There’s been a lot of heavy, arguably negative stuff here lately. So I thought it might be interesting to talk a little bit about possibilities instead.
In general, I’m a big proponent of treating players like people. The reverse is what game companies are often accused of, of course: treating players like numbers. Dehumanizing them. Viewing them through a purely statistical lens. All very mechanical.
But wait… what can be done if we really treat players like cogs in a machine?
Way back when, at the Austin Game Conference not last year, but the year prior, I suggested that we ought to be looking at “games that cure cancer,” to somewhat mixed reactions — for two different takes on that panel, see here and here. A year goes by, and I am sitting at a different conference and someone (Byron Reeves) presents exactly that.
What he showed was a mockup of a Star Wars Galaxies medical screen, displaying real medical imagery. Players were challenged to advance as doctors by diagnosing the cancers displayed, in an effort to capture the wisdom of crowds. The result? A typical gamer was found to be able to diagnose accurately at 60% of the rate of a trained pathologist. Pile 30 gamers on top of one another, and the averaged result is equivalent to that of a pathologist — with a total investment of around 60-100 hours per player.
I am reminded of the powerful ways in which collective intelligence is harnessed by games such as Alternate Reality Games. Seemingly impenetrable puzzles can be solved fairly quickly. In SWG, the first event we did involved finding objects on spawns that had messages that looked like this:
There were 40 of them, representing two completely different messages. Players collected them all and cracked the cipher in less than 48 hours. (I stuck one sample puzzle at the bottom, if you want to take a crack at it). This one is pretty trivial compared to some of the stuff that the ARGs have thrown out there.
The approach here is to treat players as a distributed parallel processing machine, filtering information and each node contributing its specialized knowledge: cogs in a machine.
Speculatively, there’s many approaches to be had here. I’m not speaking about doing datamining on our game populations — there’s highly fruitful stuff to be had there, but a lot of it is about the specific ways in which people behave in the game spaces. Rather, I am speaking about ways in which we can externalize the computing power of large populations using the incentive structures of games.
- We use tools like [email protected] to distribute highly technical tasks like signal processing. However, there are cognitive tasks we could outsource in this fashion, as in the cancer example. Could, for example, jury trials be improved upon if assessing the truth of evidence were a distributed game? Could airport security be improved by creating scenarios about infiltration in our MMOs?
- Idea markets are already in use in a wide array of fields, generally constructed as games. Arguably, Second Life is being used as an idea market for the design process for furniture and clothing. While the Pentagon’s attempt to use a futures market for forecasting terror attacks floundered due to politics (“betting on terrorism??!!?!”) there’s clearly possible approaches that can be taken within a game.
- Players are the best alife agent we’re managed to find. Why rely on Axtell and Axelrod-style simulations when we can build environments and loose players in them? The trick would be to get the environmental stimuli to match the ones provided in the real world. (I’ve argued before that this isn’t really possible, but hey, it’s worth a try). The old landscaping trick when deciding to put down paths was to wait a while, see where people trod the grass, and then pave where they had walked them ost; that sort of thing would be trivially easy (and cheaper) to do in our games, given a decent topographical map of the landscape.
- There’s a university right now using a major MMO to do total-immersion teaching of a foreign language; by putting the students in constant contact with the foreign language and forcing them to learn it in order to succeed at advancing in the game, they hope to see as hig has a 30% greater fluency on the part of the students.
I’m not really making a pitch for “serious games” here — rather, I am suggesting that our non-serious games can be put to serious uses on the side, thanks to their scale. Being a cog in the machine can serve higher purposes even while each individual cog goes on its merry way enjoying its gameplay.
There’s a lot of possibilities. Got some more?
The SWG Puzzle
The below is just one of the two messages, and I have spared you the effort of gathering the pieces individually and not knowing how many pieces there are. If you despair, you can see how the community solved it here.