Playing to Change the World?

This post was originally published at Instituto Elos’ blog, on April 9th 2010 … an essay about games and its potential as toll for social transformation.


We’re spreading the idea that changing the world is not only possible but can be fun. It seems like many people—many serious people—agree.

“Playing is the highest form of inquiry.”

Einstein said that—yes, Einstein, the one who formulated the theory of relativity. This quote comes to life in Jane McGonigal’s inspiring, passionate, and vibrant talk.

The Institute for the Future’s game designer is convincing, be it in front of a large audience or wearing her blue wig in front of a webcam. Her goal for the next decade is ambitious: to make saving the world in real life as easy as a virtual game. I believe her… Take a look at what she’s done to fulfill this goal.

“In order to solve urgent problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, obesity, global conflicts, we need to play close to 21 billion hours a week until the end of the next decade.” This amount is 7 times what it is now. And many think that too much time has been wasted playing games.

You may be asking yourself: Is this really what she’s proposing? Is she serious? Encouraging young people to spend even more time in front of the computer, playing?

Yes. She’s very serious, and I started paying special attention when she begins to describe player’s attitudes, attitudes I’d like to see in myself in real life more often. During a presentation the audience of TED, the designer describes players’ attitudes in facing the challenges of the game: they are ready to help anyone who needs it, determined to solve the problem no matter how much time it takes, and, more importantly, faced with an obstacle or defeat, they are always ready to try again. In a game, McGonigal says, we get closer to the best version of ourselves.

Changing attitudes through games

Players are adventurous beings: they calculate, take risks, plan, and execute. We are more creative, efficient, and focused when we play. How do you transfer that entrepreneurial, and truly innovative, attitude from the screen to life?

Jane’s proposal is tempting, and her call is convincing: creating games that can encourage people to invent solutions to challenges that directly affect them, in their daily lives.

An example is the World Without Oil (WWO) game. The backdrop is the first 32 weeks of a world without petroleum. A citizen commission is created to map and register all events and also to share solutions.

The online experience brings together all basic elements of a game: goal, rules, challenge. Two characteristics of cooperative games go into the mix: there are no losers, winners, or rewards, and playing well generates benefit for the whole community. The final result is a show of the potential of collective intelligence; a laboratory for hypotheses created by thousands of minds.

The best of all, according to the researchers involved in the project: participating in the game engenders an attitude transformation in players’ real lives.

“For me, here and now, I’m a different person thanks to WWO. I’m a lot more aware of how fragile the thread that sustains my lifestyle is. I’m making changes, but I still have a long way to go. But I AM changing, and that means that to me, WWO was a success.” Mtalon (player)

In another venture, McGonigal and a team of experts present a world possible in the year 2019. Players have the challenge of thinking of and showing ways to live in this world. It’s a game full of constructed and very plausible details. Superstructure was on the air from 6 October to 17 November 2008, and at the end presented reports on the principle insights and strategies created by the players to face the Superthreats invented by a team of 25 specialists.

The last challenge proposed to the world through her games was to create solutions for the real problems the world faces, the name of the game is Urgent Evoke.

With impeccable aesthetics, in Evoke, the Institute for the Future has constructed narratives so solid and challenges so close to daily life that it’s not hard at all to enter the reality of the game.

A course for changing the world that lasts ten weeks: that’s the description you’ll find on the website. The goal is to empower youth all around the world, but especially in Africa, incentivizing them to find solutions to the most urgent problems today.

The first round of Urgent Evoke ended on 12 May, when participants graduated as the first class of the Urgent Evoke network.

The virtual game ends, the real change begins

Urgent Evoke is different from previous games in that it directly connects to real transformation. The last task in the game, the Evokation, is an action plan, a clear description of a project to be implemented. Completing the Evokation gives players the chance to receive:

  • Online orientation by executive leaders and social innovators;
  • A scholarship to participate in the first Evoke workshop in Washington DC;
  • Seed grant to start your social enterprise

This strategy is directly linked to the approach of the World Bank, developer of the game created under McGonigal’s direction. Not everything is roses—throughout the research project, I didn’t find a way for non-English-speakers to participate in the game and discussions. I hope this is corrected because in the end, people want to change the world in many languages and dialects.

If you are like me, you’re dying of curiousity to know where this is all going to take place… Keep your eyes opened for more.

Val Rocha

Agente Urgent Evoke

Translated by Juan Carlos Cardoza-Oquendo


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