Monday, June 27, 2011

How Games Affect the World

Finally I have some time to write about the summer school topics. These are some thoughts about how pervasive or ubiquitous technologies can affect the relationship of games and the world.

If we think about games and culture, the relationship is similar to that of games and play. In one way, games are a subset of play. In another way, play is a part of games. Repeat for culture. Even though the concept of the magic circle makes play happen in a kind of a vacuum, this is not exactly true. There are entire sub-cultures built around games. Sports being a more known example, but also in many countries, there is now a huge tournament culture around certain highly competitive games. This game culture is known commonly as eSports, which shows its relation to traditional sports. Of course, there have been huge cultures around games in the past as well. Chess is a popular example of a traditional game.

However, simply building a sub-culture around something does not necessarily mean that it changes our culture as a whole. If games are to have a truly transforming effect it is not enough to simply spawn small sub-cultures. The most important sports events are tied strongly to national identity. We used the recent ice hockey world championship won by Finland as an example a lot. While the game itself happens in an ice rink, it is being followed in households all over the country. This year our victory briefly transformed our marketplaces into huge public sites of celebration. To have a bigger effect, a game has to affect even those are not directly involved.

We can design games like Cruel 2 B Kind (McGonigal et al.) This game is played in a public place. Players, not knowing who are the other players, try to finish each other off with compliments. Of course, this results in the innocent bystanders being also targeted by compliments, which is a good thing (although in Finland especially could be seen as very weird!) For the duration of the game, the playsite transforms into a much kinder place. This and other games like it are a promising start. However, for a larger transformation, we need pervasive games that are not run by any organizer, but that run constantly with the help of computing technology. We have entertainment alternate reality games that run without organizers (e.g. Shadow Cities) and beneficial alternate reality games are bound to follow.

I believe that we need to bring technology into the equation of beneficial games. We can show how the concept works with low or no technology, but eventually, to really have an impact, technology becomes almost a necessity. I'm saying almost, because it's always possible to make a massively multiplayer alternate reality game without much technology (geocaching is a good example, although it uses a GPS, you can play the game without one too). However, the options are more limited without technology. Using the right technologies, we can achieve anything. This is the UbiComp vision that I subscribe to. Be it games or whatever, the technology of the future pushes us to save the world, and we'll have fun while doing it.

The ultimate point is that eventually bystanders need to gain benefit. It's not plausible to expect a majority of a population to be engaged in a world-saving game. However, it is quite possible that the play efforts of a certain group can improve the lives of everyone. Designing games for self-improvement is a challenging goal - designing games for "positive collateral damage" is even more challenging. We can all change the world a little by becoming better, but real change requires more effort - and better games.

This was a brief look into the subject. I'll dig into other aspects in future posts.

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