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How playing games can solve problems, create insight, and make change
by Karen Schrier
MUCH has been made of how video games aren't just for fun. They can also be educational, hone reflexes and mental agility, and even treat PTSD and depression.
But Karen Schrier has bigger ideas in mind. In Knowledge Games, she writes: 'I focus on how we can use games to create knowledge about our universe or develop original insights into human interactions.'
Schrier is an assistant professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she directs a programme about games and emerging media – so she should be well placed to make a case. And her book is as dogged as a doctoral thesis in chasing down its key questions: can games be used to create new knowledge? If so, how?
Schrier focuses on the potential of games to tackle intractable problems by mapping them onto something that can be played, thereby reconceptualising them in a way that makes them easier to solve. So far, we've seen just a handful that fit the bill. Take EteRNA and Foldit, where players solve puzzles to devise designs for synthetic RNA molecules or shapes for proteins, respectively. EteRNA has 37,000 players who have synthesised hundreds of new RNA designs by solving the puzzles. Using EteRNABot software, human players are better able to devise RNA molecules than any current algorithm.
Then there's EyeWire, in which players help to map neurons in the human brain. In Monster Proof, they check software for bugs. And SchoolLife lets students try their hand at different roles to identify ways to handle bullying.
Schrier thinks games can also tackle some of the thorniest problems, from global warming to providing clean water and food. Take the SUDAN Game, which simulates the steps needed to resolve conflict there. Each of the game's thousands of players checks out a few of the 185,760 interventions possible to see if any lead to a peaceful outcome. That way, the makers hope to find the best algorithm - at least on the basis of the game's assumptions.
The problems underlying the games come in many flavours. Ill-structured ones, for example, benefit from people trying many different solutions, as in Foldit or the SUDAN Game. Then there are dilemmas that may not have a single solution, or complex problems with multiple subproblems. Perhaps the worst are 'wicked problems': ill-structured, complex dilemmas for which no single formulation is sufficient, people do not even agree on the problem, and there are no right or wrong answers - just better or worse ones, depending on skew.
Indeed, most social and political problems are 'wicked': health issues that combine social and biological causes, such as heart disease; how to help children struggling at school; high rates of recidivism among prisoners. Can games help? Why not? Compared with other collective problem-solving activities, they unite people with different experiences in a uniquely structured and motivating way.
Schrier makes no bones about the fact that knowledge games are much less fun than the ones they mimic - Tetris, Candy Crush, The Sims. That's mostly because they tend to be made by small research groups with small budgets. It doesn't have to stay that way, though. For now, there are plenty of people who like being part of a volunteer online community to make up for a lack of polish.
In the end, Schrier does a great job of clearing a space where we can chat about games' potential for giving us new perspectives on old problems. It's exciting territory, but it remains underexplored. Ask me if a game was the right tool to crack a specific problem, and I'd have to change the subject.
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