Future games to harness players' collective wisdom

That's what Jane McGonigal predicted in her keynote on serious games at the Game Developers Conference Tuesday. Photos: The wisdom of game crowds
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
SAN FRANCISCO--The future of games, particularly of games in education, government or industry, might well lie in players' ability to work together to solve problems.

That's the prediction of Jane McGonigal, a longtime developer of alternate-reality games who has now gone to work as the in-house game developer for the Institute for the Future, an independent nonprofit research group that forecasts future trends.

"I'm officially the first person in the world "whose job title includes the phrase, 'I design games from the future,'" McGonigal told the packed house during her keynote speech at the Serious Games Summit of the Game Developers Conference here Tuesday.

Game Developers Conference

At her talk, titled "The future of collective play: Fostering collaboration, network literacy and massively multiplayer problem-solving through alternate-reality games," McGonigal spent an hour explaining how "collective intelligence," and games designed around that concept, could be a prime component in future learning, as well as in helping governmental agencies and private organizations solve a wide range of problems.

"The central problem I want to consider," McGonigal said, "is can a computer game teach collective intelligence? I believe absolutely yes, and it's the single most important thing we can teach as we prepare for the future."

She explained that collective intelligence, broadly speaking, is when many people come together, using technology, to solve problems or advance knowledge. A prime example, she pointed out, is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows anyone to create and edit articles.

Other examples of collective intelligence include Yahoo Answers, Google Image Labeler, MapHub, Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk and many others.

And as both public and private organizations seek to incorporate collective intelligence to achieve their goals, McGonigal said it will be vital to create a curriculum that can teach such institutions how to leverage the concept.

She then talked about the 2004 alternate-reality game, I Love Bees, which she helped run. That game, which was designed to help promote Halo 2, tasked players across the world with solving problems by working together, despite there being few instructions and nowhere to turn for direct answers.

For example, the game presented players on a Web site with 210 pairs of GPS coordinates and time codes. Players were supposed to figure out what the combinations meant.

Over the course of several weeks, hundreds of thousands of players from many countries came up with various suggestions, most of which did not lead to the solution.

Eventually, by self-organizing into smaller groups that approached the problem from discrete angles, players were able to come up with the solution: that the codes designated pay phones around the world and specific times each would ring. Players then determined that there had to be someone on hand to answer each phone and get the clue that would be delivered.

But McGonigal also said that many of the failed suggestions ended up being incorporated into the game at future points, something anyone wanting to utilize collective intelligence in game design or education would be wise to take note of: reward participation, not success.

"Our system has to be flexible enough," she said, "to incorporate myriad uses and ingenious interpretations."

Ultimately, McGonigal added, collective intelligence is about letting many people be involved in approaching a problem and letting everyone feel that participating is worth the effort, even if individuals don't personally solve the problems. Further, the collective wisdom of thousands of people can produce the kinds of results that smaller groups can't.

That sentiment is not new--take for example James Suriowiecki's successful The Wisdom of Crowds--but applying the concept to games and making those games the centerpiece of learning may well be.

"It is urgent we start creating engaging, firsthand instances of collective intelligence for as far and as wide and as diverse a population as possible," McGonigal said. "I hope you can imagine how collective intelligence can affect the organizations for which you are designing."

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