More and more Americans are playing video games and many are flocking to casual games like CityVille and Angry Birds. Some people play to de-stress, some to escape, some play just to have fun. As an example of the growing interest, Zynga, the producer of the -Ville series, is now valued at $9 billion.
According to Jane McGonigal’s new book, “Reality Is Broken”,this is not a bad thing. Based on a recent survey, by the age of 21 the average American has spent around three thousand hours reading books. This may seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the ten thousand hours the same group has spent playing video games. Ten thousand hours of experience has made a whole generation of gaming-experts. But are there any real world skills that benefit from raising virtual crops and demolishing a pig army?
McGonigal has devoted her career to changing the world through games, and her book does a great job covering all the research that have supported this goal. Her own projects have largely been alternate reality games like SuperBetter and Cruel 2 B Kind which used game-like systems to produce real world results such as help recovering from an illness and increasing the sense of community in a game-space.
The benefits of games expand beyond these types of play and into the casual games we all know and love. One of the foundational ideas of the research is the concept of flow. Flow is the perception shift we have all experienced when totally engrossed within a game. There have been more than a few occasions when I have settled in for a session of chopping fruit in Fruit Ninja or defending my lawn from invading zombies only to finally pry myself away hours later (or on the extreme levels, lost a weekend to World of Warcraft).
According to McGongigal, the benefits of flow extend beyond the time you play a game. She mentions that 70% of high-level executives regularly play games at work, and afterwards they report feeling “less stressed” and “more productive”:
"Playing games can give us a taste of that elusive sense of individual agency and impact in a world where the work we do may be challenging, but our efforts often seem fruitless."
Although the games are not often productive in themselves, they can produce the type of instant feedback that allows us to be productive once we log off.
Another effect McGonigal explains is the benefit of games like FarmVille and Lexulous. It may seem like your mother is just wasting hours clicking on strawberries to get them to grow, but every sheep gifted and shared event is a social cue, a simple action that demonstrates that we are thinking about loved ones and interacting with them. Games have the power to bring us together.
The next step McGonigal is trying to achieve is to combine all of these elements within a worthy goal. There are some great examples already. Some of the projects McGonigal worked on include Evoke and World Without Oil, which tries to get players to engage with real world problems. Another example is Fold.It, a puzzle-game that uses player innovation to solve the complex problem of protein structures.
There are a few problems with McGonigal’s hypothesis. One is figuring out how to take the feeling of productivity and community that arises from casual games and apply that to real world problems. Games like Evoke have made limited headway, but with only 20,000 players their impact has been minimal when compared to mainstream games.
Another obstacle is that much of her goals remain fairly abstract, if not theatrical. How do we shift from planting crops in FarmVille to planting crops in arid regions? Instead of taking down castles in Angry Birds, how do we engage in building houses with Habitat for Humanity? The growing movement headed by Jane McGonigal has yet to answer many of these questions
But every person who as ever played these games has some skills that are, if not directly transferable, at least beneficial. McGonigal sums them up well,
"We are well on our way to creating an entire generation of virtuoso gamers. Every young person who achieves ten thousand hours of gaming practice will be capable of extraordinary success in gaming environments later in life."
It is up to players, game designers, health practitioners, and even politicians to intigrate these game environments within real world problems. “Reality is Broken” poses a powerful question, if it becomes fun and engaging to save reality, why not lend a controller to the cause?