Why Facebook Games Make the World a Better Place

03/02/2010

Courtesy of Flickr’s janusz l

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “social games with a purpose,” since I went to a gaming event last month in Vancouver. That’s where the idea of was first introduced to me, and I thought it’d be interesting to explore this topic further. Why? Because games are typically seen as entertainment, however it seems they can they also be used as tools to engage people in their healthcare and change behaviors, learn new skills and even save the planet.

Games With A Purpose

What does it mean when we call something a game with a purpose and how is it different from just a game? A game with a purpose is defined as a game played on the computer in an entertaining setting that serves some purpose for the person setting up the game. The player usually does something that she would otherwise not willingly do just because she can do it. The idea is that when you’re playing these games it’s not just about having fun, but it’s also about doing something in the game that has meaning in a real-world context. An early example of a game with a purpose or GWAP, is the ESP game. In that game, players had to identify images and label them because image recognition was something computers couldn’t do back then. The game made humans willingly perform a task that they otherwise might not have wanted to do (identify images) because it was part of a game. This kind of games harnesses the power of play to engage the players in achieving particular objectives.

Tools for Change

As we’ve explained in previous posts, when we enjoy learning, we retain more because we’re more engaged in something that is meaningful. From a scientific perspective, the goal of game developers is for players to achieve a deep state of focused motivation or something called Flow (the term was coined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Why? This is where players get “hooked” in the game. It’s also believed that this element of Flow is what makes games such a great candidate for changing behaviors.

So what kinds of Facebook games are we talking about? Some more common casual games with purpose have been used in science-related fields. Researchers at the Children’s Nutrition Centre of Baylor College of Medicine created a successful PC game that helped kids improve their lifestyle. (They used the game as a mechanism for kids to discover and distinguish between fresh fruits and vegetables, and junk foods that just had fruits in them.) The game utilized “fun” and interactive gameplay to motivate the kids to make the right choices. For us, we’re currently working on a motivational and educational Facebook game about how to improve eating and exercise habits. The purpose of the game is to engage the players in the process of improving their health by teaching them how to estimate the nutritional value of foods in order for them to make the right choices. The game will also encourage players to make concrete positive changes to their nutrition and fitness and activity regimes. (Through a series small actions, completing “missions” and using achievements as a way to encourage particular player behaviour, we hope to encourage actions within the game, which indirectly improves health.)

Besides games that encourage learning skills, there are also Facebook games that use gameplay to address “unsolved” social issues in the real-world, like poverty, education, health and climate change. Lil’Green Patch is one of those games that combines environmentalism and gaming. The more actions that players complete in the game (tend to their and their friends’ land), the better the outcome for a real-world problem (advertisers will donate money to saving the rain forest). Who would’ve thought that nurturing patches of virtual land on Facebook could raise more than $320,000? What are your thoughts about using social games to motivate us to positive action? Leave us a comment or contact us.