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Marketing and Comms
RPGs Tapping Energy, Smarts of Gamers to Generate Understanding of Global Problems

Gaming, particularly role-playing games (RPGs), is increasingly serious business — US retail revenue from the video game industry was estimated at $887 million as of February 2014, and the global video game industry now exceeds $76 billion with projections of $86 billion plus by 2016.

“The collaboration, joyful competition, and intellectual curiosity found in the gaming community are rich resources for designing and playing games that explore complex questions about sustainability and resource scarcity,” is the premise of a new concept paper published in “First Monday,” authored by Oregon State University’s Shawna Kelly, professor of new media communications, and Bonnie Nardi, an anthropologist at UC’s Irvine's Department of Informatics.

I asked Kelly how, given the competitive nature of gamers, can we shift gaming's end goal of winning to a more sustainable ethos?

“Many modern video games already encourage a sustainable ethos,” she said. “The fun of games come from overcoming challenges and achieving goals. ‘Winning’ in multiplayer video games often requires both competition and collaboration. Many games encourage players to strategize using “min-maxing” — creating the highest efficiency by identifying the minimum effort/resource cost to achieve the maximum result. Many sustainability efforts use the same kind of efficiency design modeling.”

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Looking ahead, what are the inherent factors in the sustainability dialogue that could be integrated in the next generation of games?

“My co-author and I identified main areas,” Kelly said, “where we see sustainability concepts helping to create new and intriguing challenges in games: Winning goals that optimize balance instead of growth; environments that encourage creative scavenging to collect resources; flexible player roles that develop social interactions; short- and long-term resource production and consumption scenarios for more complex strategies.”

Two examples of games loosely built around sustainability are economics-based games such as CCP’s “EVE,” an intergalactic game that tests players’ ability to maneuver between personal, short-term resource demands and longer-term needs of groups of players known as corporations; and Bohemia Interactive’s “DayZ,” which simulates combat situations requiring scavenging of resources in consort with others — after determining who is a friend and who is a foe — in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland.

“There’s a huge set of people out there who love to problem-solve,” Kelly said in her paper. “Why not harness that power that is already there?”

She cautions, however, that gamers’ “attitude is ‘don’t make me learn something.’ Instead, make the problems accessible to the gaming community and see what emerges.”

Nearly two dozen global mobile gaming IPOs have emerged in the past few years, making it a hit-driven medium that is a difficult business model to sustain. Case in point, the decline of King Digital’s fortunes as "Candy Crush" passions have subsided.

But the requisite compelling storylines in games such as “EVE” and “DayZ” encourage interactivity and, as Kelly and Nardi note in their paper, “good game mechanics cultivate imaginative responses and encourage players to think outside the box when they encounter problems, and to carefully examine situational potentials (Brown and Thomas, 2008). We envision ‘global futures games’ as a means of drawing on the energy and smarts of gamers to generate novel understandings of global problems.”

In 2012, consumers reportedly spent $20.77 billion on video games, hardware and accessories — estimated to have grown to $24 billion by end of this year. That’s a good war chest to start engaging developers and gamers in creating, buying and playing games that model some of the challenges we may soon face in a resource-constrained world and the teamwork required to ensure our survival.


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