Video Games That Make the World Better

Many new video games are interactive, educational, and enriching. And they might even improve your gas mileage.

By Matthew Mahon|Monday, January 10, 2011
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
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From left: Gamesters Lucy Bradshaw, Anne McLaughlin, Jim Bower, and Tiffany Barnes
Matthew Mahon

Each year, video games offer more challenging and natural experiences, from motion-controlled action to augmented reality. And each year the games are becoming more popular—not only as a form of entertainment but as a medium for education or even as a therapeutic agent for keeping people’s minds sharp. So what lies ahead? In March, DISCOVER and the National Science Foundation gathered a panel of experts at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, to discuss the future of video games. Amos Zeeberg, the managing editor of DISCOVER’s Web site, moderated the wide-ranging conversation (click here for video of the event).

Tiffany Barnes is a computer scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who uses video games as a teaching tool in her college classroom. Jim Bower is a computational neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio; he is also the founder of Numedeon, the company that created Whyville, a popular online virtual world where children can play educational games and engage in social activities. Lucy Bradshaw, general manager of the video game developer Maxis, is the executive producer of Spore and many other titles. Anne McLaughlin is an experimental psychologist at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and the director of the Gains Through Gaming Lab, where she is researching ways in which popular video games can be used to improve elder cognition.

Why have video games become such a pervasive form of entertainment as well as such an enticing tool for education? What is it about the medium that makes it so powerful?

Anne McLaughlin: Play is a very natural place to go for learning experiences. In video games there’s a structure of achievement and reward, and that can be felt in a simulation where you’re trying to understand what the underlying system is, figure out how the gears work, so you can control where the simulation is going. You’re starting to see that more and more, in things like the achievement system that exploded on Xbox Live and has now cropped up in Facebook games. That reward structure makes them different from any other type of activity.

Tiffany Barnes: I think the interaction is the most important part of the games. When I do something in a game and see the effect, that’s where I get to make a new concept, learn something or see something new, explore a curiosity. And that’s the important part that enables learning. There’s not only the motivation of a reward structure, but also an ability to see how other people are doing and compete with them—or maybe cooperate. I think Rock Band is a great example of that, where we can gain more points by everybody’s being in the zone and working together: If someone’s not doing so well, I can rescue him by being really awesome myself.

Lucy Bradshaw: The other thing Rock Band offers is the ability for people of different levels to all play together. I personally would love to see that in more games.

McLaughlin: That’s an excellent point. What I find exciting about the new technology is that it’s blurring the lines between real life and game playing. You can play video games with a cell phone, a computer. I think it’s more and more active. And if you can get generations to interact and be active, well, that seems a lot better than sitting in front of the television.

Bradshaw: Picking up on that, there’s been this wave of communities and MMO [massively multiplayer online] games that take on roles and hierarchical structures. There are mentors who teach other players how to make the games. There are creators, there are modders [who modify existing games]. I mean, the landscape of gamers has changed so dramatically in just the last 3, 5, 10 years because games are looking at the latest technology and utilizing it. There are tweets that come from games: from your characters, from the games themselves, and from the development teams as they make them. There’s an entire social network and platform that Facebook has really adapted.

So is there something fundamentally different about video games that makes them unlike other forms of play?

Jim Bower: We look at this thing and we think it’s new. It’s not. This is something we’ve made in our own image. This thing has flexibility, it’s visual, it’s got auditory, its got an Internet that connects humans together. This is just us.

What are other things primates do? They’re hierarchical, right? They’re social. So what we’re seeing in the evolution of the Internet as well as the gaming/video/whatever-it-is industry is that we’re slowly relearning ourselves. And so, in designing games and play, it turns out play is the core part of how primates learn.

What we’re doing here is trying to capture how humans really learn, how humans really interact, and how humans really build their societies. And in fact it’s not new at all. It’s very old. The problem is, for the last 600 years we’ve been doing it wrong. We haven’t had the technology to do it right.

An early criticism of video games was that they were socially isolating and creatively stifling. Is there any validity to that?

Bradshaw: I don’t think so. If you look at games from the past, kids were really controlling this meta-game of a community of players who interacted with one another and created different roles to play in the meta-game. There were games in which the captains knew the subject matter and they taught other players how to make content or modify things. So I think inherent in video games, and something that we have deliberately built into them, is this ability to extend beyond the box.

Barnes: To the comment that games erase individuality: I think that any person who would say that is playing hardly any games at all. Because not only do we have many different types of games, we are also getting more and more games that can actually help ?you achieve your own goals. We’re starting to have games for exercise, games for meeting other people. You can set your own goals with games now, so they’re just a whole different kind of medium. So someone who says you’re going to lose your individuality with games is just not playing games.

Bower: A very clear trend in the gaming world, and something we set out explicitly to do in Whyville 11 years ago, is to actually involve the individual, allowing you to express yourself and brand yourself with learning. So one of the things you’re seeing, I think, is that smart games—games that involve your actually being able to learn something that gives you an advantage in the social structure —are becoming the more interesting and powerful games. The point is, when games are built assuming that humans have a two-minute attention span, players stay there for about two minutes. The games that drive longer involvement, and The Sims is a good example, are ones that—guess what?—involve your actually having to be intelligent and learn something to play them.

What do you see coming next in this trend toward more social—that is, more interactive—kinds of games?

Bradshaw: The recent advent of the Wii and flash games that hit the platform of Facebook and really tuck into that social gaming —all of a sudden you’ve got this huge democratization of gamers. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on things, like Sim City and ?The Sims, that brought different demographics to gaming, but all of a sudden we just have a really different audience to speak to.

And so, as an advocate for being a woman and making good video games and having done so for a while, I just want to encourage more women, more people with different perspectives to come to this industry and really think about ways in which they may influence gaming. Because I think the greater diversity we have behind the scenes making the games, the more diverse the games are going to be that we ultimately end up seeing.

Bower: But there’s another sort of strong trend, and the gaming industry knows this, which is toward kids modding games. Not high production value, but kids themselves making games. Just as the diversity of face parts in Whyville comes from the fact that kids actually make the face parts themselves, the diversity in gaming is going to come from the fact that kids actually make games themselves. There are a number of organizations that are now making platforms so that 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds can make games. When game making is as easy as uploading something to YouTube, in terms of the actual technology underlying it, then you’re going to see huge things. We’re doing the same thing. We have a big project to allow kids to make games in Whyville to allow other kids to understand Whyville.

It’s sort of a play within a play. I think this is going to happen more and more. And then what the game companies are going to be, actually, are aggregators. So instead of spending $10 million, $20 million (which the venture capitalists won’t give you now anyway to build a new game), I think the real future of gaming is aggregating interesting content and figuring out how to merge that into a community, which is more or less what we’re doing.

We are getting more and more games that can actually help you achieve your own goals—games for exercise, games for meeting other people. They’re just a whole different kind of medium.

As games get more flexible and interactive, what kind of new goals and applications do you foresee?

Barnes: I would say that in the future we’re going to see gamelike frameworks around more and more things that we do. People will manage their lives more in a sort of gamelike structure: “OK, this week I want to spend this long working out and this long hanging out with my friends, and I need to go to work, and I need to do this, that, and the other thing,” and I’m going to play a little game that manages all that and gives me points for doing the things that I said I wanted to do. Or when I take a class, I’m not going to sit in a lecture anymore; I’m going to do different experiences that the teacher has arranged for me and assigned points to, to let me know which things are important for me to do.

For a teacher, this could mean arranging a class in a game kind of structure and not just plopping down in front of the students and giving them a book and saying, “Read this” and “Do this test.” Instead we might have teachers saying, “Oh, here’s a bunch of quests you can do, and here’s the points for every one, and here’s how everybody else is doing.” Then I can play and learn, and it’s no longer some tedious thing that I’m doing because someday I need to get a degree so I can get a job.

Jim, you have talked a lot about the historical roots of interactive education. Why is it taking off now?

Bower: About 600 years ago, we invented a technology, the printing press, that had a substantial effect on the structure of universities. And they love each other, right? We also invented professors. It all worked great and solved the scalability problem. We had a small number of people who knew something and who wanted ?a larger number of people to believe what they believed. Well, gaming technology addresses the scaling problem in a completely different way. It actually solves the scaling problem. So I can simultaneously educate thousands, hundreds of thousands of kids, with them doing it themselves. It allows self-education, which is really how humans learn anyway.

Already, at 34 minutes per log-in, our kids are doing more science on Whyville than they’re doing in middle school. One thing to remember is that brick-and-mortar schools and the current structure of education have not been around very long. Another thing is that it doesn’t work very well. Maybe the thing that will be most disrupted by what we’re talking about—beyond media, beyond finance, beyond everything else—is education. It’s kind of already happening. I think video or games are a way to play educationally and learn, and that’s actually how we learn. So we finally have the technology to learn the way we really learn.

McDonald’s has approached us a number of times about being in Whyville. I tell them OK, we’ll just put your stuff in our nutrition game and then the kids get to do Super Size Me all by themselves. And that’s the end of the conversation.

The gaming guru Jesse Schell of Carnegie Mellon University talks about a system of awarding points for every single thing we do until everything in our world is like a video game. I find that rather ominous and spooky. Do you agree?

Bradshaw: Well, in a speech Jesse painted a picture where literally everything that you did was monitored and you got achievement points, much like you do in Xbox Live or in many standard games. You could strive to get the 10-stroke tooth-brushing achievement, for instance, and then somehow you would collect all those points and utilize them. It did sound a little creepy by the time Jesse was finishing his speech, but then he said: “What if we ultimately, then, turn that around for good? What if we try to reinforce those things that do help us?” And as creators of games, creators of media, that is something we have the ability to do.

McLaughlin: Speaking as a human-factor psychologist, I think this sounds very analogous to problems that we tend to face with product warnings. You plaster enough warnings on something and they all get ignored. So if we really did have a point system for absolutely everything, I think that it might be self-regulating and that we don’t want everything to have that point system.? But there are certain times when it would be really nice to have a game framework. I know when I go to the gym, I often have to come up with a game to get myself through all the things that I need to do.

To make something into a game, you have to have a goal. You have to create the game. It’s more than just measurement. But we see that in so many good behaviors, like the fuel consumption games that are now built into the displays on some new cars. The better you drive, the more leaves appear on your tree [in the display in the Honda Insight hybrid]. I know we keep talking about blurring the lines between gaming and reality, but I think it does that, and when it’s for a good cause it’s great.

As video games have become more pervasive, marketers have shown increasing interest in them. What effect does that have on gaming?

Bower: One of the interesting things about gaming-based marketing is that to get kids to use it and to participate in it, you actually have to make a game around the product. And that means the product has to withstand scrutiny. Let me give you an example. McDonald’s has approached us a number of times about being in Whyville. Of course I’m very hesitant to do that. But I don’t have to worry about it because I tell them OK, we’ll just put your stuff in our nutrition game and then the kids get to do Super Size Me all by themselves. And that’s the end of the conversation.

[Audience member] What unique social and moral responsibilities do you have as gamemakers? And as games become bigger and more pervasive, how do those duties change?

McLaughlin: I think one responsibility we have is not to leave people out. I was just doing a lot of reading on accessibility in virtual worlds for people with different impairments, and there is very little. So there are populations that are being excluded. If we’re going to offer this opportunity for socialization, it should be accessible for everyone.

[Audience member] A question for Ms. Bradshaw. I’m an ex-military member, and one of the things I suffer from is PTSD. Many military members suffer from PTSD. You and Mr. Bower are both working on games that aid mental stability, mental capacity. Is there a way for games to be used to help soldiers integrate back into normal society?

Bradshaw: There’s a company called Virtually Better that has been around maybe 10 years, that builds virtual reality software for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. They specifically built software for Vietnam vets, but I think they probably have been developing some newer software for more modern veterans.

Skip Rizzo, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, is working on treating PTSD with virtual reality. It’s a great use of video games, obviously, if we can get it to work.

Barnes: Yes. And related to that, we have a project called Astrojumper. We’re building a game to help autistic children get more exercise. Exercise has been shown to improve social interaction for autistic children because it helps reduce their social tics—physical tics—and improve their eye-hand coordination. So we’re making a virtual reality game where the players wear a tracker and they avoid 3-D planets that are coming at them by dodging, and they can get extra points by sort of punching targets and things. We’re excited about that.

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