Playing to Save the World

In this week’s class we talked about Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on using games to save the world. It’s one of my favourite recent talks, and it’s worth a watch:

Her key idea is that we can harness the efforts put into online games can to solve real-world problems. Her latest game is called Evoke, which just started and is running until May (so you can start playing right now!).

The description of the game is here, and it’s pretty interesting. The game is organised a number of tasks such as this week’s: “Today, 1 out of every 6 people on Earth lacks access to clean water. Your mission this week: help at least one of those people.” The tasks require cooperative work within networks of players, so community building is inherent in the structure of the game. Here’s what happens if you do well with these tasks:

Players who successfully complete 10 game challenges will be able to claim their honors: Certified EVOKE Social Innovator – Class of 2010.

Top players will also earn online mentorships with experienced social innovators and business leaders from around the world, seed funding for new ventures, and travel scholarships to share their vision for the future at the EVOKE Summit in Washington DC.

We had a spirited discussion of the talk afterwards. A lot of people were stuck on the idea that she’s telling everyone to play an online game, but we worked hard to get past that to some of the broader themes within the talk. I think that there are some pretty interesting innovation and strategy ideas in here:

  • The first is that it illustrates the value of having a big goal to pursue. In an outstanding column this week, John Kay discusses the benefits of pursuing something other than profit:

    Obliquity is the idea that complex goals are often best pursued indirectly. In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined. These objectives contain many elements that aren’t necessarily or obviously compatible with each other. Furthermore, we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery.

    McGonigal’s games are great examples of building your strategy around the pursuit of ambitious goals. And really, if you’re building a company around executing a great idea, shouldn’t it be something that will make the world a better place?

  • This relates closely to an idea put forward by Umair Haque last week – that competitive advantage must be built on creating resources more than on consuming them:

    The future of advantage is radically different from the past for a simple reason: because it’s economically better. 20th century advantage focuses firms on simply extracting resources from people, communities and society — and then protecting what they extract. 21st century advantage focuses firms on creating new resources, and allocating them better. The former is useful only to shareholders and managers — but the latter is useful to people, communities, and society. The old Microsoft was useful to shareholders, but a lot less useful to society — and that’s exactly how Google and Apple attacked it, and won.

    Evoke is a great example of lateral thinking in developing strategy. It takes a fact of social life that on the surface seems negative – the huge number of hours put into playing online games – and figures out a way to repurpose that effort more positively. That’s creating value. And if the actions carry through into real life, as they have with some of her earlier games, this will also have a positive impact in reducing the consumption of real-world resources as well. That seems like a pretty good kind of strategy to have.

  • It taps into the idea that play can have positive benefits within the workplace. This is something that Mark has put a fair bit of effort into researching (see his page on research projects). Michael Schrage talks about this as well. This is why things like Google’s 20% rule work – you’re given 20% of your time to work on projects of your own design. This is essentially a playful approach – you’re given time and resources, and you get to make up your own project. It is one good way to increase the innovation within your organisation.
  • One theme that really came through in the class discussion is how people want to have some of the features of games replicated at work. They want clear paths to the next level. They want positive feedback when they’re doing well. They want to work within optimistic teams of fired-up, engaged people. McGonigal describes gamers as “Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals” – and I think there’s a pretty good case for trying to build organisations filled with the same type of people.

Is this an optimistic view of the world? Yes. Of course it is. But in the end, it’s the kind of vision that I think we need. When you are trying to do something great, your energy level goes up, your engagement increases, and you build skills in pursuit of your goals. People do this all the time when they’re playing games. Wouldn’t it be great if we were simply doing it all the time?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “Playing to Save the World

  1. There’s a lot of brain research that comes to the same conclusion, that play is conducive and necessary to our health, level of energy, etc. And not just when we’re kids, the same processes continue to work into adulthood.

    I am still pretty enthusiastic about Innovation Games to improve business performance .through collaborative play. You can learn more about them at Myself and another fellow in our company are trained facilitators for these games. We’ve used them internally and with clients and they are really effective and, what surprised me, seem to have a long-term effect as well. I was first baffled by this, but I am starting to see why as I read through Innovation by Lester and Piore (as per your recommendation). The analytical vs interpretive distinction is a very powerful one and explains a lot.

  2. Thanks for this comment Matt – sorry I forgot to respond! I’ve had limited exposure to the innovation games approach – we have a guy here in Brisbane that is a facilitator and we’ve been trying to put together a time for a demo, but we’ve been unable to co-ordinate schedules. Definitely looking forward to trying it out though, especially with your recommendation!

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