Social Games Can Save the World


Given the events of last week, it’s a temptation to comment on the situations connection to gaming as a hobby. While certain pundits have been pinning the blame on electronic pastimes and game enthusiasts have just as loudly been decrying those assumptions, most people are just trying to move on. Mainstream press has, on the whole, taken a rational view of the situation. That, thankfully, makes a discussion of man’s inhumanity to man a subject well out of bounds for this space.

What it has done, though, is put things in perspective. As I imagine many people have over the last week, I can’t help but wonder about what might have been. Would more social contact have stopped the Virginia Tech tragedy before it began? Would a kind word or a friendly conversation at the right time have rewritten the future?

As I’ve been thinking over what would be an appropriate subject to tackle, I’ve mulled my own ways of socializing. In my life, a lot of socialization revolves around videogames. Above and beyond time spent with people on Xbox Live or in Azeroth, my wife rocks the gamer gene loud and proud. We regularly play EverQuest 2 with a friend who moved across the country last year. This friend used to be part of a regular Sunday night gaming group I’ve been ushering through a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for over a year now. Games aren’t things that keep me locked up in dark rooms, they’re common points of interest for friends and even family members. I imagine a lot of people find games to be more cultural touchstone than isolationist distraction.

This element of social gaming has long been explored by the pioneers of the massive genre. From the days of MUDs to corporate meetings in World of Warcraft, game-makers have seen the beauty of people connecting through games. People hook up, break up, bond over, fight about and get married in videogames. Social gaming is not restricted to MMOGs, of course. The ties of a Battle.net clan or a professional Halo 2 team are sure to be just as strong as that of a Guild Wars guild, if not stronger. Outside the hardcore space, the Wii’s pick-up-and-play nature certainly seems to be drawing the attention of families. The idea of parents and children playing together is a beautiful picture, however optimistic it might be.

This contact with friends and family via gaming, the merging of personal entertainment and social outings, is already a done deal. As online connectivity continues to become more prevalent, it’s a given we’ll be playing together more. I think the next step, a truly revolutionary tactic social gaming could adopt, would be to push this connectivity in benevolent directions. I’m not talking about the concept of good within a fictional space; I’m talking about real and honest change for the better within the physical world. We’ve already seen alternate reality games where players are willing to get involved and participate in a game-space that happens to be the real world; I think that willingness could be harnessed and utilized for the betterment of humanity.

It’s hard to dispute the need for a feeling of connection. We’ve seen this week an example of what can happen when people feel disconnected. So what could happen when we feel engaged with and committed to our fellow gamers? At GDC 2006, the annual Game Design Challenge tackled the Nobel Peace Prize. The winning entry that year was Harvey Smith’s imaginative Peacebomb project:

[Smith] quickly explained to the audience the concept of flash mobs and presented his idea that used this as the core mechanic: Peace Bomb. Harvey conceived Peace Bomb as a web-enhanced Nintendo DS title that had players creating social networks not unlike those in place in conventional MMO games. The game however isn’t in the social networking so much as it is in the constructive projects that it can engender. The game is designed to spill into the real world by having flash mobs erupt out of the wheeling and dealing that happens in the virtual space. The social networking happens not just over TCP/IP, but also over a sort of sneakernet, where people get together to do constructive projects on various levels.”

This fascinating idea of forming flash mobs for socially conscious fun would be the perfect antidote for the isolation and apathy so often associated with gamers. As untrue as we may know that stereotype to be, imagine what the press reaction would be if a game of this nature took off. It seems as if they can’t even fully grasp Child’s Play. Imagine if a dozen Peacebombers showed up at a homeless shelter to pitch in during a tough snowstorm, or a large-scale project resulted in several dozens at a Habitat for Humanity build site.

What if they helped to find a missing child? A project discussed at the Women in Games 2007 event, entitled Lost and Found, hopes to have cellphone users keeping their eyes out for kidnapped young people. By adding an avatar and some game-like elements to what could otherwise be as anonymous as a picture on a milk carton, players are encouraged to make a difference in the world, make new friends and have fun at the same time.

I think there’s a lot to this idea, and the beauty is the scalability of the goal. On the very smallest scale, we already see quirky multiplayer games trying to bring people together in fun ways. Though Brain Age isn’t normally thought of as a multiplayer title, the ability to hold several different profiles makes it a poster child for this sort of connection. Parents and their kids compete to see who has the lowest brain age, and everybody learns a little bit in the process. Mario Kart: Double Dash is another perhaps left-of-center example of benevolent gaming; though the action between karts is very much hardcore PvP, the gunner position allows for less game-inclined friends to participate in an activity they might otherwise feel left out of.

I’d love to see more games designed specifically for this kind of play. Gamers are getting older, and the opportunity for playing videogames directly with your offspring is a largely untapped market. Viva Pinata is a great generation-bridging title, allowing kids to mess around with dressing up animals and hardcore players to grind through pinata species in the quest for the Chewnicorn.

The problem is children and parents aren’t playing directly together. With the exception of a game like Double Dash, they’re playing near each other more than anything else. The ability for a kid to man a secondary weapon on a pirate ship with Dad at the helm, say, would go a long way toward family bonding.

Social gaming wouldn’t have stopped the events of last week, that’s obvious. Perhaps, though, a future where friends and family have easy ways of relating to each other through videogames could prevent social isolation of young people in grade school today. It’s easy to say games can’t change the world, or even someone’s world, but we can’t be proved wrong until we try.

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