Want to become a successful businessman? Save the planet? Forget the MBA and download World of Warcraft instead.
Jason Graham is a lifelong gamer. The 34-year-old Bay Area software engineer has been playing virtual games in some form since his father brought home an Atari 2600 in 1984. These days he estimates he spends 14 to 16 hours a week enjoying such favorites as Grim Fandango, World of Warcraft, and Mass Effect.
Graham is hardly alone. There are an estimated 170 million gamers in the U.S.—some 67 percent of American households, according to trade group Entertainment Software Rating Board. Five million spend more than 40 hours a week at the console; worldwide, an astonishing 3 billion hours per week are devoted to romping in virtual playlands. While critics see the gaming “epidemic” as just one more ill effect of a violent, sedentary, and media-saturated culture, a handful of charismatic researchers are arguing that gaming is productive, educational, inspired, and may just help save the world.
According to these experts, engaging in complex, stimulating virtual worlds is an exercise in self-empowerment: spurring players to collaborate, take risks, sharpen memory, and focus on and achieve goals. Embracing a gamer’s mindset, in other words, is the key to real-world success.
To gaming skeptics, the concept may seem laughable. To the $50 billion gaming industry, it’s enormously appealing. From 1990 to 2010 the overall value of the global gaming industry increased 500 percent, making it by far the fastest-growing media segment. By 2014, it’s expected to be worth $84 billion, roughly four times the size of the recorded music industry. Last year, Americans spent over $15 billion purchasing virtual games. Wouldn’t it be nice to think all that scratch was funding the next generation of world-problem solvers?
The non-gaming public might need some convincing. The stereotypical avid gamer—someone hunkered down on a dingy sofa in a dark basement for hours in front of virtual role-playing games like WoW—is overwhelmingly young and male. And while this is a myth—women make up nearly half of all video-game players—studies show that males are far more likely to favor violent games such as Halo and Doom and to become addicted.
These trends have invoked much hand-wringing among parents and educators. Journalist Peg Tyre’s 2008 book, The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Educators Must Do, devoted an entire chapter to the troubling effects obsessive video-game playing has on boys. Is the gaming industry fostering a generation of socially stunted young men, prone to aggression and sloth?
According to game designer Jane McGonigal, quite the contrary. McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, argues that the gaming mentality—that desire to one-up competitors, solve problems, conquer enemies, and advance to the next level—is the key to solving the world’s most urgent problems. If 10 million rabid World of Warcraft fanboys can collaborate to build the world’s second-largest wiki, couldn’t they translate the crowd-sourced intelligence to solve a real-world problem, like peak oil?
To McGonigal, the defining characteristics of the gaming mentality are optimism, collaboration, blissful productivity, and what she terms “epic meaning,” or bringing serious import to a serious task. As she sees it, no one is better mentally equipped to tackle the 21st century’s looming problems than the hordes of gamers currently zoning out in rec rooms across America.
Her ideas are echoed by British game theorist Tom Chatfield, whose recent book Fun Inc.: Why Games Are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business touts the incentive-based structure of video games as a model for schools, governments, and businesses. Video games’ fixed targets and rewards, he says, are an ideal strategy for effectively engaging and mobilizing individuals for all sorts of causes, from environmental (bottle deposits) to corporate (deferred compensation).
There is also mounting evidence that gamers’ unique skills may help them in the workplace. More companies are beginning to embrace gaming principles such as clear benchmarks, constant feedback and tangible rewards as a way to organize and empower employees. Blue chips including IBM, Wells Fargo, and Northrop Grumman use the online virtual world Second Life to host conferences and trade shows, and Microsoft says the productivity of product testers shot up after the company began using a virtual points system to reward competing teams.
According to a 2008 article in Harvard Business Review by Stanford professor Byron Reeves, the best sign that someone is qualified to run a startup isn’t an Ivy League MBA, but level-70 guild leader status, an advanced rank in World of Warcraft signifying superior leadership skills. Guild master Stephen Gillett credits gaming for helping him land a gig as Chief Information Officer at Starbucks at the young age of 32.
Neither McGonigal nor Chatfield addresses the dark side of the gaming mindset—where collaboration blurs into groupthink, incentives reward misdeeds, and competitors cheat. Spammers and other cyber predators have long demonstrated the virtual world’s hospitality to anonymous schemers. Now a similar bold, rule-flaunting mentality is fueling the antics of hacker groups such as Anonymous, who’ve committed numerous acts of Internet mischief in recent years, including disabling the websites of MasterCard and Visa last December. And while researchers have yet to prove a definitive link between game play and acts of aggression, studies, including a recent one in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, have shown that playing violent video games can desensitize users to real-world bloodshed. Despite boosterism from brains like McGonigal, the strongest example so far of video games’ applicability to reality is military drones, unmanned aerial robots that allow soldiers to bomb enemy targets from the safety of a distant video console.
But McGonigal’s on a mission to prove that game-think can be deployed in the real world to benevolent effects. At the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto think tank, she’s developed a series of “alternate-reality” games where users compete to solve real-world crises. In World Without Oil (its grim motto: “play it before you live it”), players document their survival strategies for a suddenly fossil-free existence. In EVOKE, a co-production with the World Bank, players embark on 10 online quests to solve specific real-world development challenges. With these models, gamers, who she says have called the experiments “transformative,” are a human resource in the truest sense.
At the very least, escapist entertainment isn’t such a bad thing either. To quote Guardsman Franx in Warhammer 40,000: “Give me a gun, a googly-eyed alien to shoot at, and I’ll die a happy man.”
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