Video games are a passion of mine. And sure, that's a lot because I enjoy playing them personally. More than that, though, I find them fascinating as a business, as an area of study, and as an agent of social change.
How can games make the world a better place? Think about what games actually are for a minute; try to define them. They are literally motivation machines, manipulating incentives to get people to overcome unnecessary obstacles. Isn't getting people to overcome unnecessary obstacles the source of half of society's problems? Don't schools, employers, charitable non-profits, public service organizations, and our own selves have motivation problems all the time?
So, without further ado, here's how video games are fixing the world:
1. Making Subjects Interesting
How many new people have begun contemplating the dangers of nationalism, the costs of American Exceptionalism, the relationship between church and state, the roots of American history, and the dangers of the oppressed once they are the oppressors, purely because of their time spent playing Bioshock Infinite? The same could be said of the philosophies of liberalism and freedom in the first Bioshock.
Not to limit ourselves to one series, or just to philosophy, Civilization teaches people about civics while simultaneously creating alternate histories. The Political Machine challenges people to create the ideal political candidate and teaches how American elections work. Sim City teaches urban planning.
And these are all popular games, played purely for entertainment value! Same as historical fiction and period pieces have traditionally made history fun, video games find a way to make learning fun. Speaking of which…
2. Revolutionizing Education
Credit: Institute of Play
Remember Math Blaster, Carmen Sandiego, and Jump Start desperately trying to make learning fun back in the 90s? Or remember Oregon Trail succeeding? Games have been used as learning tools for children for a while. But what if we just made the entire school one giant game modeled off of video games?
That's exactly what two innovative schools are doing. New York-based Quest to Learn (Q2L) and its Chicago partner school ChicagoQuest are designing their schools from the ground up around gaming. These public schools structure their curriculum around "quests," completing objectives, and engaging in simulations and games teaching real-world lessons. And it works, even better than the traditional school model. After all, games are the way humans (and animals) learned before formal schooling was invented.
Other schools are taking the hint: "SPILL!" is a game where kids participate in the clean-up of a virtual oil spill; Project K-Nect gives students smart-phones with math games installed; and the state of West Virginia (and one school in Arkansas) is using "Dance Dance Revolution" in their gym classes.
3. Raising Awareness for Important Issues
Credit: Game the News
Game the News is a company that turns real-life issues into amusing flash games. And they aren't the only ones. The idea of taking current events issues and making them into games is a hot one right now. From prison conditions, to Uzbekistani cotton pickers, to the struggle between poachers and the South African army, a lot of important but niche topics are attempting to gain visibility through interactivity.
My favorite little game in this category was "Endgame: Syria." It plays like a neat card game, balancing political and war phases to raise support for the Syrian rebels while diminishing support for the regime. While games like this are in their infancy, it is a growing market.
4. Taking Action on Important Issues
Some activist games take it one step further than the Game the News-style informative ones. They use the gaming incentive structure to help raise funds for their cause, or get people to help a charitable cause.
Freerice.com is a seamless integration of game, education, and philanthropy. It is a series of trivia games, and for every question the player answers right, the World Food Programme donates 10 grains of rice. Half the Sky educates its players on the problems facing developing world women, and then uses that platform to ask for donations when sympathies are highest.
5. Crowd-sourcing Science
Progress in science often takes large amounts of tedious work. Some of this work, however, can apparently turned into a simple puzzle game, uploaded to the Internet, and have it done by thousands of people very quickly.
When you have a nice charitable cause, and a challenge to overcome, people flock to do their good deed for the day in a fun way. That was the case for FoldIt, a game that got crowd-sourced laypeople to do highly specialized and tedious work with a simple puzzle game in order to help fight HIV and AIDS.
Another game, Phylo, has people tracking down critical patterns in the genome that allow us to trace evolutionary origins as well as the roots of genetic diseases. UCLA made a crowd-sourcing game to identify malaria-infected red blood cells of victims in the developing world. Telepathology has gamers identifying and diagnosing diseases.
6. Training Necessary Skills
Video games get a lot of flak for being yet another excuse for us to sit on our butts all day and do nothing. Unlike other similar media like movies, television, and even books, however, video games have the benefit of active participation. This leads to the practicing of several very important skills.
Organization, spatial reasoning, timing, resource management, and memory are all practiced every time you pick up a controller. Sure, you may think you are just mindlessly slaying dragons in Skyrim, but when you only have 30 pounds left in your inventory, what do you pack? Which items in your inventory have the greatest cost-benefit balance of value to utility to weight? When is the perfect moment to release your dragon shout to optimize its effects? How do you perfectly time that power strike to stagger your opponent? When you look at your quest list, it is very much like any to-do list in real life, and you have to prioritize it in the same way.