Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Meaningful Flow Engineering - some examples and possibilities

In my previous post, I looked at how computer games and related technologies can operate as ‘motivation engines’. They can be designed to provide us with motivational paths to meaningful, longer-term goals that we may be unable to achieve otherwise. The goals may include the acquisition of skills, knowledge, enhanced consciousness, etc. Appropriately structured and tuned, games can enable us to move effortlessly and enjoyably towards these goals in a state of Flow.

Games can do this by treating steps taken towards meaningful goals as progress in the game, by providing positive feedback for each step, and by matching the level of challenge with the level of the player. Games can also be structured to treat steps taken in ‘real life’ as actions that count within the game. In this way games can provide an overlay to ‘real life’ that motivates ‘real’ actions that serve ‘real world’ goals.

In this post I will provide some examples of games that are designed in ways that motivate achievement of serious goals. Even with a limited background in computer games, it has been possible to find a wide variety of existing ‘serious’ games. They illustrate some key principles in the design of meaningful games.

But it is also clear that these are very early days in the evolution of these kinds of games. The resources that have gone into their development are miniscule compared with other types of games. Many serious games are rudimentary and it is easy to see how they could be improved and extended.

So the examples also serve to demonstrate the enormous potential of meaningful computer games. We can expect that the next decade will see an explosion in interest. There will be fortunes to be made, fame to be had, and meaningful work to be done, all in the service of goals that are critically important to the future development of humanity. As we will explore in later posts, computer games have the potential to assist the emergence of a new type of human, more conscious and aware.

But I will begin with examples of games that promote physical development. Games that motivate exercise (exergames) are becoming common. Often they use sensors to translate bodily motions and other data into actions within a game. To succeed in the game, the player must undertake various physical activities (see here for a recent overview). Some allow multiple players and competition amongst them.

The ‘Brain Fitness Authority’ website describes a variety of games that are directed at improving cognitive capacity. At this stage many of the games appear to involve relatively simple mental tasks that exercise attention shifting and working memory. But research shows that games using these approaches can increase capacities such as fluid intelligence, and improve working memory in children with ADHD. By continually adjusting the degree of difficulty of the exercises in the light of player performance, these games ensure that the player is continually extended.

At California's Virtual Reality Medical Center, therapists are treating phobias and other anxiety disorders with video games that simulate driving, flying, heights, tight spaces, and other fear-inducing situations. Participants are desensitized by being taught how to relax using biofeedback processes while being gradually introduced to situations that evoke fear.

The computer game Journey to the Wild Divine uses bio-feedback to provide a representation within the game of the degree of relaxation of the player. In order to succeed in the game, players must manipulate this representation by controlling their level of relaxation, learning self-regulation in the process.

A simple example of a game that overlays ‘real life’ and incorporates real life tasks into the game is ‘Chore Wars’. It can be used to motivate the performance of household chores by setting up competition between multiple players and by rewarding winners.

A far more complex overlay was developed to organize the alternate reality game ‘World without Oil’. It collaboratively produced a simulation of a global oil shortage. The game successfully motivated thousands of people with disparate skills to track the first 32 weeks of an oil crisis and to develop and share solutions.

In a very stimulating talk at the 2008 New Yorker Conference, Jane McGonigal, a designer of ‘World without Oil’, discusses how alternative reality game frameworks have the potential to motivate multi-disciplinary collaborations to solve real-world challenges.

Wikipedia itself can be seen as owing much of its success to its game-like characteristics. Contributors compete for positive feedback in the form of social approval and status, help create something worthwhile that is much bigger than themselves, and are involved in a continual struggle with ‘enemies’ who attempt to degrade its quality.

The Global Transition Initiative intends to use a Wikipedia-type framework to motivate and organize collaboration amongst experts, lay people and interested parties to develop solutions to global warming and other major environmental challenges. Examining Wikipedia and the Global Transition project from a ‘gaming’ perspective has the potential to improve their design. It focuses attention on how their parameters can be structured to provide strong motivational and Flow paths to attract and motivate potential collaborators.

Educationists are increasingly turning to computer games to motivate learning. Games are structured so that winning necessitates acquiring the relevant knowledge (see, for example, the Learning and Teaching Scotland site). A fairly sophisticated example assists student to appreciate the necessity and practicality of learning additional European languages. To solve puzzles posed by the game requires collaboration amongst multilingual communities of high school students across Europe. This game also exploits the potential of multi-player games to promote learning about the benefits of cooperation and how it can be organized.

Simulation games have proven very effective at motivating players to discover how particular complex systems work and respond to interventions. For example, a variety of global warming games simulate the consequences of actions that might exacerbate or ameliorate climate change. And Peacemaker enables players to adopt the role of Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President and test out various strategies intended to advance the interests of their side.

Of course, these types of games are only as good as their simulations. But their potential to facilitate and motivate understanding of important complex phenomenon is enormous. And their potential far surpasses that of alternatives such as books.

Increasingly, simulation games are likely to be designed to motivate exploration of the consequences of alternative ways of acting in the world and of organizing ourselves socially. For example, they could facilitate the examination of alternative life choices, personalities, modes of being, roles (including roles in different genders, races and cultures), emotional responses, motivations, values, ethical principles, political systems, worldviews, economic arrangements, governmental polices and interventions, and so on.

For players to succeed in these types of games, they will have to develop an understanding of the complex consequences of alternative choices. Playing the games will therefore tend to generate the insights needed to exercise rational self-interest in a complex world. For example, succeeding in a game may require the exploration of how alternative values and norms impact on the economic success of a society, or on the quality of lived experience within the society. An example of an extremely simple game that motivates reflection on life choices in the light of the inevitability of death is Passage.

It is worth pausing here for a moment to note the broader evolutionary significance of intentional FLOW engineering, particularly its potential to create motivational paths in 'real life'. In past evolution, FLOW engineering was carried out primarily by natural selection (supplemented by cultural evolution to a limited extent in humans). In effect, selection fitted organisms out with desires, needs and motivations that ensured they did what was necessary to succeed in evolutionary terms. For example, humans and other organizms have been fitted out with patterns of likes and dislikes that generally lead them to reproduce. Natural selection tended to structure the motivations and needs of organisms so that they would achieve evolutionary goals living in a state of FLOW.

However, natural selection is largely limited to motivating behaviour that produced evolutionary success in past environments. In the complex and rapidly changing social, economic and ecological environments in which humans now find themsleves, the FLOW engineering that was undertaken by our past evolution is often proving to motivate sub-optimal and sometimes highly destructive behaviour. Intentional FLOW engineering using computer games has the potential to radically change this. It has the potential to drive a critically important transition in human evolvability. It will enable humans to construct motivational paths to whatever goals are consistent with the needs of future evolution. No longer will we be restrticed to FLOW paths built by past evolution.

In my next posts I will look at the potential of computer games to develop capacities and knowledge in areas that are of particular interest to me. First I will look at the potential of strategy-based simulation games to motivate and provide understanding of the emerging evolutionary worldview. This science-based worldview is revealing that the ‘big evolutionary picture’ is capable of providing meaning and purpose for human existence. Then in subsequent posts I will look at the potential of computer games to develop and enhance consciousness.

There are many areas of exciting potential for the further development of meaningful computer games that I will not be dealing with. Hopefully some of these will be explored by other participants in this blog. I see that Stephen Schafer has already posted a very stimulating blog entry on the potential of story-based games as transformational media.

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