2011: Here’s to Epic Win-Win-Wins!

So it’s 1/1/11… we should start the year getting inspired, right?  Taking stock of trends, where we are, where we want to go this year (and beyond), setting our goals, and getting our bearings.

During my New Year’s Day jog listening to 90.9FM WBUR, the show, On the Media, from NPR, provided an unlikely source of inspiration in the following statistics on video games that otherwise would have depressed the heck out of me: 5.93 million years – according to Jane McGonigal, that’s how much time has been spent by gamers on World of Warcraft (since its release in the mid-1990s).  10,000 hours – that’s the average amount of time spent gaming by someone by the age of 21 in a country with a strong culture of video games.

Even if we question those figures or other content of Jane McGonigal’s presentation at TED, her main thesis is fascinating and may be a reason for hope and inspiration.  What if the world’s toughest problems (including challenges related to sustainability, the topic of this blog and most of my research) were somehow presented as problems that could be solved in a context similar to that of online video gaming?  What if the rush of an “epic win” in solving a vastly complex problem (like that of World of Warcraft or other popular games) could be attained by spending time on challenges that actually mattered (like figuring out how to provide for our present needs without undermining our ability to provide for our needs tomorrow)?  This seemed hard to imagine – but watch the end of McGonigal’s presentation: there are some very clever ways this idea has been implemented and they have yielded some positive outcomes.  For example, one game asked players to figure out how they’d conduct their lives if oil and gas became much more expensive or unavailable – apparently this led to changed habits in their daily lives that persisted past the period in which they were playing the game.  In another game, players apparently came up with hundreds of policy solutions to another problem.

Also featured in the radio broadcast (transcripts and MP3s available at www.onthemedia.org) were the ideas of Jesse Schell, who similarly sees elements of digital gaming creeping into our real lives.  For example, what if we earned points when sensors in our shoes detected that we had walked more than a mile during the day, or when we purchased a healthier menu item, or took public transit?  We (or a lot of us) already spend a lot of time and effort and money trying to score those “epic wins” in completely imagined alternate realities, so why not use existing technologies to compete for points given our behavior in everyday reality?  Further, wouldn’t it be in the interest of both businesses, such as health insurance companies, and good public policy, to have people voluntarily competing to see who can live healthier or more sustainable lifestyles?  Given the investments of time and effort we compulsively make in video games, isn’t there potential here for epic wins in terms of profits, epic wins in terms of quality-of-life, and epic wins in terms of sustainability?  Yes, it may be disconcerting that the same approach could be used to award us for buying more of things that are harmful to us, and some may see other potentials for abuse.  However, we’re getting used to the idea – and sometimes acquiescing to the fact – that our locations and purchase and Web-browsing behaviors are already tracked by companies.  It therefore seems inevitable that someone will follow-through on Jesse Schell’s vision and that some people will try out such games that reward us for behavior in the real world.  Jesse Schell’s presentation at DICE is well worth watching for other great ideas and reasons for hope.  Clint Hocking is also featured in the program – in 2008 at a game developers’ conference he challenged designers to come up with games that mattered.

So here’s hoping for epic win-win-wins in 2011!  Could it be that some of the answers to our toughest problems may turn out to be a matter of fun and games?

About Adam Sulkowski

Associate Professor of Law and Sustainability, specializing in research and teaching on sustainable business, corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability reporting, integrated reporting, and corporate and environmental law.
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