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Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills

Tech futurist and game designer Jane McGonigle on how computer games can help the fight against AIDS, heal disabilities, increase optimism, and make us better people.

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TM: When I first interviewed Csíkszentmihályi in 1997, I asked him who was taking advantage of what he’d learned about flow. How can we bring more of the flow that you’ve discovered in rock climbing or sports and games into our real lives? He said that the military was one of the first organizations that saw value in this.

I think it’s fascinating that Csíkszentmihályi published his first work on flow in 1972, nearly 40 years ago. Yet from the research that I’ve done, it seems that the electronic gaming industry is the first to take full advantage.


His book Flow is like the bible of game design, it’s the one thing that everybody has read. People who don’t pay attention to game culture might not be aware of just how seriously game designers take scientific research, particularly around psychology. Game companies have people whose job it is to follow the research and try to implement it. Positive psychology is actually helping players have a more positive experience. I like to say that game designers are essentially happiness engineers. The only thing they really care about is making the player feel these positive emotions, that’s why we play games, it’s the business that we’re in.

TM: And, of course, if the game delivers, it will sell better and be played and recommended to friends more often. If we go back to those three conditions of flow I mentioned -- clear goals, ready consistent feedback and stretch -- very few things in life can apply those criteria as successfully as game design. Could you talk a little bit about that?


When we try to bring game design principles to reality, we struggle to control two aspects of it: first, constantly adjusting the stretch to be more difficult; and second, the sense that it’s a safe place, that the stakes are still low enough that if you fail, nobody’s going to die.

When I talk to people about making games that can save the real world, the first thing a skeptic says to me is, "In games you die and it doesn’t matter; in the real world somebody dies and they’re really dead." That’s the big conceptual leap that people have trouble making, and where the biggest need for creativity and skill design comes in.

I’m really obsessed with Foldit, a game that I did not work on but that I play, and which I write about in the book. The game was created by scientists at the University of Washington, with the help of some programmers from Bungee, a game development company which makes some of the most epic video games in the world. So top-notch scientists and game programmers.

They wanted to make a game where gamers could be taught to do real medical research,

so they’ve created a virtual environment where gamers can learn how to manipulate virtual proteins.

Everything that happens in the human body happens from proteins that fold and unfold in different configurations, and if they fold up in unfavorable configurations we get diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer. So scientists have been trying to figure out how to fold proteins in the human body into more stable configurations to prevent disease or how to refold them to stop the unfolding from happening.


They’ve created a world where gamers can manipulate these proteins without needing to understand a lot of the science, taking advantage of gamers’ ability to manipulate objects in 3D space. Foldit is really a lot like Tetrus, although more complicated. Tetrus is four shapes, here you’ve got dozens of shapes. The players have gotten good at it and they’ve been taking on questions or challenges that scientists have been unable to figure out. Players actually solved a longstanding question scientists have been trying to figure out: how would you use protein folding to stop the HIV virus from replicating in the body?

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