Both of my favorite sessions so far at SXSW have focussed on games: Seth P of SCVNGR’s keynote and Jane McGonigal’s session entitled “Reality is Broken.”
McGonigal believes that games make us smarter, that they improve our lives, that they make us better people. And she rolls out a very impressive set of stats to make her case: the effectiveness of 3–4 hours of video game play a day in preventing post-traumatic syndrome in war veterans; the fact that kids who play coöperative games are more likely to help each other in real life; the fact that just 90 seconds of playing a video game with an avatar that students rated “sexy” made them bolder in flirtation with others for the entire day.
And she takes on the straw man of games as a distraction from real work by saying that the opposite of Game is not work — it’s depression. We enjoy tackling obstacles, and when we don’t have goals and obstacles we become sick. In the words of Noël Coward, “Work is more fun than fun.” Witness the game of golf. The goal of the game is to get a ball in a hole. So why don’t we just do that? Why don’t we invent a hyper-efficient machine to but golf balls in holes? Because that’s not the point. We take a simple goal, and we turn it into work: we put obstacles in our way, we insist on hitting the ball with a stick, we insist on move a great distance away from the hole.
Both McGonigal and Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR take the promise of games to a, well, epic level. McGonigal spoke of the challenges of today requiring “legendary” game development — games to change the world and tackle real problems.
McGonigal was the creator of “World without Oil” — the first Alternate Reality Game to place a real world issue — peak oil and climate change — into the gamer frame. Her panel in 2007 here at SXSW was where I met Thomas Walner, and that led to the birth of our award-winning, though not world-changing, game, Loveletters to the Future.
And while Priebatsch didn’t make good on his promise to solve climate change in his session, he did demonstrate the power of local, non-hierarchical systems in solving complex problems by giving us a game. On coming into the hall, we all got cards with two different colors on the back. The cards were randomly distributed throughout the hall, and we had two minutes to sort every row in the room, some 3000 cards, into uniform color rows. If we did it, he promised SCVNGR would donate 10,000 dollars to the National Wildlife Federation of the US. We did it. What’s more, we did it without leaving our seats, which meant no one person could trade with more than 8 people adjacent to them. Seth’s point was that a crowd-source solution like this was actually far more efficient than a top-down hierarchy. He could have instructed us, row by row, but we would never have done the task in two minutes. It was a hopeful message about the power of humanity united for a common goal.
Priebatsch wants to put a game layer on reality — to fix broken games like school, where the rules don’t encourage learning but getting good grades. Problems like drudge jobs that leave people feeling unrewarded and disempowered. He did a brilliant riff on how the school rules of cheating do not discourage cheating, they discourage getting caught: the teacher becomes the monster you need to avoid. Princeton has addressed this by creating a system in which there’s no monster –er, teacher– at tests. They hand them out, they walk away. But everyone has to sign an honor statement saying “I did not cheat and saw nobody else cheating” and make complicity in silently witnessing cheating a crime — they crowdsource honesty.
Much more to add to these wonderful presentations, but I’m on my feet and off to the next session.