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Introduction

A little more than a year ago, a world-changing question was asked. The question, word-for-word, was this: “Do you think it is possible to create a game that, simply by virtue of playing the game, you can cause a real variable in the physical world to change?” To put it another way: Can we make a game that can change something (no matter how small) in the physical world? If that’s true…if that’s possible, then the end result is, by definition, a game that can change the world, because no matter how small the variable is, the rules of the game can be scaled up such that there’s no functional limit to what can be changed, and by how much. The quest to answer that question has been a long one, and along the way, a number of startling discoveries were made. What follows is a summary of those findings, along with the methodology (in brief) currently in use to do that very thing: Change the world by playing a game.

Real World Impact of Gaming

First, understand that the question is not a new one. A year ago was not the first time that question has been asked, at least in one form or another. TED luminary Jane McGonnigal has given a number of talks on the ways in which games can have real world impacts (1) (2) (3). Second, surprising as it might sound to you, there are currently, today, three minor and one major (but still in development) initiatives that answer the question above in the affirmative. Each of these four will be outlined below:

Free Rice (4)

This is a simple “match the word with its definition” type game. You are given a word and four choices (A – D). You select the choice that is the closest synonym to the word currently in play. For each correct guess, the owner of the site will donate ten grains of rice to famine relief in Africa. Ten grains per correct answer doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that according to Alexa stats, the site gets an average of 12,000 visitors a day with each visitor spending an average of six minutes on the site. If we assume that a correct guess takes an average of 6 seconds, that’s (12,000 * 6) = 720,000 grains of rice donated every day, 365 days a year. While insufficient on its own to solve for world hunger, this is unquestionably a significant real world impact, created by players doing nothing more than playing a game, and therefore, absolutely satisfying the conditions of the original question.

Fold It (5)

The Fold It story has become a thing of legend. In brief, a pair of AIDS researchers had been working on a particularly thorny research problem for more than a decade, without gaining much ground on it. Mostly in desperation, one would imagine, they uploaded the parameters of the problem to the Fold.it community with no real expectations. Then something remarkable happened. Within a week, the gaming community had solved it. That’s right. A group of dedicated gamers solved, inside of a week, a problem that had vexed the scientific community for a decade, and brought the world one step closer to a cure.

Raise the Village (6)

This is an iPhone app similar in nature to “Civilization.” The basic premise is that you begin with a simple, crude village and a few villagers who are living a subsistence-level life. As you play, you can research technologies that unlock various improvements you can build. Better farming methods, tools and implements, sturdier huts, better furniture, medicine, mosquito nets, and a whole host of other things. Some of the improvements you can build for your villagers can only be purchased via the game’s “premium” currency, which you can only get by spending dollars, so…for example, you purchase RtV bucks with actual dollars and buy your villagers some mosquito nets, which improves their health. When enough players have purchased mosquito nets, the company buys some actual mosquito nets and ships them to the actual village in Africa that the game is modeled after. Again, players doing nothing more than playing a game, the results of which are tangible changes in the real world. All three of these examples are fantastic as far as they go, and they more than adequately prove that the concept is sound. The only problem? They are all quite limited in their scope. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, except that they are not living up to the full potential of the new paradigm. There is no upper limit to have far the paradigm can be extended, given a properly written rules set, and because of that, there’s really no compelling reason not to continue expanding a rules set until it can encompass the whole of the planet. Interestingly, our previously mentioned fourth example is attempting to do that very thing. The game is called “Play the Planet,” (7) (8) (9) and what it seeks to do is to create a global network of sustainable, resilient communities, bound together by a common data-and-solution-sharing architecture. To accomplish this goal, the game divides the world up into “Holons.” These are county-sized “playing areas” that are of a manageable size. Large enough to have sufficient resources to ultimately become self-sufficient communities, and yet, small enough that solving problems in each local area is not seen as an impossible, Herculean task (in other words, when you think in terms of solving global hunger, that’s a daunting task, but when you think in terms of solving for hunger in your home town or county…much easier). This accomplished, the game defines what it “means” to create a sustainable, resilient society, and subdivides these into seven functional areas: Archival, Agronomy, Transport, Energy, Social, Commerce and Production. Beneath each of these functional areas, there are “Quests.” Each Quest is designed to allow players of the game to interact with their home community (Holon) and affect real, incremental change. The aggregate impact of these changes is carefully tracked and measured, with each Quest serving to move the Holon closer to sustainability, and in doing so, solve social problems that we’ve never been able to solve before (hunger, homelessness, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity for all). It would be tempting to dismiss a game with such globe-spanning ambitions as just another attempt by granola eating hippies, but for two things: First, as outlined above there are already limited-scope, real world examples of games that can, and do, affect real world changes every day, and the thinking goes that since these are already successful, there’s no particular reason that a larger scale project built on the same principles can’t be made to work. Second, and perhaps even more compelling is the fact that the economic model that Play the Planet is based on isn’t random pie-in-the-sky thinking. In fact, it is based on a hugely successful depression-era experiment called “The Miracle of Worgl.”(10)

Foundations In The Worgl Experiment

The village of Worgl, Austria suffered in all the same ways that every other town the world over did during those dark days. 30+% unemployment, a complete lack of economic opportunity, people starving in their homes, and yet the little village was uniquely fortunate, however. They had a “secret weapon” in the person of their Mayor, Michael Unterguggenberger. In July 1932, Mayor Unterguggenberger brought the town together and proposed a remarkable experiment. He would issue a new (local) town currency, and used it to fund some badly needed infrastructure projects around town. He (very reluctantly) got local merchants to agree to accept this currency for their wares, and the experiment began. The most curious feature about the currency was that it carried a negative interest rate, known as “demurrage.” Each month, on the first day of the month, a tax stamp was affixed to every bill, reducing its value by 1%. The clever and remarkable thing about this “feature” of the new money was that no one wanted to hoard it. The objective became to spend the money as fast as was possible, because no one wanted to be holding the bills when the tax stamp was affixed. What happened next was astonishing. Unemployment evaporated almost overnight. The town’s infrastructure was completely rebuilt, trees were planted, shops were bustling. It was the first recorded instance of full employment in history. It didn’t take long before the Mayors of surrounding villages came calling, and they all had the same question. How had Mayor Unterguggenberger done it, and was he willing to share the secret? He was only too happy to oblige them, and the other towns where the “magic money” was implanted all saw similar results. Not long after, Unterguggenberger was invited to speak at a conference of Mayors, where he spoke at length about his ideas, and his personal experiences in Worgl, but sadly, the seeds of the destruction of the experiment had already been sown. The Central Bank of Austria had gotten wind of it, and they were none too fond. Not long after the conference, Unterguggenberger was ordered by the government to end the experiment, and he did so, though with great reluctance. The results were as you might expect. Unemployment immediately shot back up to 30+%, where it remained until the start of WWII, and by the time the war had ended, Worgl and the Mayor’s bold (and wildly successful) experiment had been relegated to the dust bin of history. Play the Planet has revived, updated, and modernized the Worgl experiment, taking advantage of the intervening decades of technological progress and correcting for the mistake that got the original experiment shut down. All that to say, the “game” is based on real world models already proven effective.

Conclusions

Can games change the world? Is it possible to design a game such that, simply by playing it, you can cause real world variables to be changed? Absolutely yes. It is happening right now.

References


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