Games to Make Us Better People


By playing on the reward centers of our brains, games trigger primal reactions 

Luis von Ahn, then a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, was on an airplane when he noticed several passengers doing crossword puzzles. An avid gamer, von Ahn thought about all that effort and intellectual intensity being applied to a simple game. What if, he wondered, it were possible to harness this energy for practical purposes? These ruminations led to his Ph.D. dissertation, which he finished in 2005, the first time anyone had thrown around the term “human computation,” which von Ahn describes as “a way to combine human brainpower with computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone.”  

This then became the fuel for von Ahn’s “Games with a Purpose,” which in the course of playing them provide useful calculations that can be applied elsewhere. While computers are good at many things, they are also bad at many things. Want a machine to crunch an algorithm? A PC is your best friend. Command it to identify the person in the photo standing next to the yellow Corvette convertible, and it’s practically useless. That’s where humans excel.

With this in mind, von Ahn designed the ESP Game. Two randomly selected players logged on to a Web site and were shown the same photograph. They were given 90 seconds to type words each believed best described what was in the picture, with players tallying points only when their words matched. Von Ahn’s studies confirmed that the matching words provided accurate descriptions, while the game mechanics made playing it addictive. Google, recognizing its utility, licensed the game from von Ahn and renamed it Google Image Labeler, which since 2006 has been used to improve Google’s Image Search to the tune of millions upon millions of photos. For his work, von Ahn received a MacArthur Genius Grant.

The 32-year-old von Ahn, now a tenured Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who drives a Porsche, is but one of legions of computer scientists, entrepreneurs, game designers, marketers, media organizations, start-ups, corporations and city governments that have been looking to push games beyond simple entertainment and layer their mechanics into all aspects of our lives. These so-called “serious games” have moved far beyond simple entertainment pleasures and are redefining our relationships to work, commerce and marketing, education, health and medicine. They seek to take advantage of that powerful moment of consciousness that von Ahn noted on the airplane, when a person is so utterly absorbed in playing that time outside the immediate game stands still. That’s when you’re completely focused on the task at hand. Your brain is firing on all thrusters, you are excited to confront the next challenge and, if successful, you are rewarded for learning (i.e., figuring out what it takes to level up in the game). It’s at this moment that you become, well, a better person.

“A good game gives us meaningful accomplishment — clear achievement that we don’t necessarily get from real life,” says Jesse Schell, another Carnegie Mellon professor and well-known game designer (at Disney Imagineering, he led the team that designed large-scale theme-park rides such as Pirates of the Caribbean). “In a game, you’ve beaten level four, the boss monster is dead, you have a badge, and now you have a super laser sword. Real life isn’t like that, right?”

No, it’s not. A game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges and instant feedback. Everyday life is anything but. Because games offer clearly articulated rewards for each point players score and new level they achieve, they trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things. Since we like the feeling we get when our brains are awash in it, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it, over and over again. That’s because well-designed games take advantage of our internal wiring. Our brains are tuned for survival and leave gaps that can be exploited. A million years before the birth of Christ, when one of our ancestors recognized a sequence — say, the number of minutes between sightings of a circling predator — his brain attempted to predict the next item in the sequence. When successful, our hairy relative’s brain gave him a little biochemical reward. He felt good, experienced a sense of accomplishment, and this reinforced a basic survival behavior.

Video and computer games, as well as slot machines, are particularly good at this. They provide “threshold effects,” where prizes or level changes are dribbled out to keep us hooked. The same system that drives compulsive gamblers and cocaine addicts, it’s also what makes it possible for gamers to enter a mental state called “flow,” in which they’re completely immersed in what they are doing and lose track of time. (In sports, it’s called the “zone,” when a basketball player, for example, feels like he can’t miss.) Such is the power of games to influence behavior. They are, Schell ventures, “a powerful psychological magnet that can connect into anything that we do.”

So powerful, in fact, that the numbers of people who play games is staggering: 97 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds play computer games, and so do almost 70 percent of the heads of American households, according to the Entertainment Software Association. If you buy Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that 10,000 hours of practice is a defining trait of virtuosos, then we have raised a nation of gaming experts. Before turning 21, the average American has spent 2,000 to 3,000 hours reading books — and more than three times that playing computer and video games. Globally, 350 million people spend a combined three billion hours per week playing these games. Since World of Warcraft’s release in 2004, users have racked up some 50 billion hours of playing time — the equivalent of 5.93 million years. In Reality Is Broken, game designer Jane McGonigal points out that 5.93 million years ago is when our ancestors began to walk upright. “We’ve spent as much time playing World of Warcraft,” she writes, “as we’ve spent evolving as a species.”

You don’t have to look far to see just how much games have permeated our lives. What are American Express points and frequent-flier miles but games that reward loyalty? Weight Watchers? A game. The U.S Army uses a first-person shooter called America’s Army as a recruitment tool. Google News and Huffington Post gamify news by offering badges to their most loyal readers. FedEx, airlines and the Air Force deploy gamelike simulators to train pilots, and UPS deploys its own version for new drivers — one even mimics the experience of walking on ice. Cisco developed a “sim” called myPlanNet, in which players become CEOs of service providers. Japanese automaker Lexus safety tests its vehicles in what it brags is the world’s most advanced driving simulator at the Toyota research campus in Japan. Canon’s repair techies learn their trade by dragging and dropping parts into place on a virtual copier. Three-lettered agencies like the CIA, FBI, NSA and DoD use games to train agents in antiterrorism. Foursquare has made a game out of recording the inane aspects of our lives, like dropping into a Rite Aid to fill prescriptions or buying Big Macs. The curriculum of one public high school in Manhattan is entirely based on game design.

One of the more intriguing — and simple — applications of games involves the use of handheld controllers in rehabilitating patients after injuries and illness. Since its 2006 release, Nintendo’s Wii (and now Microsoft’s Kinect) has become a staple in rehabilitation: it’s often dubbed the “Wii-hab.” Patients who have suffered strokes, paralysis from workplace accidents, torn rotator cuffs, broken bones and combat injuries use the motion-sensitive controller to control animated characters on a screen. They play Wii baseball, boxing, bowling and tennis, and because they earn points, they can easily chart their progress. Grueling rehabilitative exercise then becomes a game, a competition if it involves playing against another person, and so engrossing that patients almost forget the pain of rehab. WakeMed in Raleigh, N.C., has been prescribing the Wii as a physical therapy tool for the past four years to help patients redevelop the coordination they lost, while the Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital in Chicago uses Wii in its spinal-cord-injury unit. Walter Reed Army Medical Center prescribes the Wii to soldiers injured in Iraq during combat, a group that grew up playing video games.

As with von Ahn’s ESP Game, Wii-hab takes time — traditionally viewed as unproductive (i.e., playing a game) — and transforms it into something inarguably productive (fitness). In essence, they both harness wasted energy. Von Ahn has another project: reCaptcha, which doesn’t qualify as a game, but nevertheless turns nothing into something. Undoubtedly, you have been forced to type fuzzy letters to set up an account with Facebook, or to purchase tickets from Ticketmaster. It’s called Captcha (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), a method von Ahn invented to fool automated spam attacks and digital fraudsters, since only humans can make out the letters and computers can’t. With reCaptcha, these fuzzy letters come out of articles in The New York Times newspaper archives dating back to 1851 and books in the Internet archive. After scanning, many words are hard to make out, so each person who is forced to retype them to gain access to a site or service is helping to improve the accuracy of millions of books and articles.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could apply these mechanics to other areas? We waste energy all the time, and I’m not referring to burning through fossil fuels (although that is also undoubtedly true). I’m talking about all the energy we squander as a byproduct of basic actions. You walk down the street and every footstep creates energy that dissipates. You drive your car and the tires against the road create even more energy. Dance in a club and more energy is unleashed. Get on your exercise bike, ditto. Now think about how a hybrid car works. It gathers the kinetic energy derived from the simple act of braking, then applies it to power other functions. What if we were to take a page from von Ahn’s book and harness the energy from everyday activities?

A city like New York could place sensor panels under sidewalks to collect and store the kinetic energy of millions of pedestrians as they scurry to and from work. We could place them under streets to capture the energy that cars and trucks create and use the combined power that is stored to light neighborhoods. Department stores could do this, too, and cut electric bills dramatically. Now what if you gamified it, offered citizens tax rebates for the amount of energy they contribute to the power grid, and recognize their mad skills with leader boards and badges?

The technology exists. Peter Hughes, a British designer with Highway Energy Systems, has created “green” speed bumps that capture energy from cars driving over them, and a supermarket in Gloucester placed kinetic road plates in its parking area. A nightclub in Rotterdam, Netherlands, runs on the energy created by people dancing. While these panels only process a small amount of energy, it’s a beginning. Remember: today’s iPhone has more computing power than the computers onboard the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts, which were sent into space to study Jupiter and Saturn.

If you think about it, the idea of reaping benefits from play, of transforming time that was typically viewed as unproductive and creating something productive out of it, is merely an extension of a trend that has long been unfolding. As a culture, we already wring productivity from traditionally unproductive times. We text while we walk down the street, update our blogs while in taxis, tweet while online for a movie, check email while shopping at the mall. We are constantly trying to squeeze a minute or two of work and social interaction into a day that is already crammed. This is not all positive, of course — this ADD culture that technology has been enabling. But it shows the innate need we have to fill time with work and social activities.

A primary driver is the gamified interface of smartphones and social media technologies, which compel us to squeeze in a tryst with them at every fleeting available moment. The ping of an email has an almost Pavlovian effect. Every time you poke at an icon on your iPhone and a program launches, your brain experiences a squirt of dopamine. In fact, the iPad is so gamelike and intuitive, with its friendly looking app icons, that children immediately grasp how to use it. And there’s a reason you have heard the BlackBerry referred to as the “CrackBerry.”

They transform these snippets of time that, on the surface, may seem unproductive and make them productive. And like games, they can make us better people.

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and working on a book on ways that game mechanics are expressed in real life.

Next story loading loading..