Will Video Games Save the World?

By Sean Carroll | March 1, 2010 7:34 am

Jane McGonigal thinks they can help. She’s a game designer who gave a talk at the TED conference this year (although her talk isn’t up yet).

McGonigal makes some good points in this short video, especially about how dealing with things in a video-game environment — like failure, or social interactions — can be greatly helpful when one eventually has to deal with them in the real world. She also helped put together Urgent Evoke, a large-scale multiperson game where you collect achievements by performing world-saving tasks.

The kids these days, they love their gaming. So it makes sense to ask how that passion can be put to good use. Personally I’m fascinated by the prospects of using games to teach people science. Not just facts and features of the real world — although those are important — but the scientific method of hypothesis-testing and experiment. Games already feature exactly those features, of course; everyone who figures out the “laws of nature” in the game world is secretly doing science. It wouldn’t be that hard to tweak things here and there so that the techniques they were practicing connected more directly with science in the non-virtual reality.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Technology
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    DISCOVER reported on one of McGonigal’s projects a couple of years back. She and her colleagues at the Institute for the Future put together a future forecasting game in which players were plunged into the troubled world of 2019, and asked to come up with ways to increase Homo sapiens’ chances of survival.

  • http://theeternaluniverse.blogspot.com/ Joseph Smidt

    Yeah, as long as video games don’t cause you to neglect your responsibilities, I think there are aspects that could really be helpful like the ones you mention. (Example, you didn’t study for your exams because you were too consumed with video games.)

  • Kev

    With the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drone aircraft”, I can’t help but wonder if our future military pilots are being unintentionally trained in their youth on XBox and PS flight simulators.

  • Pieter Kok

    Just last Saturday, I saved the world from NOD tyranny in Command&Conquer3.

  • metal


  • Janne

    This made me think about ‘Plasma Pong’:


    I think there should be relativistic and quantum mechanical versions as well.

  • John Wendt

    Most “experiments” in undergraduate labs are really just demonstrations. They often don’t work: there’s too much friction in the apparatus, or a previous lab session poisoned the reagents. You have to wait for the equipment, or wait around for your embryo to incubate. You know what the answer has to be, and you get points taken off if your results aren’t close enough. You never get a chance to do it over, to improve your experimental technique.

    You can’t do anything dangerous. A virtual glovebox, with force-feedback gloves, could give you a good appreciation for radiochemistry techniques. Airlines use simulators a lot for training pilots how to deal with potentially fatal situations.

    Probably you need *some* exposure to the real lab world. It’s good to know the feel of a micropipette, for instance, as that has become the cliche background for TV reports on biological matters.

    Good imaginative simulations, with some artful randomness built in, could make labs much more illuminating, and more efficient at the same time.

  • Per

    That woman has absolutely no idea what she is talking about. Interacting through online computer games build social stamina? That is an absolutely ridiculous statement. Anyone involved in online computer gaming knows the enormous amount of time it consumes. Time, which otherwise would (perhaps) be spend interacting with people for real.

    Also, the attention span of the young generation is vastly reduced due to the passive nature of tv and computer games. Many young people are not even capable of fixing their attention on something by will, i.e., not like tv or computer games which holds the attention by itself. As an example, I have a friend who is involved in Zen Buddism, which basically boils down to meditation, i.e., centering attention. He has told me that nowadays the young (<25) needs several prepatory years just to reach the starting point of beginners 10-15 years ago.

  • chris

    quantum pong?? where you probably lost but may have won with 32.4% chance?

  • Janne

    That’s right. You would also have to watch out for the ball tunneling through your bat.

  • Mike

    In reply to the question “. . . what is so good about computer games”, David Deutsch replied as follows:

    “In a way, that is the wrong question, because it assumes that there is something obviously bad about video games, which might be offset by benefits I might mention. But there’s nothing wrong with video games. So let’s ask first, “Why do so many adults hate them? What evidence is there that there is anything bad about them?”

    If you look at it closely, the evidence boils down to no more than the fact that children like video games. There seems to be a very common tendency among parents to regard children liking something as prima facie evidence that it is bad for them. If they are spending a lot of time doing something, parents wonder what harm it must be doing them. I think this is fundamentally the wrong attitude.

    The right attitude is: if children are spending a lot of time doing something, let’s try to find ways of letting them do even more of it. Prima facie, the fact that they like doing it is an indication that it is good for them.

    I think that overwhelmingly the thing which draws people’s attention to video games is the fact that children like them. People jump from that solitary piece of evidence to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with video games!

    As it happens, I believe that playing video games is very good for you but, I think, even more important than understanding why it is good for you, is to understand and avoid the temptation of saying that if you like it, it must be bad for you.

    Now, why is playing video games good for you? They provide a unique learning environment. They provide something which for most of human history was not available, namely, an interactive complex entity that is accessible at low cost and zero risk.

    Let’s compare video games with other great educational things in the world. Books and television have great complexity and diversity – they give you access to almost every aspect of human culture and knowledge – but they are not interactive. On the other hand, something like playing the piano is also complex, and interactive, but it requires an enormous initial investment (months or years of practice or training) with the associated huge risk of misplacing that investment. One cannot make many such investments in one’s life. I should say, of course, that the most educational thing in the world is conversation. That does have the property that it is complex, interactive, and ought to have a low cost, although often between children and adults it has a high cost and high risk for the children, but it should not and need not.

    Apart from conversation, all the complex interactive things require a huge initial investment, except video games, and I think video games are a breakthrough in human culture for that reason. They are not some transient, fringe aspect of culture; they are destined to be an important means of human learning for the rest of history, because of this interactive element. Why is being interactive so important? Because interacting with a complex entity is what life and thinking and creativity and art and science are all about.”

  • http://free-play.blogspot.com gmes

    @per says

    I think that maybe you don’t really know what you are talking about.

    I’m a shy person and I think she has a point that “talking” on the net does help introverted people be a little less introverted.

  • http://www.yg.com aion database

    We all know how influential video games are to the kids today. Actually, we’ve been hearing a lot of negative effects these days about those violent ones, right? I think McGonigal is just using video games as a medium to somewhat “heal” the world. It might work, we just don’t know it yet.

  • steeleweed

    I’m not sure what ‘saving the world’ consists of, but I doubt video games will do it.

    I can’t locate the exact poem (my library is in storage at the moment), but S.V.Benet once wrote something to the effect that:
    “You won’t be saved by General Motors or dialectic materialism or the expanding universe. In fact, you won’t be saved.”

  • http://notinkansasanymoredot.blogspot.com tinman

    Moderation is of course the key. Obsessive/addictive behaviors are rarely positive.

  • Per


    Ok, I stand corrected.

    But then, is it usually through computer games that people interact? I was under the impression that it was more through communities such as Facebook, Twitter etc that most interact (socially). I mean, if you have to bash the head of a dragon, its not really time for chit chat is there? 😉


  • http://TechBenchElmers John Galt

    Game theory assumes that you play the game for entertainment or amusement. Of course, whats in a theory?


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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