02/17/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2013

Can Gamers Save the World?

According to Jane McGonigal a game designer, what the world needs is more gamers.

She believes solving the world's problems requires increasing the number of hours of gaming from three billion hours a week globally to 21 billion hours. She says the only way we are going to survive our time on this planet and solve problems like climate change, hunger, global conflict, obesity (yes, she specifically mentions it), is to play more online games.

Clearly this planet could use more collaborative solutions to the problems we face, from poverty, to the Middle East, to literacy to peak oil. Organizations like NRDC, Greenpeace and Oxfam are tackling the world's problems in different ways. For change to happen, you have to be willing to understand the problem, think about the problem, often dialogue either in writing or in person about it, and then -- this is the important part, work on the problem, usually collectively, but work.

Jane would argue that online games encourage collective problem solving. She says that in playing online games, we are our own best selves. The problem is that we know the world we enter is not real. We can walk away from it at any time, in a way you cannot walk away from the woman who loves you, the child who needs you, the parent who misses you, the planet that needs solutions. We cannot simply go off planet or offline in real life. What happens in World of Warcraft does not affect life as you know it. We know that we will put down the game and have to make dinner. You enter that epic story, but the story does not enter your world.

She admits that playing games is addictive. But she believes that gamers who play all the time are becoming virtuoso gamers who can tackle obstacles and can work with others. I would argue that because we know the obstacle could disappear as a problem for us by simply switching off the screen that we are not learning how to solve real problems. I do not believe gamers are more capable of succeeding on job interviews or doing creative or intellectual work. I would argue that because the relationships are virtual, they are clearly different from real life relationships.

A relationship with a person involves presence. If you don't believe me, try raising kids by Skype or phone or email. Obviously, it wouldn't work. If you want to have a relationship with your kids or as an adult kid with your parents, you have to commit to presence. To seeing them on a regular basis. Spending face to face time. Drinking together, eating together. Having conversations. In between, you can talk on the phone, maybe Skype. But if you don't ever stay in the same house and breathe the same air, if your whole "life together" is Facebook or Skype, or online avatars, you don't really know each other. What you've got then is your game face. And knowing someone well involves being without that.

Let's ask a question that I think we could all agree on the answer. My son is 21. Many of the kids he grew up with are playing online games. They are part of those billions of hours. They are sitting in their mother's basements or garages playing Counterstrike or Call of Duty. They are living their life in front of a screen.

My son is traveling and making money as he goes. He's been to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand; there was a three-month stint working at an orphanage in Nepal, then India, Europe and now New Zealand. When caught in a flood in New Zealand, everything he owned was washed away. He managed to make some important choices. He chose to let his clothes go and save his guitar. That's a real life choice. No online games prepare you for risking your life for a guitar held together by screws. How else will he make those extra dollars, if he can't keep playing in clubs as he travels?

I can't imagine anyone arguing that he'd be better off hanging around our garage playing World of Warcraft. He is in the world, seeing real life poverty and having to solve real life problems, besides gaining the confidence that one obtains from taking care of oneself in a foreign country. Would I rather have him playing online games? No, I would not.