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Gaming – Weekly #6

March 24, 2010

Persuasive Games

There are two general rules of thumb to engage and motivate people:

  1. Make it personal
  2. Make it fun

Gaming accomplishes both of these: it creates a user-defined space that is personal for each interaction, and (if it is a well made game) it is fun to play. Gaming can reach people on a level that a PowerPoint or lecture may not because as a medium, it is disarming: it harkens back to childhood and returns the user to a more trusting and honest state. In a game setting, a user will most likely feel more relaxed, and therefore, more receptive. This is an excellent atmosphere for persuasion. The aptly named Persuasive Games has a list of hot-button issue based games that are intended to make the user think differently about a particular issue. The games that are platform based, that is, they do not have to be downloaded onto a computer but can be played streaming from the web, are most effective.

Gaming should be fun, and not carry the stresses of installation, possible malware threats, and hard drive overages. It is best when it is commitment free.

I tried a few of these platform games and found them entertaining and provocative. “Windfall” is a strategy game about building wind farms to create clean energy profitably. Gamers conduct research and build wind turbines while avoiding upsetting the local citizens by building turbines in undesirable places as nobody wants to have a big, ugly wind turbine in their back yard. The game is simple enough and demonstrates the problem of finding high-wind areas that can be connected by power lines to turbines while not interfering with the natural environment and landscape.

A second game, Debt Ski is intended to spotlight the dangers of excessive debt, challenge young people to avoid destructive financial behavior, and spur fiscally responsible action. In this game, a pig on a jet ski attempts to gather gold coins while confronting materialistic purchases. I think the best aspect of this game is the fact that the “Happiness” of the player is tied to his/her fiscal solvency and not the amount of “stuff” he/she has amassed. This concept is almost counter-cultural today, and considering the financial crisis of our times, it is a refreshing departure from the More is Better mantra.

While I appreciate and applaud the gaming industry for using games as a teaching tool to persuade and educate, I cannot help but feel unsettled about gaming institutions such as The Sims and Second Life where players spend vast amounts of time in virtual reality. I find myself asking many of the same questions as Josh Levy: Would time and energy spent in Second Life be better used to make something happen in the real world? More subtly, can the cathartic experience of “visiting” a Second Life exhibition on an issue (Josh goes to a Darfur education display as an example) actually make people FEEL as though they’ve already done something substantive and end up making them less likely to take real-world political action?

Entertainment is great because it is…entertaining! But – at the same time, if we are using entertainment as an escape from our lives, shouldn’t that be an indicator that instead of more entertainment, we need to focus more on our real lives (so we don’t feel like we need to escape them)? I have never been one for video games – I have a hand injury that makes holding a controller or even manipulating a mouse for long periods of time very difficult – but my “escapism” tendency has always been books and film. Some books and film are didactic and mind expanding – totally worthy stuff! Some books and film are not. When I feel myself craving chick-flicks and chick-lit (yes, Confessions of a Shopaholic I’m talking to you), I know that it’s pure entertainment escapism I’m after.

In these times, if I really think about it, usually there is something going on in my REAL life that I would rather not deal with – some emotional issue I don’t want to face, a tangible pile of dishes or unwashed laundry, a difficult decision or project I don’t want to tackle. And when I really think about it, the times when my cravings for entertainment-escapism are highest are when my real life needs me the most. Even though I may not like it, anything that takes me away from what is really going on is wasted time – because let’s face it, we live in a broken world, there is enough REALLY going on to occupy us for the rest of our life times and many to come.

Just here in DC, there are huge problems with homelessness, hunger, crime and poverty, domestic abuse, child welfare – I could go on … And in my life, I’ve got taxes to file, bills to pay, meals to prepare, dishes to clean, clothes to launder, pictures to hang, furniture to re-arrange, plants to water, papers to write, Church to attend, pets to feed, doctors appointments to manage, and I’m sure you have list that is similar (if not much longer!). I’ve decided when my FIRST Life is perfect, then I think I’ll embark on Second Life, until then, I’ve got a lot of work to do!

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