Network Games That Change Their Users Lives, And The World, For The Better - InformationWeek
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Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner

Network Games That Change Their Users Lives, And The World, For The Better

Game designer Jane McGonigal has a vision for a new generation of network games that will pull players away from their lonely consoles, and get them out in the world, interacting with each other and changing their own lives, and society, for the better.

Game designer Jane McGonigal has a vision for a new generation of network games that will pull players away from their lonely consoles, and get them out in the world, interacting with each other and changing their own lives, and society, for the better.

"When we play games, we experience relaxation, concentration, cohesion, elation, adventurous thinking, constant challenge, focus, and relief. We want more of these things in everydayy life," she said at O'Reilly's ETech conference on emerging technology. "When we play games, we feel awed, sneaky and backwards. We should feel like this in real life, too."

The "ubiquitous games," or "alternate reality games," are part of an overall change in how technology is being evaluated. In the next five years, the criteria used for evaluating personal technology will shift from things like cost and features. Instead, people will evaluate technology based on whether it improves their quality of life and happiness, she said.

McGonigal is a research affiliate and resident game developer at the Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, Calif., which researchers emerging trends and discontinuities that will transform global marketplaces, focusing on consumers, technology, health and healthcare, the workplace, and global business trends.

Ubiquitous games are designed to be integrated with real life, and improve quality of life, McGonigal said. They're designed to "intervene against the widespread public alienation and lack of engagement in the complex world of everyday life."

She added, "We believe a well-designed game can improve a life that is boring, or routine. It can help change for the better someone who is work-obsessed, or depressed, or kind of a [jerk]. A well-designed game can transform someone who is a loner and doesn't value life, who takes things for granted and for whom everything comes easy, into a very different person."

The strategies for the game are that players should have to involve strangers. Also: "You feel insignificant or humbled by a ubiquitous game. It can remove your ordinary identity, make you nobody, obscure your status. It can create a physical challenge or give you a near-death experience. It forces you away from your work and out of your routine. you may choose adventure!"

Two years ago, in a game called the Ministry of Reshelving. McGonigal asked people to reshelve copies of 1984 in bookstores and libraries, removing it from the fiction section and putting it into the current affairs, military history, or some other section that was, she said, more appropriate. The call went out on the Web, and the activities were recorded on the Flickr photo-sharing service.

A later example was "Cruel 2 B Kind: A Game of Benevolent Assassination."

Cruel 2 B Kind is a variation on the original Assassination. In Assassination, players are given toy guns that shoot darts with percussion-cup ends, and were ordered to "assassinate" each other by shooting each other with the darts. It's an elimination game, often played in college dorms; assassination "victims" are ejected from the game, and the last "survivor" wins.

In Cruel 2 B Kind, players are given text-message instructions to perform kind deeds for strangers, and the subjects of the kindness are recruited into the game as part of a team.

Yet another example: Tombstone Holdem Poker. A Web site instructs players how to read tombstones as if they were playing cards. The last year in the date of death is the card value -- for example, 1945 is a 5. The shape of the tombstone determines the suit: A pointy-topped tombstone is a spade, rounded is a heart, flat is a diamond, and cross is clubs. Surprisingly, this turned out to be popular among government agencies charged with maintaining historical cemeteries, which are often unused, and therefore in constant jeopardy of being shut down by cost-cutting governments, McGonigal said.

An upcoming game, "A World Without Oil," asks players to imagine that oil imports to the U.S. are cut off, and to look for solutions. That game will launch April 30.

The games are part of the emerging science of happiness, which studies what makes people happy and the different kinds of happiness.

New technologies should pass the "deathbed test," McGonigal said, referring to an ancient Greek proverb: "Though we must live our lives forward, happiness is gained by assessing it backwards. Only on your deathbed can you see your life complete and judge its happiness." New technologies should be evaluated by the standard of whether users will believe, on their deathbeds, that the technologies made their lives happier.

As an example of ubiquitous gaming, McGonigal will lead the ETech conference in a game called "Werewolf" at 9:30 pm Wednesday.

I will not be playing Werewolf. I live here in San Diego, where the conference is being held, and I plan to increase my personal happiness by spending time at home with my wife.

McGonigal's slides, which are quite readable and informative, are available on the Web..

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