As I mentioned in my last post, the final session at OpenTech 2010 was one I wanted to find out more about before writing up. Its published title was “For the win: game space and public engagement” and on the panel were Tom Chatfield, Alice Taylor and Cory Doctorow.

The ideas discussed were around how games could potentially be a space for social or political engagement. Alice works for Channel 4, who have done a lot to use games to engage younger audiences in issues ranging from sexual health to history, mental illness, online privacy and economics.  While I have heard tiny snippets of information about the popularity of this sort of online activity, the panel discussion, and the many questions that followed, illustrated the amazingly wide field this subject covers, the incredibly high levels of activity (membership of some of the more established communities is numbered in millions) and sparked off lots of ideas to follow up.

Tom’s introduction covered the huge growth in this industry. I can’t remember if the figures relate to now, or were a prediction, but if the music industry is/will be worth 24 billion, then gaming is/will be worth 84 billion!

One of the first things I learned was that while individuals play these games, very often they need to join up with others to complete tasks. Rewards may be personal or collective, and it is noted how often that the behaviour people display in the gaming environment can spill over into real life. Alice described how participating in these games requires knowledge of a many layered environment, in a way, some of them ARE like running a small country – so that people who imply gamers dont have the skills to do more complex tasks  simply haven’t tried to get involved.

Cory talked about the concept of ‘gold farming’. This is where poorer people do the repetitive work at low pay to amass credits for others to buy.

A lot of the questions were around the possibility of games being created using real data – whether from the public sector or beyond. Examples given included Fate of the World “a global strategy game that puts our future in your hands”. Also Democracy – which is designed “to recreate a modern political system as accurately as possible”.

Three other games were described by Tom : Fold it – which is where participating in a game can actually help scientists. I confess I haven’t got a clue what folding proteins is, but apparently humans are much more accurate than machines. An ESP game – again, humans helping to train computers, this time by inviting people to assign tags to an image – the theory being when two people choose the same tag, it is more likely to be the most accurate description of an image. Finally something described as tombstone poker – but later pointed to as Last Call Poker. This was a campaign to promote the release of a game, and for a limited time it aimed to blur the line between online and reality.

Lots to think about! Perhaps one day,  games that help promote understanding of the challenges around international development will become mainstream.  Imagine getting people involved in seeing how choices made in one area can have hugely wideranging effects – and how many ways to define “starting at the very bottom” there are – basic human needs, at the absolute individual level, plus the complex layers of community – from village > area >  country > region > international system.  Then throw in the odd unexpected disaster – whether man made or natural, and see how all your carefully constructed plans cope.

Besides the intriguing Fate of the World described above,  I’ve heard about two which could be described as in this field – one I think was done by the UN and aimed to illustrate the problems faced by refugees, and the other is a World Bank Institute project : Evoke (a crash course in changing the world) – which leads me to a TED talk which neatly parallels the subjects discussed at this session : Jane McGonigal : Gaming can make a better world.