David Perry’s TED talk, “Are Games Better than Real Life?” features the powerful tale of a man who has become addicted to gaming and virtual reality. The young man discusses the dangers of games: They create increasingly realistic worlds that can brainwash players and encourage obsession. Moreover, increasing numbers of people are vulnerable as the real and the virtual become more closely integrated in everyday life. Thus, he argues that video game creators have a responsibility to create games that encourage good rather than ill. If they do not, they hold the power to brainwash the masses in ways that promote violence, misconduct, even conformity. As the man explains:

But maybe brainwashing isn’t always bad. Imagine a game that teaches us to respect each other or helps us to understand the problems we’re all facing in the real world. There is a potential to do good as well. It is critical—as these virtual worlds continue to mirror the real world that we live in—that game developers realize that they have tremendous responsibilities before them.[1]

This idea is not a new one. In this post, I hope to discuss instances and implications of responsible, social games—ones that entertain their audiences even as they help the world. These games represent the potential for future programs to educate, assist, and connect people across the globe, and I can only hope that programmers use them as a template for future endeavors.

(1) Gaming for a cause. A number of online games assist others by harnessing human brainpower. One, the “Free Rice” game run by the United Nations World Food Programme, donates ten grains of rice for each question answered correctly. To date, the program has donated over 95 billion grains to hungry individuals around the world—with each billion capable of feeding 50,000 people for a day.[2] Not only does this act help the needy, but it also raises awareness of the global hunger problem and encourages players to contribute to the cause in other ways. For an explanation of the Freerice program, visit the following link: http://freerice.com/#/english-vocabulary/1442.

(2) Solving world problems. In my opinion, one of the most brilliant methods of problem-solving is online crowdsourcing. Some methods are rather straightfoward: The movie provider Netflix, for example, created a competition to improve its content recommendation system, and reCAPTCHA uses humans to transcribe words from books. These ideas have yielded great results, but they fail to engage the individual on a deeper level. Hence the success of Foldit, a website that integrates gaming with problem solving. Foldit allows the user to “solve problems for science” by playing with puzzles. The user’s activity helps to predict the structure of proteins; researchers can leverage their efforts to understand a protein’s role in disease and other aspects of daily life. In this way, the gamer’s activity directly impacts scientific research—a level of engagement and a form of empowerment unparalleled by standard video games. For more information on Foldit, visit: http://fold.it/portal/info/science.

(3) Learning through games. Finally, games can directly teach players about the world. This example adheres most closely to the narrator’s argument in the TED talk: that video game creators can spread knowledge and promote a civic community through their game’s messages. I benefitted from this phenomenon even in my own youth, for I learned about spelling and grammar from a crude, 1990s Reader Rabbit program. I (like the video game addict) relished this game because of the emotional connection I created with its characters—in this case, with a simple rabbit on my screen. I required no sophisticated graphics to believe that this rabbit was my friend; I truly loved the creature and wanted to help it navigate an online world. Modern games can and should do the same. As James Paul Gee explains in “Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines,” the player should be an “empowered learner”[3] that enacts change through knowledge and application in a virtual setting. In this way, she takes greater responsibility for the things that she learns.

Future game developers should strive towards similar, if not greater goals. Gee explains that educational games need not—and indeed, should not—be “dumbed down” or “boring,” nor should they force the player to learn in a specific way. When designed successfully, games make learning automatic—and even fun. Just ask my younger brother, who received a perfect score on his World History SAT exam simply because he plays Rome: Total War. I wish that I could enjoy gaming that much!

Like Lawren, I was struck by the suggestion that perhaps the all absorbing power of games can be put to good use, by encouraging people to play games that educate as well as entertain and developers to make these games available and attractive. The examples she listed are compelling cases of how social and individual good can be achieved through gaming.

I wonder however whether the social and individual good that can be achieved through these clever games negate the issue of the magnetism of virtual games in the first place. In other words, I am wondering if the real-world ends achieved (rice for the poor; proteins for scientists; learning for ourselves) can truly justify the disengagement with the real world required by the intensive engagement with the virtual/ digital. After all, even if we are engaging with real world problems, is it not problematic that these problems seem to be necessarily abstracted in order to be appealing and entertaining?

For example, I just spent at least 30 minutes playing the “Free Rice” game. For those of you who haven’t played it, I assure you that despite its simplicity, it’s extremely addictive. The game simply asks you to define words, or perhaps more accurately, find their synonym in a list of four. If you get it right, you donate 10 grains of rice and the next prompt is slightly harder. if you get it wrong, no rice is donated. Your donation is represented by a simple sidebar next to the game interface which shows a graphic which updates as the number of rice grains you donate increases. The words tested and the game in general have nothing to do with the greater cause of donating rice grains.

As I mentioned, the game is addictive. For a while, the vocabulary tested is fairly basic and you can pick out its definition/ synonym at a glance. After a while though, the words do become more obscure and when you get a question wrong, your level progression stagnates. In addition, the question you missed will continue to appear, frustrating your progress, until you answer it correctly. The impulse to play until you beat all 60 “levels” is strong since the gameplay itself is so simple. I have no doubt that many people waste a substantial amount of time playing this game every day and the number of aggregate rice grains donated has been substantial.

What I find problematic about this game is that it abstracts the goal of starvation and malnutrition alleviance from the engagement entirely. As I noted, the vocabulary does not seem to bear any relationship to the issue at hand. On the game page itself, the visual interface features the game prominently and the relevant social impact information is relegated to the second half of the page, which requires scrolling down. Given its secondary placement on the page and what we know about people’s internet and page surfing behaviors, I wonder what percentage of people who land on the page ever bother to scroll down or explore the website more in depth. Thus, even spatially, there seems to be an inherent tradeoff between the prominence granted to the game and possibly the number of players it can attract, and the education and awareness the site is actually promoting.

Let me be clear in saying that I do not think that games and social impact are inextricably at odds with one another. I do think that there is something to be said about creating channels of engagement that are aligned directly with the brand and issue at hand. One summer, I interned at PR agency Weber Shandwick and sat through a presentation given by their Corporate Social Responsibility practice group. While we can debate the authenticity and ethical nature of a company outsourcing their social responsibility campaigns to a public relations agency, I find it indisputable that smart, brand-aligned campaigns are more effective in both promoting the company and raising awareness for the cause. For example, Weber Shandwick helped Nike develop a campaign to transform the used rubber from their sneakers into soccer balls for children in Africa.

To provide an example of a game that I think has a lot of potential to achieve a greater good, play Spent in which you play an unemployed single parent with only $1000 in savings. Spent highlights the tough and seemingly impossible choices that millions of Americans struggle with every day through gameplay. This game and its developers are commendable because Spent combines relatively rich and entertaining gameplay while staying true to the issues at hand. Though the game is obviously a simulation and a simplification, it is not only not abstracted from the issues at hand, but works to actually make them more tangible. Games with social and individual impact can and should be developed, but I think greater emphasis should be given to clever and appropriate design rather than entertainment value.