Friday, March 09, 2007

Game Friday: Harnessing Collective Intelligence with Jane McGonigal

At the risk of sounding like the biggest dork on the East Coast, a few weeks ago I sat down with some friends to play the new Lord of the Rings board game. It’s a cooperative game, which means that all six of us worked together to defeat Sauron and destroy the Ring. We succeeded. It rocked.

There are millions of people all over the world obsessed with massively multi-player games like World of Warcraft. They form guilds, develop strategies, and hopefully, prevail. I’ve never been too excited about games like this, because the motivations and goals involved (slaying, capturing, questing) don’t resonate with me. But what if the goal was to band together to save the world from a real threat—like global warming, AIDS, or mass genocide? Or even simpler: what if the goal was to work together to advance knowledge, science, and human good?

Jane McGonigal wants to make it happen. She is an expert in alternate reality gaming (ARGs), the first woman to keynote at the Game Developers Conference, and she’s thrown down the gauntlet for a game designer to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences by 2032. She believes that people’s interest in gaming and in 2.0-style collaboration has set the stage for “Massively Popular Scientific Practice,” in which people work with real data to solve real problems through the harnessing of collective intelligence. It’s Citizen Science 2.0—connected, powerful, and possible.

How is this different from the other serious games that are out there? McGonigal comments that we need a new kind of serious game:

Games that are designed as functions with an end result that is a measurable difference in the present state of reality. Serious games now are viewed as “resources” (for education, training, instruction, simulation) or “platforms” (for messages, persuasion). We must start to create serious games as “generative processes” or “solutions to problems”

In other words, she believes that gaming can be more than a simulated tool for learning how to slay dragons, end global conflict, and splice DNA. Gaming can be a vehicle for people to attack real world problems.

I think about this a lot with regard to museums and data. There are many science museums that offer some way for people to get the feel for contributing to science by collecting and analyzing data—but most of these “games” are about exposing people to what science is LIKE, not giving them a chance to do science itself. Similarly, there are lots of museum exhibits that allow visitors to register an opinion or a sensation, but rarely is that data compiled and used for larger studies or work. McGonigal’s idea that massive data collection can be packaged in a way that people are compelled, and have fun, participating in REAL science resonates with me and gets me excited about the 2.0 museum, in which every time a guest hits a button their entry is recorded and used to create something great. All it needs is a strong game story, argues McGonigal, and people are hooked.

Of course, McGonigal credits science--and questing/learning itself--as the ultimate hook. It just needs to be packaged in the right contemporary story. She quotes Sean Stewart, ARG storyteller, as saying:
"I do NOT assert that [alternate reality gaming] is the first, or greatest, example of massively multi-player collaborative investigation and problem solving. Science, as a social activity promoted by the Royal Society of Newton's day and persisting to this moment, has a long head start and a damn fine track record.... We just accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment."

McGonigal has many excellent resources for your perusal. She runs a blog, has posted slides from a AAAS talk she did on the Massive Science concept, and here’s a little CNET article about her GDC keynote on “The future of collective play: Fostering collaboration, network literacy and massively multiplayer problem-solving through alternate-reality games."

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

This is really cool. It's very interesting to see how folks from diverse areas are integrating the 2.0 concept as a powerfull way to achieve big goals, yet having fun or entertainment doing so.

It reminds me that sci-fi book by Orson Scott Card, Ender's game, where a young boy achieves the biggest imaginable endeavour just by playing a game.

Pilar Gonzalo said...

Thanks for the blog, we really enjoy it. We just want to contribute with a couple of links we thought you would like.

The first is a book titled Videogames and Art (

and this is an Italian group of artists, designers and programmers called Molleindustria that aims at starting a serious discussion about social and political implications of videogames (

We hope you would like them,