How Games Can Solve World Hunger...maybe

I spent a lot of quality time in college ragging on a few of my friends for playing hours upon hours of World of Warcraft.  It went a little something like this: “Why don’t you do something useful, like study for your physics exam?” Well, turns out, the last time I used physics in my daily life was never. But according to Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of Reality is Broken, playing online games like World of Warcraft, where you work on solving epic problems in a virtual world, is teaching an entire generation of gamers skills that will help them solve the biggest problems plaguing the real world. I’m talking about the “ending world hunger, finding alternative long-term energy solutions, and stopping global warming” kind of big problems.

Ms. McGonigal discusses what it is that draws gamers to a virtual world:
  • People are able to work on missions that they are perfectly suited for.
  • Teammates must trust them implicitly and instantly to be able to solve the problem at hand.
  • When they work toward achieving their goal they receive immediate positive reinforcement, which encourages them to keep going and to work toward bigger and better things.
  • Their missions are giant, all-important quests that impact the virtual world on a huge scale.
That doesn’t happen in the real world today: many people are unemployed or they don’t have jobs that suit them.  Not all higher-ups trust their employees to do their jobs properly. Often people feel micro-managed. And even when employees are doing an amazing job, they often have to wait until their year-end review to get any feedback. Finally, many companies fail to communicate or apply meaning to the mission at hand - and so workers go on with their daily tasks without feeling like they ladder up to anything near epic.  

Since World of Warcraft first launched in the 1990s, gamers have spent 5.93 million years in that online world. If we look at that time span over human evolution, that takes us back to when humans were first beginning to stand upright. Another way to look at it is that the average gamer spends 10,000 hours playing before they reach the age of 21. In the U.S., a student will spend 10,080 hours in school between fifth grade and high school graduation if they have perfect attendance. This means that gamers are essentially experiencing an alternate learning track online that parallels their time spent in the classroom. And all of this time spent in the virtual world has enabled gamers to develop their problem-solving skills. McGonigal advocates that we need to something about leveraging these skills into the real world. As such, McGonigal has begun to develop video games in which the gamers are put into hypothetical real-world situations and asked to solve real problems, but in a virtual setting, such as: what would you do if all of the oil ran out in the world and we were plunged into a global energy crisis? And she says that, through these games, gamers have come up with some really creative solutions to these real-world problems.

All of that is great and pretty amazing, but what if you’re not an avid gamer? How does this research apply to you? When adults are put in a situation where they are encouraged to think outside of the box and are trusted to be smart enough to think about big issues and come up with real solutions, they are able to rise to the occasion. How can you create situations for others where they actually have the opportunity to rise to the occasion?

Wanna learn more? Resource:
Jane McGonigal (February 2010). Gaming Can Make a Better World. Lecture presented at TED2010. Video retrieved from