Provocative politics in virtual games

A game due next month will ask players to imagine the U.S. without oil and how Americans would respond. Images: A world without oil

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
SAN DIEGO--If you want to change the future, play with it first.

That could describe the philosophy of a new alternate-reality game called World Without Oil, which will launch April 30.

Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a backer of PBS, the game will essentially encourage people to envision a world in which the United States has been cut off from oil imports. Then, visitors will be urged to participate in the game by writing their own stories, creating videos or even by conjuring so-called flash mobs in U.S. cities.

Alternate-reality games (ARGs) are interactive story lines that draw on the real and virtual worlds--as well as players' actions--to unfurl the narrative. In recent years, the increasingly popular games have even been used in elaborate marketing campaigns, such as the recent launch of Microsoft's Windows Vista.

Jane McGonigal, a game designer for the research group Institute for the Future and one of the lead designers of the game, said at the ETech Emerging Technology Conference here Tuesday that World Without Oil is the first nonprofit-backed game designed for "social good."

"It's like: play before you live it," McGonigal said in an interview with CNET, following a talk on developing ARGs.

McGonigal said that although she has worked on several such games, World Without Oil is the first developed with nonprofit funding. She said the budget was roughly that of a major documentary work, or in the low six figures. The development team hopes the game will draw at least 100,000 players in the United States.

Jane McGonigal Jane McGonigal

McGonigal delivered a keynote speech on the first day of general sessions at ETech, a 6-year-old conference on emerging technology. Much of her talk was centered on developing games with a bent toward people's general happiness. She said that all technology developed today should pass the "deathbed test," or the idea that everyday tech should be judged beforehand for its value and contribution to people's quality of life.

"I predict by 2012 that technologists will become 'happiness hackers,' creating alternate realities we can live in: best-case scenarios that help people in their daily lives," she said.

The driver for this change? Recent scientific research has set a basis for happiness or positive psychology in humans. A number of books, such as Stumbling on Happiness and The Science of Happiness, lay out the scientific findings in the field, for example. That research, combined with growing public awareness on the subject, will create demand in game development, McGonigal said.

"The public expects technology companies to have a clear vision for a life worth living," she said. "Games improving quality of life should be a top priority."

She said game designers should be looking at three things: the pleasure people gain from a game; their engagement with it; and whether it brings meaning to their real world. Popular multiplayer environments are already showing how virtual worlds are affecting change in real life. For example, a newsletter in Second Life regularly discusses the relationship between a first and "second life," showing how experiences are trickling back to people's "first life," she said.

But there's still a long way to go before ubiquitous games are built to better people's lives.

McGonigal has developed several small ARGs. One, called the Ministry of Reshelving, was designed to play with so-called folksonomies, or user-generated taxonomies, on the Web to see how they worked in the real world. Developed in 2005, when McGonigal was concerned with the political climate in the U.S., the game called on players to re-shelve George Orwell's 1984 from the "fiction" section of the bookstore to "current affairs" and "politics." She said that roughly 40,000 people did this in bookstores around the country.

She's also developed a game called Cruel 2 Be Kind, which calls on players to "attack" strangers with random acts of kindness (in real life). Instructions are sent via cell phone.

McGonigal also has been evangelizing her ideas in the game community. She said she called on 11 game designers in the San Francisco Bay Area to get a sense of what they value in games. She compiled these thoughts in a "Cut-up Manifesto."

Some highlights from the designers: "games can improve the life that is boring or routine," "games can change someone who is work-obsessed," and they "can wake you up if you are sleepwalking through life and give you a shared social experience."

She ended the talk by asking the technologists in the room to invest a portion of their time to understanding and innovating products that promote happiness. "Make sure your technology is not only designed to feel good, but also to do good and expose good," she said. "Please hack happiness."

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to CNET, this story misidentified World Without Oil's financial backers. The game is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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