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Thankfully (or sorry) this isn’t about rugby or world cups. It is about what if real world problems become games.

Ariadne’s snapshot on gaming in the real world:

  • Drivers: smarter computing and open innovation
  • Trend: using on-line games to solve problems and generate ideas
  • Challenges: making the games relevant and engaging, sifting the ideas
  • Opportunities: solving difficult problems, gathering fresh ideas

An advance online publication in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology by Khatib et al.[PDF, 0.8 MB] describes solving a difficult protein structure using a multiplayer online game called Foldit. The authors conclude that

‘the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.’

This view is also held by Jane McGonigal, from the Institute for the Future. She has greater ambitions and optimism for all the good things that those gamers could achieve, if they were given the chance.

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This phenomenon of using gaming methods in the real world is called, inelegantly, ‘Gamification’ (which brings to my mind images of over ripe and pungent meat). It is increasingly being used with mixed success in retailing to create customer loyalty. But it is also being used for less mercenary outcomes — training, improving employee performance, and stimulating innovation. Some, such as the folks at the Institute for the Future and Gartner have high hopes for the spread of online gaming into the real world. Others, such as O’Reilly Radar, are more circumspect — they games need to be well designed and meet the needs of the problem, not just be a gimmick.

 Such games may be used to engage the target audience (to get them interested in an issue or product) and/or to generate ideas or solve problems. An example of the former is the World Food Programme’s Food Force game which teaches students about the challenges of delivering food aid.

 Generating ideas and solving problems through games taps into the wisdom of the crowds. Humans are better than computers at certain tasks, such as identifying galaxies or identifying words. Making games out of such tasks can help get more people solving these problems, which is what Foldit does.

Crowdsourcing ideas is becoming more popular. Businesses are using websites such as InnoCentive to seek solutions to particular challenges. The World Bank Institute ran a game called Evoke to support social innovation. Locally, Magnetic South used a game format to gather ideas for the Future of Christchurch. Other examples can be found on NESTA’s Serious Game page.

 Birkinshaw and colleaguesprovided a useful assessment of when such open source innovations work well in a business environment. They aren’t a panacea — one of the biggest challenges can be sorting through all of the ideas. Sometimes it is better not to invite all the world to come and play, just those who are most likely to provide really good insights.

As computing moves from desk-top and laptop machines to mobile devices, they way in which games for real world issues are designed will need to change — most people won’t spend hours at a time on their smart phone or tablet computer just playing a game.

The success in gaming to solve specific problems rather than be just being an idea generator remains to be seen. Not all of the world’s pressing problems can be solved like protein structures.

What other problems in New Zealand could gaming be good for?

  • World of weightcraft – Tackling obesity?
  • Wii NZ – Catching up with Australia ?
  • Grand theft auto — New Zealand’s future transport system?

There is perhaps an urgent need to develop a game to plan how to get people to and from the final of the Rugby World cup in Auckland on October 23rd.