Playing for keeps

Solutions to planetary problems could come from a surprising source – the booming world of online games, writes John Elkington.

We live in what scientists now call the Anthropocene era, the age when human impacts begin to overwhelm those of all other species. The implication, as long-term environmentalist Stewart Brand put it, is that “Humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role.” Then, provocatively, he went on to say: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” 

So where in the world would you look for people – and industries – that are good at thinking through what it would mean to be a god responsible for looking after planet Earth? Let’s put aside religions, which have tended to be more interested in the afterlives of their believers than future generations of humans and other species. And who then comes to mind?

For some people, the world’s great financial centres will bob to the surface pretty quickly, but one of the best books I have read in a while comes up with a very different answer. Written by Jane McGonigal of California-based Institute for the Future, Reality is Broken argues that the designers of online games – and those who play them – “have a head start on this mission”. 

She argues that, “Gamers have been mastering the art of planet craft for years. There’s actually a genre of computer games known as ‘god games’– world- and population-management simulations that give the player the ability to shape the course of events in dramatic ways, over lifetimes or longer.”

The game Civilization, for example, challenges players to guide different civilisations – the Aztecs, Romans, Americans or Zulus – from the start of the Bronze Age, some 6,000 years ago, through the Space Age to AD 2100. What all these games share, according to McGonigal, is that they encourage players to take a long term view, to apply ecosystems thinking (seeing the world as complex and interdependent) and to run many experiments in the search for solutions. A more recent example is Red Redemption’s Fate of the World, in which players must try to solve the problems of a future world struggling with the impacts of climate change.

The sheer size of the online gaming industry is astonishing. In the United States, there are over 180 million active gamers, each playing for an average of more than 13 hours a week. Wrap in console and mobile phone games and there are more than four million gamers in the Middle East, 10 million in Russia, 105 million in India, 10 million in Vietnam, 13 million in Central and South America, 100 million in Europe and 200 million in China.

Young Americans spend over three times more time playing computer and video games than they spend reading books – and are getting pretty good at it, particularly collaboration. At the heart of all this is the growing availability of cheap, networked, programmable devices that some see as every bit as important as the invention of coins and paper money were to economics. 

In one game, World Without Oil, players are encouraged to imagine exactly that—“Play it before you live it.” The players rapidly developed an A-to-Z of challenges and solutions, ranging from “Architecture Without Oil” to “Zoom Zoom Without Oil”—encouraging auto-racing fans to think about electric car or human-powered racing.

Another gaming environment, Evoke, is described as a “crash course in changing the world”, encouraging and empowering young people to begin tackling problems like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, access to clean water, human rights and preparation for natural disasters. The aim is to capture the spirit of superheroes to drive social innovation and entrepreneurship, exposing players to cases of extraordinary, breakthrough innovation that will help prepare them to join in the drive for social change.

There are finite games, played to win, and infinite games that we play to stay in the game as long as possible. Sustainability, clearly, is an infinite game. And there are single-player and multi-player games, the second of these being the most exciting in terms of social change. Aiming to achieve what are called “epic wins”, players don’t just feel good – and the evidence suggests that generally they do – but are also inspired, by the right games, to do good.

On the menu are games with thousand-year horizons. “If you put just one dollar into an investment today that has an average real return of 3% per year after inflation and taxes,” we are told, “in a thousand years it would be worth US$7 trillion [45.3 trillion yuan].” The dark side of one’s brain wonders, however, whether this would be enough to pay for the consequences of climate change over the intervening 30 generations?

Gaming is “a twenty-first-century way of thinking and leading” and “a twenty-first century of working together to accomplish real change”, McGonigal tells us。 Whatever else they may be, games will be a primary platform for enabling a better future. Take Lost Joules, a game that links households with energy meters – and allows players to play and trade on the basis of the success of individual or groups of households in reducing their energy consumption and carbon footprint.

For those who worry that young people are disappearing into virtual worlds, as refugees from the real world, McGonigal has reassuring words. “Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilisation,” she says. “They’re leading us to its reinvention. The great challenge for us today, and for the remainder of the century, is to integrate games more closely into our everyday lives, and to embrace them as a platform for collaborating on our most important planetary efforts.”

What is emerging from all of this is what McGonigal calls the “Engagement Economy”, with gamers seen as “our most readily engageable citizens”. The challenge is to make this sustainable, by motivating and rewarding participants with intrinsic awards, such as positive relationships, rather than simply through money prizes. That said, enterprises like InnoCentive, which seeks to match up those looking with solutions to problems with those able to solve them, are managing to harness the creative powers of tens of thousands of the world’s brightest people to work on some of our greatest challenges. 

At a time when key natural resources are running out, the initiative and energies of gamers represent one of our greatest renewable resources – which grow and evolve as we use them.


John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility.

Homepage image by Losevsky Pavel