Play, Policy, and Tree Planting: How Gaming Is Changing the World

06/30/2011 10:12 am ET | Updated Aug 29, 2011

Al Gore opened the Games for Change Conference in New York last week, touting the growing importance of games. "This is a very large, extremely significant industry with a wildly diverse and rapidly-growing audience of players on all kinds of platforms. We already know the immense power of popular media to illuminate issues that can seem intractable and overly-complex, but [through games] can be illuminated and presented to general audiences in a way that invites people to become involved in trying to solve the problems that our society has to solve."

The popularity of gaming has gained momentum through high profile game designers like Jane McGonigal who co-designed Urgent EVOKE with the World Bank, and investments by high-profile social actors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that recently invested over $20 million in developing games designed to bring improvements in education. These developments blur the boundaries between stodgy policy makers and the younger high-tech gaming generation thirsty for social change and more digitally connected than any other generation. It's quite remarkable that a Harvard educated, long-standing Washington presence like Al Gore is talking about creating "FarmVilles for policy."

Games, as a medium for social change, reflect a shift in thinking about human behavior and happiness. McGonigal talks about the intrinsic rewards that drive human behavior, and not coincidentally, successful games:

1. Humans crave satisfying work, every single day.
2. We crave the experience or the hope of being successful.
3. We crave social connection.
4. We crave meaning - the chance to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

Essentially, games are about listening to what their participants want and desire. Unlike policy-based or other social change initiatives, they engage their participants through connectivity, fun, and personal meaning, rather than socially imposed moral values of charity and sacrifice.

But, how do we translate the fun of video games into real world change?

One gaming industry pioneer and Games for Change conference participant created a video game that he hopes will inspire real world green acts. Gaming industry pioneer Chris Swain, a professor at University of Southern California and co-founder of the university's Electronic Arts Gaming Innovation Lab, launched Ecotopia earlier this year.

In an eco-friendly heroes-versus-villains Facebook adventure, Ecotopia players begin with a dirty, uninhabitable environment and must generate resources by completing immersive in-game missions. Resources are then used to develop a colorful and exciting sustainable city that players can customize to create their own utopia. Players can also connect with their Facebook friends, sending gifts to each other and visiting neighboring maps to perform helpful actions.

The key to games like Ecotopia is to engage a wide, diverse audience on Facebook and to format engagement in a manner that fits in with "normal" people's lives (i.e., on a break, between meetings -- times that can be filled with short, but fruitful bursts of play). Swain believes that the next frontier of the video game is to move from activism (spreading a message of social change in a game) to games for impact. By building a compelling story into a robust game, and using the power of social networks, Swain seeks to inspire real world behavior like planting trees, recycling and picking up litter.

Once acts are performed in their communities, participants can incorporate them into their Ecotopia gaming experience, scoring huge points once friends or other social connections verify their green acts. Swain even announced last week that in partnership with Conservation International, Conservation International will plant 25,000 trees in Brazil once players plant 25,000 trees in their virtual neighborhoods. "Moving from activism to impact is the holy grail for the Games for Change Community," he explains.

Ecotopia is not Swain's first foray into the space between play and policy. In 2009, he worked with a team to educate voters on a bill co-sponsored by Representative John Tanner, Democrat of Tennessee, and Republican Congressman Zach Wamp called the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act. The Redistricting Game was designed to educate, engage, and empower citizens around the issue of political redistricting. With the current political system in most states allowing the state legislators themselves to draw the lines, "the system is subject to a wide range of abuses and manipulations that encourage incumbents to draw districts that protect their seats rather than risk an open contest."

By exploring how the system works, as well as how open it is to abuse, The Redistricting Game encouraged players to experience the realities and arbitrary nature of a highly contentious, yet misunderstood, political issue. The game was a hit with policy makers and reform groups, including, the Campaign Legal Center and the League of Women Voters.

The boundaries between digital activism ("clicktivism") and real world acts have been hotly debated by activists, NGOs, and thought leaders like Malcom Gladwell for some time. Few people can argue that social media is able to coalesce unprecedented numbers of people together; the issue becomes the value of social networks for social change if participants game, tweet, or facebook post, rather than storming Tahir Square or staging a lunch counter protest.

The new generation of games like Ecotopia are critical because they bridge digital social ties with real world activity, importantly "generat[ing] more participation bandwidth for our most important collective efforts." They inspire the next generation of gamers to not only improve their communities, but to build meaningful social ties in the process of doing so. Old school activists may shake their head and sigh, but in a world where 25,000 digital trees translate into 25,000 real trees added to the Brazilian rainforest, legislators turn to gamers for help, and the World Bank solicits everyday people to "solve the world's most pressing problems," we can't ignore the reality that our digital and embodied identities are inextricably tied.

So let's jump in and play.