Most people play video games for escapism – to be someone else, like a superhero or a rock star. This escapism distances you from the real world, which leads to the common assumption that gamers are socially awkward shut-ins, incapable of dealing with reality. However, there's no doubt that gamers have spent time and effort collaborating within their virtual worlds – just look at the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 100,000 entries. Wouldn't it be nice if we could apply their skills to solving real-world problems? ‘Gamification’ seeks to do just that – harness people's desires for fair competition and measurable achievement to issues outside of games.
Previously, this has been dominated by marketing but ‘gamification’ can be applied to help solve the big problems by tapping into gaming's collaborative nature. In the short term, we have games like Free Rice, which asks you simple trivia questions. Getting each question right earns you ten grains of rice for the World Food Programme and is funded by adverts. Similarly, Folding@Home uses your PC or PS3 to contribute to work on protein folding when you aren't using it.
This concept has also spread to education. Quest to Learn is a charter school in Manhattan with a normal syllabus but a very different method of teaching it. There are no grades, but you instead ‘level up’ by meeting a minimum requirement. The school does not tell them what they have to complete, but prevents levelling up until they have done enough quests (smaller assignments, such as cracking a code using fractions) or boss levels (which are larger, collaborative tasks, where every student has a role to play, such as an IT specialist in a music composition ‘boss’).
It may be a while before games themselves are used to fully solve these problems, but ‘gamification’ allows us to draw on what we do know about motivation and competition to make effective steps.