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How Games Shape Our World: Wolfenstein 3D to 2013

Do you remember playing DOS games like Pong or Hangman? How about the original Wolfenstein 3D on floppy disk?

I do.

My father, a long-time mathematician, started bringing home computers in the late 1980s. I would have been three or four years old and I had no idea at the time the effect that the 1987 IBM PC XT sitting in my family living room would later have on my life. What was my first use of one of the 21st century's most revolutionary inventions?

Playing games, of course.

I started off with simple stuff like Jump Man: a game created by the now defunct game developer company, Epyx Inc. The point of the game was to diffuse bombs by touching them, where you'd get points for each one you diffused. It was mindless, easy... and kind of fun. Looking back, this was probably my first exposure to operating in a game built around what the current gaming industry refers to as "compulsion loops" -- this is a construct which refers to the process of structuring people's behavior so as to cyclically expect rewards for effort. I.e. run, diffuse bomb, climb latter, get reward, repeat. This construct underpins the architecture of many a game to this day -- it's what keeps the player coming back for more.

According to the Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, Jane McGonigal, there are now over three billion hours per week of ongoing gaming around the world -- with numbers expected to triple in the next three years. What's more, 97 percent of youth in the United States now play computer and video games, with most gamers expecting to continue playing games for the rest of their lives.

With billions of hours spent playing them, and built-in patterns designed to keep people hooked, will games have a positive or negative influence on the world? I think it all depends on what kinds of games we choose to play.

With each compulsion loop in which we engage, we're training ourselves to complete a series of tasks to win a reward by completing an activity -- the results of which can be destructive (like killing something) or constructive (like building something).

In my early teens, I would learn both sides of the coin.

The first time I played a game for longer than 10 hours in one sitting was one of Blizzard's earliest Role-Playing Games (RPG), Diablo. The loop that I got caught up in was simple: kill monster, receive magical weapon, hoard gold, level-up, etc. I learned what it felt like to play a game so long that my eyes hurt, desperately trying to stay awake so that I could I kill the next monster and level-up... once more. Not long after my first sitting, I had beat the game on beginner, intermediate and Hell -- a few times.

While it was a great distraction and lots of fun, games like this contributed little to the betterment of my everyday life. That said, I would soon discover games that could be fun and quite productive too.

The only game I every played longer than Diablo was the city-building game, Pharaos (which, from what my brothers continue to remind me, I played for fourteen hours in one sitting). The loop behind this game was much different than the first: build, earn gold, grow your city, and so on -- with increasing levels of complexity. It taught me skills applicable to my everyday life, like basic economics. For instance, I learned that if I imported more wheat than I sold to neighboring countries, I would go into a deficit over the long run. I didn't like that, because it would mean that I would have less money to build my land.

At the age of 15, you could say I was learning the basics of statecraft -- a life skill from which I would benefit throughout university and later in life.

The fact of the matter is this: Whether we like it or not, people (especially youth) are going to play at least one of the myriad games out there. The question ultimately remains: what will disproportionately be at the end of our loops as a world? Will we play games where we can learn to be the heads of state for a booming metropolis or magical characters in an RPG?

In the end, the choice is ours. And it'll make a big difference to the world in the long run.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum in recognition of the latter's Global Shapers initiative. The Global Shapers Community is a worldwide network of city-based hubs developed and led by young entrepreneurs, activists, academics, innovators, disruptors and thought leaders. Aged between 20 and 30, they are exceptional in their achievements and drive to make a positive contribution to their communities. Follow the Global Shapers on Twitter at @globalshapers or nominate a Global Shaper at http://www.globalshapers.org/apply.

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