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Future Games 

She wants to harness the power of the communal cerebellum her games create and put it to work solving real-world problems

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007

Page 4 of 5

McGonigal doesn't seem to get tired of explaining the promise of ARGs — in the last two months, she gave six talks on the subject. But she must be looking forward to the day when she can skip the half-hour of her talk that shows that she's not crazy, and get straight to what she wants to do next: Make sure a game designer wins a Nobel Prize by the year 2032.

McGonigal has been thinking about the deeper meaning of ARGs since Sept. 11, 2001. The very first ARG, a game called The Beast that promoted the movie A.I. , had recently ended. On that day, when gamers turned on the news and saw smoke bellowing from the Twin Towers, they flocked to the forum where they had spent so much time during the game. "One of the strongest responses they had was, we can probably do a better job solving this than the authorities, because we have been trained as this collective detective," McGonigal says. "I actually thought this was great."

After an intense debate, the players decided it wasn't appropriate to "game 9/11," and opted for more traditional ways to help. But the impulse to apply their skills came up again and again. They talked about getting involved in the hunt for the Beltway sniper in 2002, and also proposed an investigation into government waste in federal spending.

None of those projects got off the ground. Straight reality, it turns out, is less dependably fun than games. There are no puppetmasters to dole out clues, keeping players interested and on track. Players aren't guaranteed a stunning conclusion. Players might not have access to the information they need. Still, the gamers' urge to use their collective power remains. McGonigal gets e-mails all the time, she says, with former players basically begging her: "Help us use our brains!"

That's her intention. Right now she's looking for scientists who are amenable to an unusual collaboration with a game designer. She has high hopes for artificial intelligence laboratories — she can imagine designing a game where players need to interact with an artificial intelligence program, and would teach it language skills or common-knowledge facts in the process. Or the players could be taught how to look for patterns in real scientific data on nearly any topic, from mammograms to sunspots to genetic sequences. Their success in the game couldn't be dependent on real scientific breakthroughs, McGonigal points out, because they might never happen.

Those projects could eventually take care of the prizes in chemistry and medical science, but while she's waiting McGonigal is weighing the other Nobel options. She points out that the economics prize is often given for game theory, which studies how people make decisions in the marketplace; game designers have a ready-made population for testing theories. Even the literature prize is increasingly possible, she believes. Games have already replaced books as the most popular and vital form of media, she says, and the storytelling is improving all the time.

As for the peace prize, that's the one she considers a lock. In the next few years, she hopes to get a massive game going that involves India or China as a first step toward creating a global youth culture that understands collaboration. It sounds an awful lot like hippie idealism, and everyone can see how well "Give Peace a Chance" has worked out so far. But McGonigal swears she's already seen how human behavior may change, just on a small scale.

During the 12-week symphony of ringing pay phones that brought I Love Bees to a close, gamers scrambled to answer all the phones and collect clues. One team in Missouri made it to a ringing pay phone at an Applebee's restaurant, only to be told that the phone would ring again in three hours, when they would have already moved on to another task. In desperation, they convinced a waitress to wait by the phone, and taught her what to say when it rang. When the puppetmasters called back, they talked to Mallory the waitress.

Learning to reach out to strangers is one of the benefits of ARGs, says McGonigal. "When you start projecting that out to bigger scales, that's when these games start to look like a real way to achieve, if not world peace, then some kind of world-benevolent conspiracy, where we feel like we are all playing the same game."

On a warm Friday evening at the beginning of March, two small mobs of people rushed toward each other through Yerba Buena Gardens. When the leading edges of the two groups were within three feet of each other, members on both sides yelled out, "Welcome to beautiful downtown San Francisco!" This passionate salutation was quickly followed by groans of disappointment on both sides; then both groups turned on their heels and raced away.

McGonigal's theories were being played out in microcosm with a game called Cruel 2 Be Kind that she created with a like-minded game designer friend, Ian Bogost. About 200 people showed up on the designated blocks in SOMA and started playing as the clock tolled 6. You captured players and won points by using one of three weapons of kindness. You could welcome another player to "beautiful downtown San Francisco," you could point out something "amazing" in your surroundings, or you could proclaim, "You look gorgeous tonight!" If two teams used the same technique at the same time, they had to run away and wait 30 seconds before trying again.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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