Using gaming to save the world

Problem-solving, tactical gaming behaviour can transform societies if it's applied in the real world.

Read time 6min 30sec
TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.
TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

My son has saved the world more times than I can count. He doesn't own a unicorn company, nor has he invented a life-saving innovation. But he, along with two billion-plus other people around the world, likes to play games.

It's a marvel to watch. He's resilient and committed to the tasks ahead of him. He thinks strategically to solve problems. He learns from failure and adapts his tactics accordingly. It's the kind of behaviour that can transform societies if it's applied in the real world.

I'm not the only one who thinks gaming holds the key to world-changing behaviour. Jane McGonigal, whom I had the pleasure of watching at last year's BCX Disrupt conference, believes gaming is one of the most powerful forces in existence to make a better world.

Don't believe her? Consider that gaming is a $100 billion industry, with almost half of that coming from mobile. And Africa and the Middle East's gaming population is the fastest growing in the world. No longer just the domain of kids with consoles, everyone is a gamer in some way, from the CEO who plays Overwatch after hours, to the mom who unlocks a new Candy Crush level while waiting in the supermarket checkout line. Just as social media and mobile shaped the way we engage with the world, so is gaming.

Sowing the seeds for change

When McGonigal first suggested the enormous power of games during her TED talk in 2010, there were laughs of disbelief from the audience. But what she was suggesting was not a particularly new idea. After all, gaming has played an important cultural role for millennia.

Next time someone tries to act as if gamification is a new concept, point them to Mancala, played across Africa in various forms. The world's oldest game was first developed as an agricultural record-keeping system and a way of teaching people how to sow seeds. Locally, we have popular cattle-herding board game Morabarbara, which was used thousands of years ago to train young warriors how to plan cattle raids.

Using games to solve problems runs deep in Africa's blood. If anyone is poised to unleash the potential of gaming in bettering societies, it's us.

We've come a long way from the days of using seeds as playing pieces. According to McGonigal, people have spent 1.75 billion minutes on Candy Crush, equating to the efforts of over 3.5 million full-time employees. For comparison's sake, the largest non-governmental employer in the world, Walmart, has only 2.3 million employees.

The average gamer spends 10 000 hours gaming before they reach the age of 21. That's thousands of hours spent learning how to run farms, execute military tactics, learn magic, design castles and build nations. Now imagine just a fraction of that effort being spent on solving a problem like Cape Town's water shortage.

The average gamer spends 10 000 hours gaming before they reach the age of 21.

Theodore Roosevelt once said: "All the resources we need are in the mind." Nice sentiment in theory, but anyone who's had to practically implement a brilliant idea knows it's not that easy. Especially on a continent where we have a surplus of ideas that often fall through due to a lack of funding or manpower. Gaming has both in spades.

Let's get serious about gaming

Building on the tradition of Mancala (and Encarta), more organisations are cottoning on to their potential as e-learning tools, especially when it comes to digital upskilling. Games like CryptoKitties are introducing newbies to the intricacies of blockchain and smart contracts using virtual cat trading. Numerous educational games aim to teach children coding skills through play.

And while games get a lot of flak for supposedly promoting violence, they're an ideal vehicle for teaching empathy and conflict resolution. So-called empathy games like This War of Mine use immersion to put players in the shoes of non-combatants in war-torn areas, driving home the realities they face in ways that other media might struggle to convey.

These are generally known as serious games, which aim to not just entertain, but solve real-world problems as well. McGonigal's own attempt at a serious game is Superbetter, designed to help players overcome depression, cope with chronic illnesses, and deal with major life changes. On Facebook, Half The Sky Movement: The Game incorporated a mechanic that allowed players to donate medical resources and books in the real world even as they walked digitally in the shoes of a woman living in India.

Perhaps the answer to our water shortage problem will one day be solved by projects like Chezo Serious Gaming Hub. The Kenyan innovation space hosts gaming workshops and hackathons to design and develop water management games, and incubate local business ventures ready to tackle urban water issues. It's one of many initiatives worldwide that could transform the water sector and drastically change behaviours.

Multiplayer mode activated

We've all read about how scientists are using deep learning to solve complex medical challenges, but here's one problem Watson and DeepMind didn't get to solve: mapping a key enzyme involved in the growth of the AIDS virus. That's because a group of gamers got there first, thanks to the ingenuity of a crowdsourcing puzzle game called Foldit. Developers made an addictive game out of the complex and resource-intensive act of folding proteins that required no scientific knowledge to play. Within just three weeks, players were able to solve a problem that had stumped molecular biologists for over a decade.

Foldit is just one of many games that recruit ordinary people as would-be researchers. Zooniverse ranks among the most successful citizen science projects of all time, tapping into the power of almost two million minds to date to solve problems across the sciences and humanities. Within weeks of launch, the gaming platform had already mapped millions of galaxies and has led to numerous breakthroughs since. The platform is open source and lets anyone build their own projects.

Ionomy also relies on bringing together gamers to act as a kind of human supercomputer, using all that processing power towards generating crypto-currency. The intention is to make the world of mining, restricted to those with high-spec computers, more accessible for everyone.

And just in case you think you need an expensive game development team or programming experience to use games to solve problems, I'll point to Block by Block. This UN project includes poor communities in the design of their own public spaces using the popular game Minecraft.

In trying to solve the world's most wicked problems, we're going to have to embrace different perspectives on a global scale, both by better understanding the challenges people face and involving those affected in the design of their own solutions. Games offer one of the most effective ways of doing so. Don't get left behind; find ways of incorporating gaming tools, interfaces, design choices and ecosystems in your own organisation. It's time to power up. Are you ready?

* Are you a gamer in your off-time? What intersections of gaming and other industries have you observed?

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