Did you know that it’s actually 1994? It can be with NHL 2014, this year’s installment in EA Sports’s long-running video game franchise. In it, users can select the option to go 20 years back in time and play the old-school version on their modern console. My friends and I are giddy to get our hands on it — it was a seminal game from our youth and one I fondly remember playing with great joy in my neighbor’s den for hours on end. It was entertainment perfected, but just entertainment.
Now, there is an ever-growing field of video games aimed at packaging something positive inside the fun, hoping to offer big benefits to both individuals and society beyond mere entertainment.
One of the biggest faces of the movement is Jane McGonigal, a renowned game designer. She’s given a widely-viewed TED Talk on the positive power of gaming, and her latest creation, SuperBetter, is aimed at helping its players achieve real world personal health goals by increasing personal resilience. This feat is simultaneously played out within an engaging virtual world where players battle bad guys and conquer obstacles. McGonigal came up with the idea after suffering a concussion; she struggled in her recovery before creating SuperBetter and successfully used it to fully regain her health.
McGonigal’s games are part of the non-profit, Games for Change, whose mission is “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games.” Currently listing 133 games and founded in 2004, it’s essentially a good games incubator that aims to make them not just games but “critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.”
If that sounds overly lofty, one of their games, Foldit, is a kind of Tetris-esque endeavor where gamers fold and build complex human proteins. By doing this, the game’s brainchildren have successfully outsourced a legitimate, very time-intensive scientific task to hundreds of thousands of gamers.
In 2011, a player successfully deciphered the structure of an enzyme found in an AIDS-causing monkey virus in ten days, a puzzle that had stumped scientists for 15 years.
Aside from just their games’ positive potential, the simple idea (and good health) of something like Games for Change is notable. There seem to be signs of a growing collective movement on the issue of positive gaming.
In the Serious Games Association, “members are involved in the making of games and sims” over a wide swatch of categories that are “designed to create positive change in our society.” Run by James Portnow, his successful RocketHub crowd-funding campaign raised $61,478 (exceeding it’s $50,000 goal). With this and his work with Extra Credits (tagline: Because Games Matter), he is using the money to spend the next year focusing on shaping the conversation around games, which will include lobbying Washington on gaming laws and working with Global Game Jam (a worldwide hackathon for game designers).
Moreover, housed within the red hot educational tech space are those companies specifically focused on educational gaming as a tool to improve cognitive function and intelligence.
For example, MindSnacks creates mobile-only app games that players can consume in seconds or minutes. Their current offerings focus on foreign languages, but geography and math are in development. Other examples include Tiny Tap, Vivity Labs, and Lumos Labs in a sector predicted to be worth $2.3B by 2017. At a time when children are becoming joined at the hip to their first mobile devices at younger ages, educational gaming seems like a logical intersection that could see lots of traffic.
There is also the large and always-in-demand self improvement category where it seems gaming could really do some good.
Wearable technologies such as Nike FuelBand and FitBit are soaring in popularity, buoyed by individuals who are hungry for the latest and greatest technological aides in their quest for self-improvement of all kinds. It’s easy to see how those same customers would be attracted to engaging, fun, mobile games that yield similar improvements.
One company that is focused on this exact space is Mindbloom. Headquartered in Seattle, they’re self-described as being, “out to make life improvement accessible to everyone.” They offer a handful of games; one aims to help improve your quality of life, another says to “see yourself and the world in a more positive light by focusing on the moments that move your forward,” and others seek to assist in boosting your energy, eating better, and supporting friends with their own goals. The games look beautiful and have rave reviews from users who attest to their positive powers.
I would never be accused of being a serious gamer (my nights of FIFA and NHL 2013 are fairly infrequent), but I’m excited to find there seems to be an upswing in games striving to be more than just entertainment. Though I can get overly irritated about the constant presence of mobile devices today, I recognize that they can be powerful tools. Developing smarter games that can actually help people be successful sounds pretty potent.
Even NPR picked up on the good game trend when it filed this story about NeuroRacer, a game that was found to improve brain/multi-tasking functions for its players. Truly amazing. I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground, anxious to see and hear more coverage about this space.
What do you think, do you anticipate games for good to grow in popularity? Do you have any experience playing any of them?