traits. McGonigal boils them down to these four:

  1. Goals. This focuses the player’s attention on a specific outcome. It gives players a sense of purpose.
  2. Rules. These place limitations on how players achieve goals. This incents players to think creatively and strategically.
  3. Feedback system. The most basic expression is a status bar. In all cases, it provides motivation while promising that the goal is achievable.
  4. Voluntary participation. This establishes common ground, which makes multi-player games possible – and fun.

At their core, games are learning mechanisms. Gamers purposely set out to overcome unnecessary obstacles to ignite competitive and creative juices. To experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow and the Italians call fiero. They spend 80 percent of their time failing – and loving it.

Applying this to real-world issues simply means applying this architecture to your issue, strategy or audience. And while it is a nascent field – this intersection of gaming frameworks with media, social engagement, education and philanthropy – there already are good examples to spark your thinking.

How do you teach children with diabetes to check their glucose levels more often? Project Crechur marries a glucose monitor with an online pet (think Webkins) to reward kids for frequent testing. The more they check their glucose, the more points their Crechur gets, so they can buy virtual clothes, furniture and power-ups for their pet. You’ll want to test often, so your Crechur is the strongest and best dressed.

At iCivics.org, the brain-child of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, you can learn about constitutional rights by being a First Amendment attorney, learn about responsible social activism by being a door-knocker, learn citizenship law by being an immigrant on a path to citizenship, or learn the responsibilities of the three branches of government by being President of the United States.

If you want to balance the U.S. budget, a good place to start is a game by The New York Times. In fact, maybe Congressional representatives should log a few hours at this game before talking to news anchors.

Or, you could build a better spy. “Scientists say video games can increase concentration, help with learning and even improve decision-making skills. Now, in an effort to improve the work of spies, the intelligence community may also resort to using educational games.”

As we continue to talk about increasing the flow of information, how news entrepreneurs build community, how foundations cause deep and lasting change, we’re eager to apply gaming sensibility to truly up the ante on participation.

And, you know, have fun doing it.