Playing for a better world

1 Mar

Foreword: a few things worth a lot of attention

This post is about an idea that came some time ago and that I’d like to share; before  getting to the point there are a few concepts I’d like to introduce. I’m writing this post mostly for myself and my friends, but I hope if it can inspire people to dig into the concepts I bring here, if they are new to them, and enjoy the very early stage of a crazy idea (yes, yes, another one).

Videogames matter! (confession of a videogames addict)

one of my pg in wowI’ve grown up with video-games since they exists. I’ve been playing a lot,  too much. Beside the fun, I’ve always tried to study them, evaluate, analyse and enjoyed a lot of discussions about them with a couple of friends, passionate as I am. World of Warcraft has been my second life for several years now, an unbelivable source for learning and the ultimate time-sink.  Videogames are, at the same time, bliss and a curse.

No matter if you are a videogame addic, if you never understood them or if  you and never played or hate them: videogames is not something that can be ignored. (I suggest reading the book Fun Inc.: Why games are the 21st Century’s most serious business by Tom Chatfield, for an introduction to the role of videogames in our present and future).

More than fun

Then something I would have never imagined started to make his way into these discussions with friends and colleagues: gaming can be used with different purposes than “fun”! About two years ago we started imagining several possibilities to engage people in real world  using “games” and game techniques. The original idea came from looking at the emerging social gaming, especially on Facebook, and analysing some of the best in leveraging the network of friends, creating a new wave of time-sinks and ultimately a lot of fun and some little good.

Since then we discovered Games for Change: a multitute of innovative and often very experimental games aimed to change the world for the better: in education, training, democracy, politics, climate change, etc. etc. We have been inspired by Jane’s talks and articles, and we’ve been studing and working to be able to bring this passion into our professional future.

Good changes can be brough to the world leveraging the little gamer that is inside each one of us… with a Purpose.

Gaming as an interface

The last important concept I need to introduce is that games can teach us a lot on how to design powerful engaging applications and tools. Learning from psycology, motivational design or BJ Foggs work on behavioural changes, the message seems always to be that what some game developers is very relevant and meaningful for application design.

The phenomenon is hyped as gamification: “Gamification is the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications, particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. It also strives to encourage users to engage in desired behaviors in connection with the applications” from Wikipedia.

In other words Gamification is the concept that basic elements that make games fun and engaging can be applied to things that typically aren’t considered a game, to bring real-life changes and behaviours (see also The Gamification Encyclopedia): nice examples are Foursquare, Wii Fit, Jinx and …

But, as some of my friends, working in psycology put it: gamification focuses on using gaming as an interface. The approach is definitively much more than only badges, points and achivements. All literature on the topic dates 2010 or 2011, the very term “gamification” is too recent (and ugly) to describe the concept and the approach new and not mature at all; there is too much hype about it and a lot of promeses about it that will not be fullfilled.

I’m not sure what will be the true role and evolutions of the concept but I’m firmly convinced that yes, “gaming” can be used as a paradigm to design new powerful applications. In paricular observing the latest developments in MMORPGs, gaming platforms, and “social gaming” (Zynga, etc.) there is a LOT to learn.

This very week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco gamification enthusiasts and traditional videogame designers are meeting and joyfully fighting (The Great Gamification Debate!).

“Better World” project

So here is the idea, crazy and worth pursuing: build an environment to match resources (time, ideas, money, skills, etc) needed by NGOs and resources availables in the world (from all people) in a huge games-like experience aimed to changing the world.

The idea came while working on Miomood (a startup on mood tracking&sharing): to build an application, a Facebook application or Facebook “extention” that would help engage users in quests, missions, “call to arms” and battles… in the real world. The application would make it easy for NGOs to develop it’s social mission (whatever it is) using the Social Network.

The pain it addresses: activism, social engagement, volunteering, lobbying, etc. are quite painful, hard and complex activities for most of the people: the result is that there are millions of “sleeping activists”, marginally-engaged people, lost volunteers-to-be. Becase these issues are complex, the contest is complex, true engagement expensive and time consuming.
The good news is that social engagement seems to be very important in the “personal network” of a person, as it relates to “shared values”, moreover, a lot is about “education” and “information” and gaming is excellent at both training and forming.

io senza frontiere scheenshot

Game-like Facebook application by MSF Italia

The opportunity it delivers: move huge amounts of spare-time, game-time (& cognitive surplus) into changing the world for real.
NGOs  would “create” the content in a guided, simple, clear format: the same way they manage a Facebook page they would be able to add a “Quest” or a “Mission” or an “Action”. Title, difficulty, location, requirements, goals… storyline. NGOs would need to well design their contents, their messages and stories, but will not have to develop any mechanic, user interface or web platform.

A world-changer, the user, the player would join the “call”. The identity of the “world-changer” would be his/her real identity, enriched and customized with special skills and abilities, experience, place visited, language spoken, etc. The world-changer answering the call would need the help of his/her friends very often to complete the Quest, the Mission or the action. She/he would along the way socialize with others, maybe even people of distant countries. Along the way discover new and more complex ways of interacting. And be rewarded.

Here is an overview of the main motivational drivers that should be considered the design:

1) Achievement

  • Advancement (points, badges, medals, titles, stats, experience, talents, …) example: “green points”
  • Mechanics (how to spend points, talents, get rewards, …)
  • Competition (there can be good competition too, even in social engagement) example: “world-travelling ladders”

2) Social

  • Socializing (within the personal network and beyond) example: exchanging messages with the volunteers in Haiti.
  • Relationship (everywhere is the design!)
  • Teamwork (everywhere is the design!)

3) Immertion

  • Discovery (new people, new problems, new landscapes, both local or very distant)
  • Role-Playing (world-changer would be taken into being THE BEST possible themselves, right?)
  • Customization (background, avatar, objects carried, t-shirts weared, photo uploaded, …)
  • Escapism (very different from a MMORPG, not sure how it fits, right now)

I’m sure someone have more than enough imagination to “see” how such a project could look like.

It is worth noting that Facebook is already evolving to support some of these needs, expanding our “online self”. Moreover such platform is not only about game mechanics, badges or points, but an evolving system to allow the design of rewarding and joyful experiences when acting in changing the world!

Key design challenges: simplicity, cleanness, avoid transforming serious things in a game (but “play” for real changes!), avoid retoric, avoid frustration when approaching real-world problems as complex as hunger, poverty, etc. and reach the MAXIMUM number of people (get the “marginal” engagement of millions).
A lesson we have all to learn again from WOW: it has brought to a MMORPG millions of people that where not even gamers before! Now popular games such Zynga products and loads of online and social games are expanding this territory. I feel it is the right time to expand into more massive “serious” gaming.


57 Responses to “Playing for a better world”

  1. theheartofthestory March 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Thanks – I am a professor at ubc and have passed on a link to your blog to students who are working on research to make the world a better place ….

    • Francesco Ciriaci March 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

      That’s great! Students can better than anyone else understand and make the world a better place.

  2. antoroblog March 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    I never discovered games which were relevant to me and the idea to harvest micro-efforts, wach of us could invest, in order to create a measurable momentum is really seductive.I wonder about practical problems, because it is certainly difficult to channel the volunteers investment. Good luck, I think it is worth every effort and lots of state of the art psychology and algorithm. Then I will join the gamers community.

  3. boccobsblog March 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    Agreed. Very detailed. Nicely Done.

  4. Lakia Gordon March 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    I think you’re on to something :) Great post!

  5. Dequalateral March 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    Hey Francesco, as a “recovering” gamer, I was drawn to your post. Really cool idea, you’re absolutely right about the vast number of almost advocates out there. Blending social networking, game elements, and the work of NGOs, nonprofits, etc. is something worth exploring. I suppose a big challenge would be walking the line between maintaining the seriousness of the work involved while keeping at least marginal interest/motivation via the addicting gaming elements. Also, the biggest question comes: what kind of work can we (the lower level world changers) do that’s valuable? Is the model really to attract millions and millions in the hope that heroes emerge? I don’t think that’s a bad outcome, either, but I’d like to know your thoughts, at this point in your thinking, about the contribution of more marginal world changers.


    • Dequalateral March 1, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

      right after i posted this i received an email from a public good group listing campaigns I might be interested in helping out. My first instinct was to ignore it. This answers my question though: if there were gaming elements that created just enough motivation for users to just sign onto an online petition (something that takes the minimum of effort), that in itself would be a measure of success.

  6. Tracy Z March 1, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    hey – this is a great post, and it reminded me of this TedTalk I watched once, it’s by Jane McGonigal on how video games can save the world. You might enjoy this perspective

    • Francesco Ciriaci March 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

      Thanks Tracy. Yes, I loved that TED talk and it inspired me a lot, although it has a different perspective and I really appreciate Jane’s works and her more recent “gameful design” approach: I would be fantastic to have her point of view on the idea.

      • darren March 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

        They have been doing research into online gaming, at nottingham or trent university for 10 years now so its not really new concept.

  7. recessiondodgetovictory March 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Thanks for this. As someone who is trying to organise volunteers involved in gaming (non-computer games that is), this sounds really interesting. A big concern for me on this front would be people who use this network to form power cliques so that others don’t get a look in as in this videos example (11 minutes in referring to Digg):

  8. Ericaminto March 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Hey I feel the article you’ve posted is quite of use to students and those who are more keen on playing online games. Its a matter of keen interest to those.

  9. inidna March 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Wow, that’s a truly inspired and inspiring concept! This is a great post–thanks for sharing :)

  10. PL Holden March 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Nice post. I like to play Wii with the kids and since I was raised in a time where I was able to watch the video game industry evolve, I can appreciate that the hands on approach can help teach most skills that a classroom has to offer. The best games in my opinion for learning are the ones were teamwork as opposed to competition.

  11. Mikalee Byerman March 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    Impressive. I wish I could be as meticulous–and creative–and just WOW!


  12. MacTingz March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I first heard about Jane McGonigal when somebody left a video of one of her speeches in the comment section of a gaming-reated blog post of my own.

    It’s the first time I’d come across her work and I was completely immersed by her speech. As a ‘gamer’ I was incredibly appreciative of the way she articulately and cohesively defended games, and conveyed their potential for good.

    Gaming is hugely important. To ignore gaming would be to ignore the fastest growing entertainment medium in the world. It’s great that the community, a community comprised of everyone that plays games, can come together for a cause like this.

    • 2010businessblogger March 1, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

      I love your thoughts and insights on the world of video games. Would you mind if I trackbacked to this article?

  13. fey's diary March 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Wow. Great post. I was actually playing city ville on facebook on the other tab, I had shortage of energy so I have to leave it in a few minutes and visit my blog. Then this is what what I’ve read. I learned more, thank you for posting it.

  14. twilligon March 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    Interesting post! As a former game addict, I share both the interest in the potential of games and the desire for a better world. I think, though, that there’s a big, kind of existential problem with “gaming for progress”.

    What games primarily provide – to the extent they are a game at all – is an escape from reality, and a goal to achieve. A way to win – or, as games have gotten more complex and more popular, many ways to win. For gamers, usually winning usually entails having fun, power, fame (i.e. points, levels, achievements) – like life. For the game companies, it means money – like life. The problem is, that the same ways that we “win” in games are the same ways we make life on earth much more unpleasant. None of these things (fun, money, power, fame) are intrinsically bad, but they lead to very bad things when pursued to extremes – extremes which are only really possible in games. It would also be hard to argue that it is the pursuit of these extremes that is the reason the planet needs “saving” at all.

    Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the “realification” of games, rather than the “gamification” of reality? How about games where circumstances at birth largely determine your future, resources are hard to find and easily stolen, gamers have significant impacts on each other’s games and could not be ‘ignored’, injuries take years to recover from, games where you get only one life? With games like that, maybe we could begin to have an actual discussion about what it means to “win”.

  15. Fox@n March 1, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    I love Cod games but not any more no time to play… anyways good post man.

  16. GNN March 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Hi Francesco. I’m working on a piece about activism and social networking for my blog, and would love to ask you a few questions about your ideas for the “Better World” project, which sounds very interesting.

    If you’d be available for a short interview, please either post a reply on the GNN blog, or add me to Twitter (izzyb1982).

    Hopefully, I’ll hear from you soon.

  17. ferkung March 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    I don’t know. I think awareness campaigns can be well implemented via game marketing (see the Spent game for a great example); but I never felt any persistent gaming world could actually do anything. Sure, you can have a game where it raises money for charity as you play, but this seems to simply feed into the same slacker-activist me-too mentality that drives things like the Facebook “change your avatar to a cartoon to support child abuse [sic].”

    The things listed to be “considered” are simply aspects of gaming. There’s no attempt to say how anything might be anything more than a pat on the back for slacker-activists, something that social entrepreneurship has enough of already.

    There is also a missed opportunity to talk about the complexity of the issues at hand. While you see it as a selling point for the complexity of the game, I counter that a game could never reach the complexity of real-world issues. Certainly anything can come down to a diametric polarity that tantalizes and plays to the choir of the “right choice,” but to seriously hash out the issues of, say, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and determine who is “right” is beyond the scope of even the most intricate CRPG.

    Real life doesn’t have achievements. You just do it, and for no little *ding* when you do it for the thousandth time. And that’s what makes the slacker-activist such a problem — they’re not doing it because they think it’s right, they do it because others will party with them and raid; but when the server goes down, they’d rather do something else than continue.

  18. Ava Aston's Muckery March 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    If you play games as well as you write, I never want to be your opponent. On another matter, wanna be my Farmville neighbor?



  19. madabunny March 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    I really like World of Warcraft, i’m not addicted…but honestly is the only game that is not borring to me…but hey, i like this post… ^_^

  20. Ruairi Burns March 1, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    Fantastic piece. Lets do it!

  21. sarahtherebel March 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    I love this idea! We are doing a poll about volunteering about my school and the biggest problem seems to be laziness. Not having to leave your home to have an impact on a cause you care about would be a great solution. I know I would play it!

  22. Jordan Wiklund March 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    You may also want to check out Tom Grimes’ “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” as a nice corollary to McGonigal’s book.

    • PW Shea March 1, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

      I think that was by Tom Bissell, right?

  23. PCC Advantage March 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Thank you for justifying my addiction to Halo… :)

  24. rtcrita March 1, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

    Wow! This is a great idea. My son has been a gamer for sometime now, to the point it has sparked his interest to want to become involved in creating games. He’s been taking all kinds of IT and graphic art classes throughout high school and looks forward to continuing his computer education in college this next fall.

    I can totally see this happening, especially when I look at how much good social networking has already done on so many different levels. There are just so many possibilities. And I know it was mentioned earlier about the “fickleness” of those that might play only for the sense of being entertainment or the ability to play with friends, but I don’t think that really matters in the beginning.

    People start all kinds of things for one reason and end up staying with it for another totally more meaningful reason. If it gets them interested enough to become involved, that’s a start. How can it hurt to get even a week of their time, money, and interest? That’s better than nothing at all. You haven’t lost what you wouldn’t have had to begin with. Instead, you’ve gained the opportunity to engage someone who might not have even been aware there was a problem to begin with. It would be the job of the creator, charity, organization involved, etc. to keep and nurture the gamers interest in an attempt to teach them more about the subject matter, thus making them more involved in the cause.

  25. msvanessab March 1, 2011 at 8:01 pm #


    I think this is an AMAZING idea. It’s good to see someone who advocates gaming as learning platform. Here at Purdue, we run the iDea labs that try to do a lot of the same! Back when I still played WoW, I actually used it as a study guide for French by purposely joining a US/Candian server and queing in French-speaking groups. A lot of people thought it was dumb…but my fluency skyrocketed: I was on WoW all the time, and thus speaking in French all the time. When it came to class, I had the vocab they gave me plus what I learned from French-Canadian speakers. It also bridged a social gap: they were getting sick of being harassed by Americans when they spoke French, and it was pleasing to meet someone a) who was interested in learning and b) generally nice.

    Also: Congrats on fresh pressed!

  26. BB_Baker March 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    Great post. As a former WoW player and continuing gamer this was a great post. Nice to see gamers get more props. Congrats on Freshly Pressed.

  27. eva626 March 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    great post!!! and lots of info..nice to find one out of many of the decent meaningful blogs like yours!!!

  28. Ascentive March 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    This is a really cool idea, I’ve been thinking for a while that there is a need for organizing followings for non-for profits, but I never thought of using a game base for it. Hopefully you get to build it!

  29. Elvita Kondili, LPC March 1, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    I watched Jane a while back on TED and was very impressed. Initially I was skeptical since my field of work and interest is in addictive behaviors. What do you mean we should encourage people to play more video games??!! But gamification is not just “play more”. The concept of using games to help solve problems in everyday world is innovative, strength-based and surprisingly human. It is the opposite of isolation and escaping reality to live in a fantasy world. Very interesting post. Thank you.

  30. metrouver March 2, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    Amazing, very inspiring! I hope you word could come through :)

  31. stylistnc March 2, 2011 at 2:46 am #

    Sometimes I go into my kids room to watch him play. Yes it may be a violent killing game of some sort but it’s amazing to watch the strategy with his teammates and his fingers moving so rapidly moving through whatever rooms or mazes or terrain it may be knowing I could never do all that. And sometimes I just listen to him interacting sounding crazy funny with his friends through his head set and they might just be having fun with each other and not really playing the game at all. A different world for sure than when we were young. But your blog was very interesting and well thought out. I think it’s a great idea.

  32. Celeste Salva March 2, 2011 at 4:54 am #

    With it, we remember that we are the change we wish to see in the world. You really are a geek and you have a good heart.

  33. nunomoreiras March 2, 2011 at 4:54 am #

    It would be awesome to join gaming and social responsibility. It’s like you said, there are a lot of “sleeping activists” all around the world, people who would like to give something back but don’t know where to start… Good post brother!

  34. Alberto March 2, 2011 at 6:48 am #

    I really enjoyed the post. I would really like to see more about this. It would be great to see people play games for something better. It kind of reminds me of the book, “Reality is Broken.” It seemed the author had the same passion as you did for infusing games to make our reality better.

    Can’t wait to read the next one.

  35. Alice March 2, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    I’m sorry if this is rude, but:
    Please, please use SPELLCHECK!! Or proofread your writing!
    It helps in the presentation of your idea.

    Also, this is not a new concept.

  36. bandsmoke March 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    I wish I had the time to game – great post though and congrats on FP :-)

  37. YouNxt March 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Great post and interesting take on gaming. Wondering what people think of this: in terms of eliciting emotions. The video is bizarre but the realism, music and imagery does manage to evoke emotion.

  38. dsk March 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    magari ti puo’ interessare

  39. K March 6, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Nice post. I was part of the 2010 Microsoft Imagine Cup and was selected for the National Finals in Washington and I was from the Software Design category. The theme of the competition was helping the UN achieving its MDGs and the games on display in game design category were simply amazing and pretty much echo what you have said in this post. Games are so engaging that it is high time they are taken advantage of for something apart from pure entertainment! Nice share .. thank you !

  40. adjinneed March 8, 2011 at 7:34 am #

    I have played games since i can remember i love them and also play world of warcraft A LOT, i agree with your thoughts and think you should keep brainstorming. This should be funded….

  41. L March 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    While I understand why Facebook might be a good forum for this kind of game when it’s just starting out, I’d also like to point out that in order to truly change the world, accessibility is of the utmost importance.

    I’m currently writing this from China, where I don’t have access to Facebook (among other cites), and trying to circumvent these restrictions is illegal. So while I think this is a great idea, I think thought and effort needs to be put into making these kinds of games accessible to as many people as possible, which means being aware of all factors external to the individual that might prohibit or discourage them from participating, including internet censorship, be it by schools, workplaces, ISPs, or the government.

  42. C Benson March 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Nice blog. I currently play Dragon Age 2. :)

  43. That’s great! Students can better than anyone else understand and make the world a better place.

  44. catherinepedersen July 1, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    I read your post a while back but didn’t comment (didn’t think up of something relevant), just hit the like button, but today I can bring you a game called Fate of the world, and it kind of explores the idea in your post which kinda wow’ed me. So I guess the developers were working on your thought, maybe its very possible to turn this into an online social networking game thing (for lack of better words). =)

    • Francesco Ciriaci July 1, 2011 at 10:17 am #

      Thanks! It is in fact one of the games awarded two weeks ago during the Games For Change Festival. It is a real shame I could not attend. There are many smart people working on gaming for “a better world”, I really hope with my posts, and my projects to have some impact…


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