Game Changer: Video Games and Real-World Problem Solving, Part Two
Whether you’re a weekend gamer, find time during the week to play a few hours with your friends after class, or are a diehard gamer who spends any and all free time kicking virtual butt or building digital communities out of scrap metal, you know how easy it is to get sucked into a video game. Your parents have probably complained and worried about the hours that you were wasting tackling the challenges of an electronic fantasy world, but that’s just because your parents did not know just how beneficial video games can be.
As we discussed in part one of this blog, gaming can train your brain to make a fast decisions, can improve how you work with others in team-based environments, improve you motor skills, vision, balance, and dyslexia symptoms, reduce stress and anxiety overall, and even curb food and drug cravings. And that is just how gaming can help you on a personal level.
Game developers and game researchers are eager to see just beneficial gamers can be at tackling bigger problems than the ones at hand, and all while doing something they love doing anyway.
An average gamer spends 6.5 hours a week playing video games of one sort or another, from app games like Crashlands to the world conquering World of Warcraft. Millions of survival game players, whether working in tandem with a team or gaming solo, dedicate more than 20 hours a week to play per person.
That’s a lot of brainpower freely given to solving fake problems. When we play Fallout, we know that the world we live in is not a nuclear wasteland that we have to navigate to survive, but because the game developers added so much detail and richness to the world of the game, we can imagine ourselves navigating and making our way through that world as though it were real. It also helps that these types of games call upon our problem-solving skills to tackle the task at hand, giving our brains a big boost of happiness when we use our skills to overcome challenges.
Back in 2008, a scientific online game called Foldit was released to the public. Designed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science and in collaboration with the UW Department of Biochemistry, Foldit was released as an experimental research project with one aim in mind: to challenge humans to use their problem-solving skills in a competitive environment to predict the structure of a protein and design new proteins in turn. The protein problem presented was a genuine one that had stumped AIDS researchers for more than 10 years: discovering the protein that causes AIDS in monkeys.
Once the game was in the hands of gamers all around the world, the elusive protein problem was solved in 10 days. Two years and 57,000 players later, Foldit gamers were outperforming computer algorithms designed to find solutions to additional biochemistry and molecular questions.
Gaming researchers like Jane McGonigal believe that gamers are an extremely powerful resource for real-world problem solving that has not been adequately tapped. Instead of just making their way through virtual game worlds solving fictional problems, gamers have the ability to collaborate with scientists and specialists from many different fields to tackle challenges that have yet to see solutions.
Global problems are extraordinarily complex and on a scale that most of us cannot easily conceive of. As Matthew Lee, Co-Chair of Serious Games at the International Game Developers Association puts it, “games are all about taking complex problems, making them relatable and personal through narrative and interactivity.” Which is exactly why he, like McGonigal, believes that gamers are more prepared than most to succeed should their task at hand be working together to solve serious and massive real-world problems.
As game developers, academics, and researchers are hard at work finding new ways to incorporate genuine global issues to video game worlds, billions of gamers are eagerly anticipating their next gaming challenge. Play like you mean it, gamers, because one of these days, those virtual decisions that you make may help change the real world for the better.