Can serious games really help solve world issues?

Developers and academics like Jane McGonigal have long touted the power of games to solve the world’s problems. While few would deny that there are certainly enough global problems needing solutions, the idea of harnessing gamers to solve them might seem absurd.

One example is McGonigal’s SuperBetter initiative which gamified healing and on 13 and 14 November last year she used this to explore the future of the world and of empathy in her Face the Future initiative. According to the website this, “will pioneer an online ‘game for social change’ that will convene students, educators, and community members from around the world to imagine what a better future might look like in 2026.” The question then is can serious games really change the world?

For many the answer at best is potentially. While the possibilities for game mechanics and game simulations to help communities address issues seems valid, few significant examples exist and many of those that do are hampered by a number of challenges, chief among them that more often than not they do not feel like real games. Creating games to address serious issues like war, poverty eradication or climate change is difficult. What draws gamers to games is the pleasure experienced in playing the game, experiencing the environment, and achieving the goals set by the game. Offering similarly engaging game play that addresses those types of issues is tricky and can result either in the trivialising of the issue or in a poor game play experience.

Matthew Lee, ‪Co-Chair of Serious Games at the International Game Developers Association, and Creative Director of AFK Studios, cautions that global problems are, by definition, both massive in scope and massively complex. This can, though, be the reason why using games to tackle them is a good idea.

“As such, it can be an incredibly daunting task just to get people to understand the factors and systems behind them, much less how they be a part of solving such things. That’s where games come in,” he says. “When designed well, games are all about taking complex problems, making them relatable and personal through narrative and interactivity, and showing players how even their smallest actions can leave a lasting impact on the world.”

Despite some momentum in using games to address social and other serious issues, there are significant challenges. Perceptions about games and gaming are an issue. Lee explains that by far the biggest challenge facing serious games today is the underlying assumption that games are fundamentally more engaging than other forms of media and the subsequent trivialisation of the hard work that goes into making a game successful. “Whether intentionally or not, the term ‘serious game’ plays into this, as it implies that the innovations and lessons learned by the game industry in its 30 years of growth are only relevant to in the realm of entertainment, and can be ignored for games intended for more serious purposes,” he says.  

Lee says that because of this, stakeholders often discount the critical role of game designers and either do not budget for them, reasoning that they can do the design themselves, or dismiss any concerns about gameplay as unimportant. No other medium – not even film – is treated in this manner, given that if an organisation wished to create a documentary, it would work closely with established filmmakers, respecting their expertise and hard-won experience, he adds.

Not all experts agree that games can fulfil these kinds of roles, however. Kentaro Toyama, W. K. Kellogg Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, is firmly of the belief that serious games cannot change the world. “It is, in fact, absurd to imagine that games will solve world problems, and there are two big reasons why,” he says.

The first, according to Toyama, is that most difficult world problems are not intellectual challenges, but rather are social, political, economic, or cultural challenges. “And games are decidedly impotent when it comes to changing social, political, economic, and cultural values en masse,” he says, adding that cleverly designed games can certainly be used to solve difficult intellectual challenges.

Toyama cites the Foldit from the University of Washington, in which online players helped determine the crystal structure of an AIDS-related monkey virus in just 10 days. “This was a problem that had been unsolved until then for 15 years by the medical research community. Kudos to gamers and gamification,” he says.

Lee also points to the University of Washington’s Foldit citizen science game as an example of a successful serious game, but for different reasons. He says that Foldit demonstrated the power of games as a way to crowdsource results, with gamers outperforming the most sophisticated computational algorithms both in modelling extant proteins – and designing new ones.

The second example Lee cites is 11bit Studio’s This War of Mine, a strategy game in which players find themselves in charge of a group of civilians in the fictional city of Pogoren, a city devastated by an ongoing civil war. “While other games showcase war from the point of view of a soldier on one side or another, This War of Mine examines the cost of trying to survive, not only in the time and effort spent scavenging for food or securing a shelter, but in how difficult it is to choose to be moral in the face of utter scarcity,” Lee says.

Toyama is less convinced, however. “Consider a problem like income inequality. Plenty of solutions exist in theory: An obvious one is progressive taxes combined with redistributive policies, for example. But, knowing what the solution is doesn't get us any closer to a real solution because not everyone believes there is a problem,” Toyama says. “Or, among those who agree there is a problem, not everyone agrees about the solution. Or, among those who agree on a solution, not everyone agrees about who should be taxed more and who should be given more. These are fundamental differences of opinion, based on deeply held values and desires.”

Toyama explains that the problem is not that we do not know what the solution is; the problem is that as a society, we do not want to implement the solution. Toyama believes that if games can be applied to change people's values and desires, it would only be in some marginal ways, but not in a way that would really address global issues. “The very premise of a game is that you don't have to play if you don't want to. Well, why would I want to play a game that I know will change the values I hold dear?” he asks. “Games can't change deep values and desires, because people are attached to their values and desires, and so won't play games that change them.”

He challenges developers and advocates like McGonigal to design a game that reduces political polarisation in the United States if they truly believe games can be used in this way. “For a game to be effective, it must be one that people want to play. Game proponents can't escape their claims by saying, ‘The game does what it's supposed to do, but no one wants to play it’,” he says.

For Toyama the second major problem is that the real world is not a game. “McGonigal herself titled her first book, Reality Is Broken, by which she meant, reality isn't a game,” he says. “But if reality isn't a game, then teaching a generation of people to solve problems only in gamified contexts is like preparing for the Tour de France without ever taking off the training wheels.”

Lee believes that if serious games are to reach their potential, the role of game designers in creating the synergy of purpose and play that makes games so engaging must be recognised, but for this to happen, the way in which we speak about games has to change. “Games are not a panacea, and trite gameplay not a secret ingredient one can add to unappealing content to make it more engaging, in the ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ approach that both game designers and players utterly detest,” he says. Lee emphasises the need for crafted experiences whose power lies in the combination of mechanics, storytelling, and agency as a coherent whole, a process guided by both the science of player psychology and the vision and experience of talented creatives who understand the constraints and possibility of their medium.

Whether gaming can ever really address the kind of large-scale global problems the world is facing is uncertain, but developers, academics and game enthusiasts have all recognised the unique experience of gaming as something that could be used in new and interesting ways to at least engage with them.


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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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