First, some statistics:
– There are 183 million video gamers in the US alone, 58% of the population, each playing about 13 hours a week
– There are at least 5 million ‘extreme’ gamers in the US playing 45 hours a week – the equivalent of a full-time job
– To date, gamers have collectively spent a total of 6 million YEARS playing just one game, World of Warcraft
– The game world of Halo has been documented by players in an online forum with 21 million posts
– By the age of 21, the average American will have spent 2,000-3,000 hours reading books and over 10,000 hours playing video games; 10,000 hours is the same amount of time a student spends in school from grades 5-12
You’ll have to admit, those figures are pretty amazing. So the question is, why? Why all this time and effort voluntarily spent in the fantasy worlds of video games? And is this bad?
Some would say that it’s all a mindless waste of time. Could be, but the time spent on a computer or console game is really no more wasted than the time spent sitting in front of a TV in days gone by. Or at a movie. Or even reading fiction. In fact, video games may be a richer environment because they are interactive. In good games, the player is often part of the story and has agency over how the game unfolds.
In the book Reality is Broken, video game designer Jane McGonigal investigates the reasons why so many people would rather be on an adventure in a virtual world than live in the real one. She says it’s because games offer four psychological benefits that are often lacking in the real world: satisfying work, the experience of being successful, social connection, and meaning. Well-designed games are, in effect, happiness engines.
McGonigal also says that that all too often people focus on the negative aspects of video games… a mind-numbing waste of time, or worse, violence and mayhem. Yes, there are games like that, but more and more, games are exploring new territory. Like Gone Home, an award-winning game which breaks new ground in interactive story-telling. The player takes the role of a young girl coming home from a year abroad, only to find her family’s home abandoned. Through exploration of the house, the player uncovers clues about what has happened and discovers new truths about her family. It’s highly emotional I can tell you.
McGonigal has big plans for games. She suggests that we apply what we’ve learned about the psychology of video games to the real world in order to make our jobs, our relationships, and our lives more meaningful. She goes further by saying that we can use the same motivational psychology to solve serious real-world problems. Here’s three examples from the book where gaming psychology is applied to real world scenarios. In order to bring to light illegal expense claims by British MPs, a game was created which enlisted the public to help ferret out those wrong-doings. Just 3 days after the game went online, 20,000 players had already analysed 170,000 claims which had been made available online. In another example, a school in New York has completely re-written their curriculum, with games front and centre. Called Quest to Learn, every course, every activity, every assignment, and pretty well everything in the school is built on the principles of good multiplayer game design. Imagine, a school where students learn at their own pace and it all becomes a game! Thirdly, a team of scientists came up with a game called Fold It, where players fold virtual proteins into new and unique shapes,with the most promising shapes to be explored further for new uses in medicine. Called crowd-sourcing or citizen science, the payoff is real – results have already been published in Nature, one of the most prestigious science journals in the world. And in yet another example (not in the book), scientists developed Eyewire, a game to map the tangled mass of neurons in the retina to sort out neuropathways involved in motion detection; this too has lead to a paper in Nature. Fascinating.
I don’t necessarily agree with McGonigal’s optimism that serious world problems can be solved through games. But at least in some areas, such as education and crowd-sourced science, it’s definitely game on.