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Solving the World - Serious Games Require Serious Gamers
Every day gamers go into fictional spaces to save the world. They go on quests to save the Mario Galaxy, battle evil in Azeroth, and improve their lots in Farmville. Millions of gamers spend in the area of 3 billion hours a week solving the difficult and challenging problems of hundreds of fictional worlds and thousands of quests.
Until lately that didn't really have much of an effect on the real world. However with the rise of Serious Gaming, a movement that explores the uses of games beyond "entertainment", video games and the real world have become entwined. Games have already been developed that have helped scientists find planets around distance suns, create new proteins to help fight AIDS, teach about peak oil, and this is only the beginning. Games are evolving into an excellent medium for education, scientific discovery, group problem solving, and a whole host of applications we are only beginning to explore.
The ability of games to now reach out into the real world brings up a tantalizing question. If games can be used to solve real world problems and complete real world quests... could it be that gamers are finally poised to save the real world? Gamers are smart, they like to solve hard problems, they put in staggering amounts of hours into playing, and they seem to want to save the world too. If we can make games that actually let them do that, would they?
Will Gamers (want to) Save the World?
Like puzzles? Instead of playing Angry Birds, create your own RNA molecule and have scientists build if for you in the lab here. If you want to fold proteins to create new drugs, learn new languages, or help balance the budget of San Jose... there is already a game for it. But is it the same thing as a traditional game? Is it as fun as "real" games are? Are serious games really going to capture the cycles of traditional gamers and convert their hours of entertainment towards the betterment of society?
The term "serious gaming" is a useful, but in some ways unfortunate term. The term can not help but imply that games are not already serious, which they definitely are. Games are performing important psychological (and physical) functions already and the content of those games is the key.
Current games are packed with psychologically rich content which is highly reflective and connected to our inner life. We fight dragons, descend into dungeons, stalk city streets, and battle our enemies, but all along those dragons we fight are really internal dragons. The games are always, essentially, about us. They reflect something internal, so really, when we are gaming, we are not interested in saving the external world, we are interested in saving something of ourselves.
This is what makes the games so vitally important to us. They are a way to interact with and change ourselves. Early studies show that just 90 seconds playing certain games can change our confidence almost immediately and change our behavior along with it. Other games alter our personality in ways that follow us out into the real world and affect our real lives with long-term consequences. With that perspective it is easy to see how that rich, psychological material can not just be taken out and replaced with, let's say, algebra which reflects nothing of ourselves.
So Mario Galaxy is really an internal galaxy and reflective of and participating in the gamer's internal desires, delights, and growth. To replace it with the real galaxy would take away the very purpose of the game (play, self-discovery, ego maintenance, etc.) Then there would be a new purpose to the game which would be to learn about the galaxy. The purpose of the game determines who will want to play it.
This is not to say that there can't be a game that both has reflective psychological material and educational content together. The odds are that there will be. However it will be very difficult to build and those games will be competing with games who's budget, talent, and time is spent making a game that is as psychologically satisfying to the player as possible. They'll also be competing with serious games that are lean, mean, learning machines that are not trying to pretend to be entertainment.
Serious games do something fundamentally different than traditional games, like novels do something different from textbooks. They're both books but there aren't many books that are both. Imagine trying to layer a textbook onto the magic and wonder of a Harry Potter novel. Not impossible, but difficult to say the least.
On the surface you could argue that serious games are the enlightened competition of games. It seems somehow that it should be this audience of gamers that will switch from playing one kind of game to playing another kind of game. It is probable that this is not the case however. There is some natural cross-over because the mechanics will be familiar but it is all about the content, not the media, and that makes it about the intent and goals of the player.
If I want to learn to speak French I will be choosing between all the things that teach French. Books, classes, games, tutors, etc. If I want to have an adventure I will be choosing between novels, comics, experience stories, games, etc.
The players' intention is the key. Serious games will compete against traditional tools to accomplish tasks like education, discovery, training, etc. and games will compete against other "entertainment". But they will not compete very much, I think, against each other.
What if we do manage to create a serious game that is the psychologically active equal of real games? The players will still be playing the game for the psychological purposes (or "entertainment") and the educational value of the game will be a by-product of that. It will be, in effect, a trick.
Even though serious games are still not going to replace current games, they will eventually replace and augment many traditional means of instruction. Imagine a "serious game" designed to teach French. It takes the form of a virtual France which would offer the best of language immersion, traditional grammatical instruction, and the motivation of social interaction. Attached to it is an augmented reality display that can turn any town into une ville and any home into une maison with on-the-fly overlays and audio integration. Who wouldn't choose that over a text book?
So in the end serious games may help us make the world a better place but they might not motivate us to do so. The novelty of the games, the technology, the interface, and the community interactions may make it much easier to help us shave some cycles from our entertainment time to our "betterment" time but how much?
I'm a gamer and I do want to save the real world, but how much of my personal gaming time am I willing to give up to do it? Unfortunately, the answer is probably about as much time as I am giving up now to do so. The games may provide us with a new tool to solve our problems but the motivation to do so is still up to us.
Still, I'll be looking forward to the day when making a difference is a little more fun.