The Games of Life

On the final day of the Web 2.0 Summit, game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal gave a fascinating presentation about how gaming life and real life are merging—and how that could possibly be a good thing.

McGonigal offered some research findings that suggest the average gamer spends 16 hours per week in videogames or virtual worlds, and up to an additional 10 hours per week thinking about about gaming. She explained that young people worldwide (and in Asia, especially) have revealed that they feel more comfortable and more successful in the structured environment of games—where rules, goals, and paths to success are clearly defined—than in the real world. Sounds like a depressing trend, but one that's perfectly reasonable from a psychological standpoint. So what's the best way to reach a generation of people who prefer the safety of gaming worlds to real-world interactions? As McGonigal pointed out, game designers can keep cashing in by designing more interesting and elaborate games that allow people to withdraw to their computers, or they can help schools, charities and workplaces to introduce some of the best parts of gaming into everyday life, to make the real world more fun and less confusing.

Two notable examples of the latter, positive trend are the alternate reality game Cruel 2 B Kind, from McGonigal's company, Avant Games, and Attent, a workplace productivity app created by Seriosity.

Cruel 2 B Kind requires players to "attack" strangers through random acts of kindness—a stray compliment or helpful deed can earn a player points and weaken opponents. Strangers don't know why you're being especially nice to them, but it doesn't really matter. Nice is nice, right?

Attent helps desk jockeys build an "attention economy" in the office by providing prioritizing emails both sent and received through a currency system. Users trade virtual cash for getting things done through collaboration. The app also includes a really cool mapping function that shows, through cumulative email data, which people on your team are active contributors, and which could use a little, well, encouragement. Translation: everyone is accountable, so no more ignoring emails or passing the buck. Plus, it's kind of fun, and the game doesn't require any more effort than that annoying "high-priority" exclamation point people already stick on emails.

McGonigal's suggestion that adapting real-world processes to the psychology of gamers could increase productivity (and maybe even kindness) certainly is compelling...as long as we can get everyone out of WoW and into the office in the first place. —Megan Miller