Virtual scarcity and "epic wins": Is sustainability in need of more games?

Collaboration, urgent optimism, committed focus—these are the skills and qualities needed in humans to solve sustainability’s biggest challenges and, as it turns out, also the most minor of missions belonging to Azeroth in the online video game "World of Warcraft."

A massive multiplayer game where thousands of people play at any time, "World of Warcraft" requires at least five to 20 players for a single challenge. Why? James Gee, a professor at Arizona State University studying situated learning in games, says it’s because the problems in "World of Warcraft" are too complex for just one person to take on.

"It's an extremely complicated world," Gee says. "Essentially, this game is controlling hundreds of variables that interact with each other statistically to give the outcomes of the decisions you make."

Each character, or avatar, has certain skills, "but there are many different types of characters you can be," Gee says. "And they have dozens of different types of skills. And their skills grow over time, and every time they grow you can choose which to grow and not grow."

While game worlds such as Azeroth may be fictional, the real abilities of its eleven-million-plus community to band together and solve a relentless onslaught of problems are beginning to attract a growing number of researchers interested in how online games might be changing human behavior.

But what does this mean for sustainability? Games appear to be an unlikely sector for the field, as they are played inside, consoles use up energy and Earth often is overshadowed by other, more fantastic worlds. However, a small number of games recently created to engage players in earthly environments—worlds that lack sufficient supplies of water, oil and food—point to an inherent power online games have in the discourse of sustainability: virtual reality or, in sustainability’s case, virtual futurity.

In her 2010 TED Talk about the power of games to solve real-world problems, Jane McGonigal, a game designer, researcher and author of "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," says that if humans want to survive another century on Earth, we will need to start playing more games. In other words, if the role of sustainability is to plan for the future, then researchers like McGonigal believe that playing games—and designing specially tailored games for us to play—will help us better experience and co-design that future.

Having a hard time envisioning what an oil shortage would be like? Well, there's a game for that.

Created in 2007, in part by McGonigal, "World Without Oil" is a game that challenges its players to survive an oil shortage. The aim of the game is to blur the line between the real world and a virtual one where oil has become scarce.

"The oil shortage is fictional, but we put enough online content out there for you to believe that it's real and to live your real life as if we've run out of oil," McGonigal says.

The game forces players to think about how their everyday actions are connected to a complex web of processes. In a world without oil, gamers are able to see firsthand scarcity's rippling effects: impacts from the oil shortage extend beyond figuring out how to get to work and into more dicey areas such as food supply, where food transportation is affected by oil scarcity.

The 1,700 gamers who signed up to play "World Without Oil" left in their wake blog posts, video posts and photos documenting their adventures and how their experiences have translated to their real-world lives.

"Most of our players have kept up the habits they learned in this game," McGonigal says.

In another game created by McGonigal at the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research center specializing in long-term forecasting, "SuperStruct" engaged 8,000 gamers over an eight-week period to come up with solutions to sustain human life on Earth. Under the fictional premise that humans had only 23 years left to live, the game's players came up with 500 solutions for the human species to endure.

When did games become so serious? Decades after the term "serious game" came into use, the Serious Game Initiative formed in 2002 to encourage the production of games that do more than entertain, but rather are intended to address issues with major policy or management implications. It wasn't until last year, though, that games began to really earn some cultural capital. In 2010, McGonigal's "Evoke"—a "social network game to help empower people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems"—was commissioned by the World Bank Institute. And most recently, the academic journal Nature published its first paper co-authored by an online gaming community.

Studies show that gamers play for a variety of reasons and that "escapism" and "entertainment" often rank lower on the list than one might expect.

"There's a reason why the average 'World of Warcraft' gamer plays for 22 hours a week," McGonigal says. "We know that when we're playing a game that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. Gamers are willing to work hard all the time if they're given the right work."

According to a 2008 Pew report, 97% of teenagers currently play games. Researchers have found that people who play games are more cooperative, more creative, more confident, more goal- and task-driven, and more motivated to succeed. While it may be difficult for parents to believe that their children are going to find a way around climate change by playing more video games, the importance of creating games that allow players access to more meaningful work is difficult to argue. Likewise, the need to develop game-like spaces that inspire creative, community-driven and interactive work is difficult to understate.

"As we get better ways to let kids be productive experts and have passion and develop skills that really translate into abilities for the future world, we may want to get rid of this distinction between formal and informal learning," says Gee, reminding us that problem-solving, like games, should be fun.

Typically, there is not a lot of fun involved in scarcity and behavioral modification, two of sustainability's greatest—and linked—challenges. Changing one's mind and routines is no easy feat. It's also notoriously easy for us as humans to shrug off the complexity and weight of our decisions, especially if we can't see what is at stake. An inability to conceptualize scarcity might be as threatening as scarcity itself.

After ten years of scientific research on the social impact of games, researchers believe that playing games is not nearly the "time suck" it once was considered to be. However, that is not to say that all scientists agree that games will save the world or that we all should play as much as we possibly can. In fact, research reveals the opposite. Once players hit 28 hours of gaming each week, their real lives begin to suffer: social anxiety and depression are common, and the benefits of gaming are lost. It seems saving the world isn't enough—gamers must face the challenge of coming back to it too.

Game designers and scientists are left with their own challenge: how to make the real world, steeped in standards and red tape, more like a game where people feel empowered to take creative risks in solving some of the world's biggest problems.

Raphael Robbins, a technical writer, who formerly worked as a content developer in the game industry, says online spaces are outlets for inspiration and creativity and aren't just for kids.

"I feel I am at my creative peak when I am playing," Robbins says. Games also bring with them a level of diversity that Robbins says he rarely encounters anywhere else.

In terms of diversity, the male-to-female ratio of gamers is nearly equal. With women making up 40% of adult gamers and 94% of girls under 18 currently playing games, virtual worlds could level the playing field in science and technology problem-solving. The potential of games to open up technology fields to a greater number of women could be of "epic" proportions.

An "epic win," McGonigal says, occurs in a game when players achieve an "outcome so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it."

The future is hard to predict. And while the power of games as a social platform remains unclear, it's easy to see that alternate game worlds will increasingly affect how humans participate and interact in the real world.

How humans choose to respond to the development of virtual worlds could very well affect our chances of achieving an epic win in the real one.

Contributor's Biography

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.