On December 9th 2007, a curious event took place at the University of South Carolina football stadium. As 29,000 people filed inside, each was given a piece of paper bearing four names and phone numbers. During the event, each person called those names and asked them to vote for Obama in the coming primary election.
Those 29,000 attendees called over 35,000 voters in the space of ten minutes – enough for the Guinness Book of Records to certify the event as the ‘largest phone bank‘ in history – and all for very little cost to the Obama campaign.
The record only stood for a few months, because on August 27th 2008, a line of people six miles long – over 80,000, all told – waited for seats at Invesco Field in Denver. They were there for Obama’s acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for the election, but once again, they were going to be called upon to help out the campaign with more phone calls.
These events were replicated hundreds of times across the country, and some were focused more directly on making calls. I recall hearing about one in which the speaker walked the attendees through how to make their very first phone call to a voter. Yes, you might be nervous, he said, but I’ll show you how to do it – and he then proceeded to make a live call through the loudspeakers. Suitably encouraged, the thousands of attendees made their own phone calls – and why not, since everyone sitting next to them was making a call.
Of course, the majority of phone calls were not made in stadiums or live events, but at home or in campaign offices. Ever tech-savvy, the Obama campaign aimed to track and analyse all calls made. Even in September 2007, during the earlier days of Obama’s primary fight, the campaign had developed online tools and leaderboards:
Naturally, there was an Obama ’08 iPhone app, which provided news updates to half a million users and (of course) encouraged users to make phone calls to votes. Over 50,000 calls were made, a figure that doesn’t include calls made by people who used an iPod Touch, and whose calls couldn’t be tracked.
The campaign had a single, clear goal: get Obama elected as President of the United States. Accomplishing this goal would require gaining a majority of the delegate votes in the Democratic Presidential Primaries in over fifty states and regions; each of those states had different rules for selecting their delegates, some of them quite unusual and rather game-like. With the Primaries won, the campaign had to win the general election.
Not only did this require a massive ground operation, going door to door in every state – not only did it demand massive phonebanking operations, some of which are describe above – but it also needed hundreds of millions in donations to adverts. In the end, Obama raised over $600 million dollars, most of which came over the internet:
3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.
70,000 campaign supporters used their MyBO fundraising pages to raised $30 million from friends and family; donation meters, leaderboards, targets, goals, rewards, and achievements – all of these most powerful reward and tracking mechanism, ripped straight from game design, were applied to the business of winning the most important and most serious game of 2008: winning the US election.
And they won.
We Can Do Everything You Can Do, Only Better
It’s becoming commonplace to read that games can cure cancer, eliminate poverty, repair the climate, fix our government – and in short, save the world. By layering game mechanics like experience points, levels, achievements, and missions onto the real world, we can motivate, train, and reward everyone in the world to make the world a better place.
These games – known as persuasive games, serious games, and alternate reality games – have been around for several years now, but have recently come to prominence with the increasing popularity of online games, as well as notable speeches by game designers such as Jane McGonigal and Jesse Schell. The claimed power and reach of these games have been used to make some very big statements about using these games to tackle some even bigger problems.
I want briefly to look at the performance and nature of some of these games and see whether those statements are justified:
- World Without Oil (2007) asked players to imagine what would happen if an oil crisis happened – what would they do, how would they cope and respond, how would the world change? The game received massive worldwide coverage and is commonly cited as a good example about how to get people to think and imagine about serious issues. The game had 2176 registered players over 32 weeks. Of those, only 276 were active (i.e. submitted at least one piece of content); 170 players submitted more than one piece.
- Superstruct (2008) was “the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game.” Players would help “chronicle the world of 2019, imagine how we might solve the problems we’ll face,” and invent “new ways to organize the human race and augment our collective human potential.” The game had 8901 registered players; it’s hard to tell how many of them were active, but 554 ‘superstructures’ were created.
- Signtific (2009) “is a public laboratory for developing and sharing cutting edge ideas about the future of science and technology. We invite scientists, engineers, designers, developers, researchers, technologists, and creative thinkers of all kinds to join the lab and help us uncover, together, what is impossible to uncover alone.” The game had 1764 registered players, and as far as I can tell from the leaderboard, only 250 were active.
Many online games and ARGs measure their success, at least in part, by the number of unique users and pageviews, but with only a few hundred active players, I don’t think these games did a great job in convincing people to participate. Games such as World Without Oil may have made an impact on the behaviour of the hundreds of thousands of people who visited their sites (e.g. becoming more energy-efficient), but it’s hard to tell.
- Urgent Evoke (2010) “is a ten-week crash course in changing the world,” with a goal to “help empower young people all over the world, and especially young people in Africa, to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.” The game currently has over 8000 players registered and 3000 pieces of content submitted in only one week. What’s more, the game is truly international, succeeding in its goal to attract players in Africa.
Urgent Evoke is shaping up to be the most popular game of its type by far, which is a testament to its message and marketing power. At the rate it’s growing, it could have up to tens of thousands of players by the time it’s finished. A big reason why Evoke is popular is because of its simple and attractive Obama-like promise: “You can become a superhero. You can change the world.” The first mission asks you to write about yourself – what will you be doing in 10 years time?
There’s evidence that visualising your hopes and ambitions can you achieve them, in a sub-‘The Secret’ kind of way, so I actually think this first mission is a good idea. I also think that by creating a social network amongst its players, Urgent Evoke can create connections between strangers and help spread new ideas, which is very admirable and could pay dividends in the future (which you would hope, for a game that costs half a million dollars).
On the whole, though, Urgent Evoke – and the rest of these projects – appear to be more like networked creative writing exercises than games that improve the world in a direct, measurable way. Perhaps they’ve some people have changed their behaviour as a result of playing, but it doesn’t seem like a whole lot.
Inspiration and Perspiration
I find games like World Without Oil and Urgent Evoke very interesting, because I like the idea of people writing about the future; you don’t know what you think until you’ve said it out loud, or better yet, written it down. In a way, these games help people think things through, which can only be a good thing. I also give a lot of credit to them for inspiring people, particularly younger people who spend a lot of time online (even if the player numbers need a lot of improvement).
Unfortunately, while inspiration is necessary, it’s not enough to ‘save the world’, and it’s not correct to claim that it can.
As a former research scientist, I remember how fun it was to come up with new questions and experiments – and how hard and tedious it was to spend weeks and months repeating experiments late at night in the lab, running gels, centrifuging samples, becoming frustrating at balky equipment, and being disheartened when my results were inconclusive. At the end of the day, you need to do a lot of work to make even the smallest discovery.
Methods of Inspiration
There was an interesting survey on the Cosmic Variance blog recently, asking What got you interested in science? Books about science (both fiction and non-fiction) were the top two choices – more than parents/friends/relatives or teachers. Why? I think it’s because there’s such a variety of books out there.
I have no doubt that in the future, we’ll see plenty of new games and activities that motivate and inspire people in new ways, but the fact is that different things will motivate different people. Given that there is no single good way of inspiring people, it’s useful to have a variety of ways, and the beauty of books is that there’s a real variety of them, much more than games or movies which require so much time and resources to develop. Over time, there’ll be more games, and perhaps we can programme games to match that variety, but that will require a different set of tools and understanding of what games are.
Games can inspire people, but that means they can change the world no more – and no less – than stories or books or movies or TV shows.
Bruce Sterling on problem solving
Last month in Berlin, Bruce Sterling gave a talk called Atemporality for the Creative Artist, which was not about games. All the same, it began with an observation that can easily be applied the sort of general-problem-solving games I’ve been discussing:
Well, let me take a guy who I am very fond of, a very immediate, hard-headed scientific thinker – Richard Feynman, American physicist. Richard Feynman once wrote about intellectual labor, and he said the following: ‘Step one – write down the problem. Step two – think really hard. Step three – write down the solution’.
And I really admire this statement of Feynman’s. It’s no-nonsense, it’s no fakery, it’s about hard work for the intellectual laborer… Of course it’s a joke. But it’s not merely a joke. He is trying to make it as simple as possible. I mean: really just confront the intellectual problem!
But there is an unexamined assumption in Feynman’s method, and it’s in step one – write down the problem.
Now let me tell you how the atemporal Richard Feynman approaches this. The atemporal Richard Feynman is not very paper-friendly, because he lives in a network culture. So it occurs to the atemporal Feynman that he may, or may not, have a problem.
‘Step one – write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already.
Step two – write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys.
Step three – write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted.
Step four – open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further.
Step five – start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem.
Step six – make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem.
Step seven – create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it.
Step eight – exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media.
And step nine – find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’
(If you don’t get what atemporality is by the end of these few images, I probably can’t help you.)
So, old Feynman, who was not the atemporal Feynman, would naturally object: ‘You have not solved the problem! You have not advanced scientific knowledge. There is no progress in this. You didn’t get to Step three – solving the problem.’ Whereas, the atemporal Feynman would respond: ‘It’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step one of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning, and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining, and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.’
You could say this is unfair, since the atemporal Feynman has inspired other people to work on the problem. The question is, are those other people solving the problem? How would we even know if they’re solving the problem? How do you verify their work in a reliable manner? What if they start gaming the system?
Achievement Unlocked: President of the United States
The Democratic Party and the Obama campaign won the game – they got Obama elected, one of the biggest achievements there is.
Was there a big change in politics, in the way things are done in Washington? Some people say yes, other people say no. Did Obama’s election save the world? Clearly not; it hasn’t even saved the US. While major financial disaster may have been averted, the new healthcare bill hasn’t yet been passed (although I’m optimistic). Millions of people are unhappy with the massive bailout given to the banks, doing anything about climate change is still incredibly difficult, corporations can now buy ads to influence elections, and there’s the small matter of two wars going on.
All of these problems are incredibly important – probably more important than the election. So where did all the Obama campaign volunteers go? Why aren’t they still making calls and knocking on doors in their millions? It’s because they’re tired, they’re uninspired, and they don’t feel they can make a difference any more.
During the election, there was a clear message: Elect me, and together, we will change the world. There was also a clear method: if you show up and vote, and you donate money, and you drive people to the polls, and you persuade other people to vote for me, etc., and finally you add up all the votes, we will win. Simple as that.
Today, not only is the message unclear, because Democrats disagree on policy details (public option, bipartisanship, Guantanamo, tax, bailouts, protectionism, Afganistan, etc.), but the execution is also much muddier and less direct. Want to get the healthcare bill passed? Call your congressman – never mind the fact that he probably won’t listen!
The beauty of Obama’s “Change” slogan was that it was something that everyone other than Republicans could agree on. But “save the world” is even better; everyone, even Republicans, can agree that saving the world would be a good thing. The problem is that when you start getting more specific – as Obama has done – two things happen: people start arguing, and they also get bored.
Let’s get bored, first. There are many instances of massive numbers of volunteers coming together online to do large quantities of hard and tedious work. The open source community is one example; the 150,000 volunteers of Galaxy Zoo are another. I don’t think either of those communities believe that they are ‘saving the world’, but they are doing lasting and valuable work that benefits all of humanity. Unfortunately, writing Linux and classifying tens of millions of galaxies both happen to be quite boring, so they don’t get much attention. On a simpler scale, donating money to buy mosquito nets or to loaning money to microcredit foundations are both good activities that also don’t get the heart racing.
Galaxy Zoo is interesting, because its creators have made an experience (I hesitate to call it a game, even though it could easily be converted into one) that has an isomorphic structure to the problem of classifying galaxies; the experience is also designed to work better than machine vision. Suffice to say that it is not easy to do this; often you end up wasting your volunteers’ time by getting them to do something that could be done by machines faster and better, or you don’t understand the problem sufficiently to create an isomorphic experience than non-experts can participate in (e.g. curing cancer). Bored yet?
Let’s have an argument, then. Here’s one: do you think climate change is a serious problem? In the UK, 30% of people think that it’s exaggerated. Imagine you think it’s serious: should we reduce energy consumption, increase energy efficiency, or develop cleaner sources of power? How much money should we give to each venture? Will you join my game to save the world by donating money to create more nuclear power plants?
Many of those who are against abortion or homosexual marriage feels that by protesting against them, sometimes violently, they are saving the world. I’m pretty certain that many Israelis and Palestinians both feel that their armed struggle is also fighting against each other both feel that they’re ultimately trying to save the world.
For the liberal-minded and progressives among us who use technology, it’s pleasant to think that we’d be the only ones smart enough to use a game to save the world, but saving the world is like the Golden Rule – it sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t actually work in practice because we don’t actually agree on what’s best for each other. Just imagine what will happen when everyone uses games for their own causes.
It hardly needs saying, but games are a tool that can be used for the most pure and most evil of purposes.
Not all games are the same
In a CNN interview, Jane McGonigal talked about the potential of games to do good:
McGonigal makes the controversial argument that if people played more online games like Urgent Evoke or World of Warcraft, our society would be better equipped to battle big problems.
People spend a collective 3 billion hours per week playing online games today, she said. That number must be 21 billion — seven times the current amount — for our society to realize its innovative and creative potential, she said.
That’s because gamers are trained to believe they can win, and because they’re matched with tasks that are fit to their skill levels, based on what level they’ve achieved in the game, she said.
McGonigal wants to see people exhibit the same level of enthusiasm and optimism they display in games in their real lives.
I don’t understand the reasoning behind the 3 billion and 21 billion hours remark; surely playing Farmville or grinding away in World of Warcraft is not the same as doing hard work? Yes, there are some tasks that demand real skill and concentration, such as running a major corporation in Eve Online or a guild in World of Warcraft, and I totally believe that these people could spend their time doing something ‘useful’ instead, but these people are a real minority – perhaps under 1% of all active MMO players and under 0.1% of all online gamers.
People play games for different reasons, and a common one is relaxation and down-time. It’s just not credible to me that the 80 million people who play Farmville, two minutes here and five minutes there, would happily spend their time outside picking vegetables instead – at the very least, you would need a type of technology that simply does not exist yet, and when it does exist, Farmville will be even more fun and diverting.
As for the enthusiasm and optimism that people display in games, I’m afraid that a swift session of Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live, or perhaps 10 minutes of clicking squares in Farmville, would rapidly provide some counterexamples. Not to say that games can’t make people happy, but let’s just not pretend that it’s all sweetness and light online.
Some words on Jesse Schell
Jesse Schell recently gave a talk at DICE 2010 imagining a future in which game mechanics are infused in every part of our world. You’ll get points for brushing your teeth, reading books, watching TV adverts, mowing the lawn – you get the idea. There have already been plenty of criticisms made of the talk, but what really depressed me was Schell’s suggestion that because all of your activities and achievements would be recorded permanently, you might stop worrying about points and change your behaviour to avoid your grandkids seeing that your 500th book was some trashy chick-lit novel.
That’s his insight? That instead of becoming a better person because you want to get lots of points, you’ll become a better person because other people might be judging everything you do? I’m not sure what’s worse, myself; the former seems empty, and the latter seems pathetic.
I feel that Schell’s talk suggested a horrific lack of self-examination on the part of pretty much everyone in this supposed future. What is it that people want? Why do you want to mow your lawn? Why do you want to read a book? How many people even ask these questions of themselves any more? Rewarding points isn’t going to make the answers come any faster.
The Limits and Potential of Games
In all of this talk of serious games and persuasive games, it’s worth pointing out that many of the things I’ve discussed here aren’t games in any formal sense, but tracking and reward mechanisms that encourage certain types of behaviour. These behaviours can be general or specific, but from the examples that I’ve seen, the more specific they are, the more likely they are to deliver concrete results.
As far as games like World Without Oil and Urgent Evoke go, I think that the best we can expect is for them to help and inspire people to achieve great things, just as a good book or teacher might; the problem is, it is very difficult to track their effectiveness because we can’t know what those great things might end up being, and we can’t agree on what to measure. Is it by ideas generated? Points earned, connections made, dollars donated, papers published?
A good comparison is the scientific enterprise. The interesting thing about scientists is that they aren’t particularly motivated by money – instead, they’re motivated by recognition. But not any type of recognition, such as millions of TV viewers (scientists and academics are often looked upon dubiously if they get too popular) – no, they want the recognition of their peers, both those alive today and those in the future.
And so the structure of science begins to look like it could be isomorphic with a game structure that awards points based on the number of papers you publish, the amount they get cited, and the impact factors of the journals they go in. Unfortunately, this already sort-of happens in academia and no-one particularly likes it, since it’s not always apparent after a year or even a decade which papers are important, which results have been faked, and whether it’s right that journals like Nature should matter more than others. Then there are the scientists who believe that teaching is just as important as research – and those that disagree with them.
What is clear is despite the fact that the scientific process is slow and hard and tedious, and that many scientists aren’t paid a lot or given any recognition or reward, they still insist on working for years. It might help that they get a pay rise and some recognition and reward, but that’s not the point – there is obviously some internal motivation that drives them on (and of course this applies to more people than scientists, I just mention them because I know them).
If we develop games that make people rely more and more on external recognition – on achievements and rewards and points – they will not be prepared for when things go badly. Every leaderboard has the worst player as well as a top player. As Anthony Storr writes in Solitude:
Children who feel that they have to be compliant to the extent of partially denying or repressing their true natures are bound to remain dependent on external sources for the maintenance of self-esteem. Such a child will develop into an adult who will continue to feel that he has to be successful, or good, or approved of by everyone, if he is to retain any sense of his own value. This necessarily makes him especially vulnerable to the reverses in life which we all have to endure: to failure in an examination or in competition for a job; to rejection by an actual or potential lover; to bereavement or to any other form of loss. Such unpleasant events make all of us temporarily resentful or low-spirited or both; but, in the case of those who possess little or no built-in self-esteem, may precipate a devastating plunge into the hell of severe depression.
The way to cope with reverses in life is by developing resilience against the caprices of the world; to determine and internally maintain a steady direction and sense of worth, and to remember past successes and recognition. Yet I fear that the games we are designing, focused on real-time things that other people have decided to measure and reward – will undermine rather than build that resilience.
You can design a game that encourages resilience, although it wouldn’t work for everyone, and books and movies might work better for some people. You can design a game to encourage people to save energy, which we know can work – if people care about saving energy or climate change.
You can even try designing a game that will cure cancer – assuming you know enough about molecular biology to create an experience that is isomorphic to the problem, otherwise you’re actually inspiring people to cure cancer, which isn’t the same thing.
But can you design a game that will save the world? No. The question is meaningless. It is people who save the world, each in their own way, through perspiration as well as inspiration. It is not always fun.