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Can video games save the world?

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World of Warcraft - Blizzard

What's better: Reality or fantasy? A growing movement argues that the correct answer is "both."

The concept is called "gamification," a fairly
dorky term that basically means using gameplay techniques to make everyday
activities more fun -- which, in turn, boosts people's motivation for getting things done.

And, whether you realize it or not, you may already be a convert.

Like to check in on FourSquare? Unlocked any achievements on
Facebook? Have you ever found yourself obsessively refreshing Groupon, hoping
enough people sign up for a deal to make it live? Congratulations: You've been
gamified.

The idea of gamification has been around forever. Parents
have been incentivizing children to clean up their rooms for ages by adding a
competitive element. Those same game elements also typically boost a child's
focus and result in a better job.

But the growth of online gaming presents some interesting
twists to this well-worn strategy. And, according to gamification proponents,
that focus and energy can be harnessed to help solve the world's problems.

Recently, the movement has become the pop-culture phenomenon
du jour. A two-day summit focusing on gamification (with ticket prices hitting
nearly $1,500) sold out in January. A 2012 follow-up is already being planned. And
some analysts believe that in a few short years, it could be fairly
standard practice
among tech companies.

Several authors and consultants are singing its praises
these days, none more loudly than Jane
McGonigal
, alternate-reality game designer and author of "Reality Is
Broken: How Games Can Change Us and Make the World a Better Place."

McGonigal has been on a gamification mission for the past
several months -- part book tour, part evangelical kick. In December, she led a
TED talk, arguing that by the year 2020, the world needed to increase its time
spent playing online games from 3 billion hours per week to 21 billion hours.
She has fronted panels at this year's Game Developer Conference, Penny Arcade
Expo East and South by Southwest. She's even been a regular guest on several national
television shows.

"What we're doing when we're playing games is we are
tapping into our best qualities - our ability to be motivated, to be
optimistic, to collaborate with others, to be resilient in the face of
failure," she said in a recent
interview on The Colbert Report
. "The emotions we feel in games spill
over into our real lives. Playing a game with a powerful avatar for just 90
seconds will make you more confident in the real world for 24 hours. You're
able to do well in a workplace meeting - and even flirting with strangers at a
bar. You'll feel more attractive than you would have if you hadn't played the
game."

Enticing stuff, but not everyone is on the bandwagon.

Some critics fear that the rush people get by adding gaming
tasks to activities is akin to the euphoria that comes with alcohol or drugs -
an artificial one that, in actuality, removes you from reality.

Rather than bringing people together to solve a problem,
they argue, gamification isolates them. And some scholars, like Stanford
professor Byron Reeves, believe the practice could create an expectation that
real world interactions follow simple rules, something that could disillusion
people when they find the opposite to be true.

Additionally, add critics, it's a movement that's popular
with corporate America, in that businesses won't have to actively work to
improve service or quality, since a compelling enough gaming element might
allow them to retain customers even when it's not warranted.

"In a gamified world, corporations don't have to reward
us for our business by offering better service or lower prices," wrote author Heather Chaplin
for Slate
. "Rather, they can just set up a game structure that makes
us feel as if we're being rewarded. ... Having a firm grip on reality is part of
being a sane human being. Let's not be so eager to toss it away."

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