How Gamification Can Save us from Apathy and how to “game for good”

My first year of college I made friends with a roommate trio in an adjacent dorm. They began to withdraw socially and academically after about a month, — skipping classes and holing up in their room day after day, night after night, playing the game World of Warcraft. They had a system — sleep four hours a night, play for twenty. Take turns going to the grocery store once a week to replenish microwavable foods and to get fresh buckets. The latter was especially important, for as you must understand, their dormitory had communal bathrooms, and one cannot be bothered to abandon their Elfin quest simply because nature calls. All three dropped out before the end of our first semester.

A history of addiction runs in my family. I have never taken drugs or so much as sipped alcohol, though I might happily do either before ever considering booting up World of Warcraft. I was angry, and still am, that three charming and intelligent young men could be reduced to such apathetic caricatures. I remember thinking back to my childhood — all the hours spent mashing the ‘b’ button to launch homing grenades at friends or running pedestrians over on my way to a bank heist. Imagine all the books I could have read.

I was permitted 1 hour of video games every non-school day from age 7 — aprox. 2,250 hours? Average book takes 2.14 hours to read so in the ballpark of 1,051 books. and a half.

There is credible research to suggest that even the crudest video games can yield positive results for the brain, but without prejudice or judgment these games do not interest me. I credit several RPGs I played in my youth for cultivating a love and affinity for narrative fiction, but these were eventually overshadowed by the discovery of great films and books. As a result I studied filmmaking and continue to receive accolades and exposure for my movies— so why have I since shifted my professional focus toward software and games?

One of my films, now available on YouTube thanks to a recently expired distribution agreement with Shorts Int’l

The answer is simple, and one that any parent knows well. Want your child to eat their veggies? Make it a game. Need them to keep quiet on a long flight? Make it a game. Games have the promise of motivating even the most mundane exercises. To put it another way, twisting a boring or obligatory task into a compelling game can combat a world awash with indifference. While World of Warcraft bred apathy in those three young men, I believe different games have the power to do just the opposite.

Twisting a boring or obligatory task into a compelling game can combat a world awash with indifference

In that spirit, I teamed up with the Pulitzer Prize winning organization PolitiFact to make my latest non-profit game, PolitiTruth. Combatting fake news and lies in politics may not be sexy, but it’s more important than ever to fact-check sources and challenge your own preconceptions about the truth. Making this into a game was natural —utilizing our competitive nature as fuel to fight misinformation.

The always brilliant XKCD

Guesses are anonymously saved online to show how your political awareness compares to other participants and to help identify the stories people get wrong most often. Data on public misconceptions in politics are highly reliant on surveys and subject to hosts of biases including small sample sizes and the spotlight effect. It is my hope that PolitiTruth’s statistics provide a beneficial augment to these analyses.

Games like Fold It, that not only possess educational value but meaningfully contribute to research are the kinds of games I aspire to make. My last game, Synonymy, was designed to contribute to a new “perceived natural language processing” metric in NLP, a subjective measure of how closely related people believe two words to be. As I’m on the expo floor about to showcase PolitiTruth at E3 2017 through IndieCade, I’m encouraged by how many new projects I see that possess legitimate academic and scientific value. Best of all, they’re intoxicatingly fun, combating the (historically deserved) stigma of educational games being boring. Even the phrase “educational game” conjures thoughts of Mario Teaches Typing and Oregon Trail, instead of their brilliant modern counterparts, masterful works like InfiniFactory, Human Resource Machine, Kerbal Space Program and Shenzhen IO.

Shenzhen IO: An AMAZING and profoundly educational circuit building game

These new games do so much more than instruct, they breathe life into studies most would consider banal in a more traditional academic context. Expanding on this, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee investigates how building games around important institutions like journalism and voting can dramatically increase efficacy. The results speak for themselves.

Our desire to play and compete certainly has harmful potential, but if we’re careful and clever, I truly believe we can appropriate these impulses for the collective good. It can start small — setting little goals for ourselves and sparring playfully with friends (fitness trackers are a great example of this), and soon you might find these exercises have the potential to engender interest, awareness and even philanthropy.

PolitiTruth is available free on the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store. As a quick aside, I would like to express my sincere gratitude and thanks to Aaron Sharockman and the entire PolitiFact team. I am a great admirer of their important work and am proud to help their mission in this small way.

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