Games and Social Innovation

Tyler Barber, of Rebel FM podcast infamy, tweeted last week about a TED talk given by Jane McGonigal called “Gaming Can Make a Better World.”

Damn, that’s a lot of links in the first sentence. This ain’t no flat blog post. It’s relational.

Anyway, I’m glad I caught Tyler’s tweet because Jane McGonigal has some kick-ass ideas. I remember hearing about her earlier games “World Without Oil” and “Superstruct” from someone on The Well (probably Jamais Cascio?). I didn’t get pulled into either game, but hearing Jane’s talk gave me a broader appreciation of what she’s trying to do with gaming and social innovation.

I won’t go over the TED talk in detail in this post, but the summary at the link above says

Games like World of Warcraft give players the means to save worlds, and incentive to learn the habits of heroes. What if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems? Jane McGonigal says we can, and explains how.

Her talk is well worth the twenty minutes of your life if you’re a gamer and think that gamers have skills that bleed over into “real life”. She’s connecting a lot of dots for me, dots that developed over my sixteen year gaming and Internet history.

Her current project is called Evoke. The “About” page for the game says:

EVOKE is a ten-week crash course in changing the world. It is free to play and open to anyone, anywhere. The goal of the social network game is to help empower young people all over the world, and especially young people in Africa, to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.

I wouldn’t call Evoke a game, exactly. It’s more like social networking, at least in the beginning missions I’ve been working on. It’s a thinking exercise too, and it requires some introspection. It’s not an escape from reality at all – but that’s not where gaming skills come into play, at least for me.

Over the past sixteen years (I count the beginning of my real computer life as the year I first sat down in front of Mosaic at work), everything I’ve learned from gaming has migrated into skills in my career. Games weren’t just something to play. I wrote about them, lived on message boards, tried to learn how to make games, learned how to make web sites, learned about IRC and instant messaging, learned about tearing down computers and building them back up, and learned about networking all because of games.

I learned how to quickly search the internet for information. I learned how to store and retrieve that information, and I learned how to produce more information. I also learned how to connect with other people and share thoughts and ideas about games.

I think those are the skills that Evoke draws from. No one is going to log into Modern Warfare to end hunger in Africa, but the skills people develop to play and learn more about Modern Warfare and participate online in the MW community are the same skills that can be applied to Evoke.

I’ve always been a bit of a dirty hippie (see: Well membership referenced above), a vegetarian, interested in organic and sustainable farming, interested in history and other cultures – maybe I’m a specific type of gamer already interested in the topics Evoke, well, evokes. I see people posting articles about farming, sustainable energy, power shifts, and lots of other ideas about how we can change the world.

I don’t expect any one idea, or any one person, to really change the world by playing Evoke, or any other video game out right now. I do think that McGonigal is tapping into a really powerful idea, though, a combination of games, information sharing, and social networking that does have the potential for powerful impact in the world.

McGonigal’s first two games passed me by without striking a chord, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people reading here don’t click the links or get involved. This time. Maybe though, in the future, some designers in the audience at TED will think “you know, there IS a way to make a game that’s fun to play that also accomplishes some of the things Jane was talking about.” Or maybe a gamer will say “Hey, I remember hearing about her – and this time, I do want to get involved.” Bit by bit, piece by piece, I think there’s a chance of gaming ourselves into a greater awareness of and greater service to the world around us.

There and back again

Yep, I’m back in MMOs, back in LoTRO. This was the longest break I’ve taken from MMOs in the 11 years I’ve been playing them. I wasn’t game-free during that time; I played a lot of Team Fortress 2, Dragon Age, League of Legends, and a bunch of other stuff on Gametap, including fairly regular Civ 4 games.

I think I played so many MMOs for so long that I lost my appreciation for the genre. Everything felt like work, and my burnout from one MMO was bleeding over into any new MMO I tried, or old MMOs I reactivated.

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be back in an MMO if it wasn’t for Turbine’s  free Welcome Back weekends. The Activity Log on My LoTRO page shows that I was last subscribed to the game in April of last year, and I only played for about a month. Then, last October, I came back for my first free Welcome Back weekend, and returned for free weekends in November, December, and January before resubscribing in February.

Maybe it was playing only occasionally that allowed me to reconnect with the world and with my character without quickly burning out again. Maybe it’s just the depth of LoTRO after a couple years of adding and tweaking and upgrading the game experience. The depth of LoTRO is pretty significant compared to a lot of other MMO’s out there; Turbine hasn’t shied away from crafting, housing, and their skirmish system is pretty damn cool. I like the Deeds/Traits system, the world lore is significant, the Book quests now have solo options (which work pretty well for me as a mostly-solo gamer), and I’m always looking forward to logging in, instead of feeling like it’s a job.

I re-applied to the Old Timer’s Guild, and hopefully I’ll get enough sponsors by the end of the month to become a full member. I’m also hoping that playing an MMO rekindles my desire to blog a bit. No promises – I’m trying to finish up my Master’s degree by the end of June – but playing MMOs seem more blog-worthy than single-layer games. There’s plenty to talk about in LoTRO, and I haven’t felt that way about an MMO in quite a while.