Can Computer Games Change The World?

Tue Jun 7, 2011 1:50am EDT

by John Elkington

Welcome to the Anthropocene era, when human impacts begin to overwhelm those of other species. The implication, as long-term environmentalist Steward Brand put it, is that "Humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role." Then provocatively, he argued, "We are as gods and have to get good at it."

So where would you look for people - and industries - that are good at thinking through what it would mean to be a god responsible for looking after Planet Earth? Let's put aside religions, which have tended to be more interested in the after lives of their believers than in the lives of future generations of humans and other species. So who then comes to mind?

For some people, the world's financial centers will surface pretty quickly, but one of the best books I have read in a while offers a very different answer. Written by Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future, Reality is Broken argues that designers of online games - and those who play them - "have a head start on this mission."

Civilization, for example, challenges players to guide different civilizations-the Aztecs, Romans, Americans or Zulus-from the start of the Bronze Age six thousand years ago through the Space Age to AD 2100. What all these games share is that they encourage players to take a long-term view, to apply ecosystems thinking (seeing the world as complex and interdependent) and run many experiments in the search for solutions. A more recent example is Red Redemption's Fate of the World.

The sheer size of the online gaming industry is astonishing. In the US, there are over 180 million active gamers, each playing over 13 hours a week on average. Wrap in console and mobile phone games and there are more than 4 million gamers in the Middle East, 10 million in Russia, 105 million in India, 10 million in Vietnam, 100 million in Europe and 200 million in China.

Young Americans spend over three times more time playing computer and video games than they spend reading books - and are getting pretty good at it, particularly collaboration. One gaming environment, EVOKE, is described as a "crash course in changing the world," encouraging and empowering young people to begin tackling problems like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, access to clean water, human rights and preparation for natural disasters.

There are finite games, played to win, and infinite games we play to stay in the game as long as possible. Sustainability, clearly, is an infinite game. And there are single-player and multi-player games, the second of these being most exciting in terms of social change. Aiming to achieve "epic wins," players don't just feel good - and the evidence suggests that generally they do - but are also inspired, by the right games, to do good.

At a time when natural resources are running out, the initiative and energies of gamers represent one of our greatest renewable resources-which potentially grow and evolve as we use them.

About John Elkington

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian's Sustainable Business Advisory Panel.

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Reprinted with permission from CSRwire

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Comments (1)
Seer wrote:
This sounds like Buckminster Fuller’s World Game back in the 70s/80s. But now it is on steroids with many new technological innovations. We could also change the world with an educational gaming curriculum K-12 and beyond. Very hopeful.

Jun 08, 2011 3:54pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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