In the past decade, as I’ve watched my son Eric spend endless hours on computer games, I’ve grown hostile toward this industry that has stolen so much of my son’s precious time. And I’ve wondered darkly how he and his generation will shape the world in the coming decades after having spent so much of their youth enmeshed in violent virtual worlds.
Recently, I’m happy to report, I’ve become a little more sanguine. It’s not because gamers like my son will make excellent fighter pilots, as experts assure me. I sincerely hope there will never be a need for 20 million fighter pilots. And it’s not because video games have matured into a profitable industry that generates $25 billion in annual sales, although it is certainly good to see companies hiring in these troubled times. In the Puget Sound region, there are some 150 game-related companies that hire graphic artists, musicians, software developers and marketers.
What has given me a glimmer of hope is a new phenomenon with an odd name: gamification (page 28). It takes some of the magic in computer games that has held our kids in thrall for so many years and puts it to productive use. The phenomenon made a big splash last year with the popularity of FoldIt, a game developed at the University of Washington that has found a way to allow thousands of people to contribute to the science of protein design—and have fun doing it. Now the UW’s Foster School of Business is working on gamelike simulations to help train future business leaders. And dozens of companies are introducing game elements to encourage healthy behavior in everything from work/life balance to personal finance.
A healthy dose of skepticism is in order. Just as reality TV has created a world that is a parody of the real world, you have to wonder whether any virtual world will mirror the complexities of the business world sufficiently to prove an effective tool in developing leaders.
Yet it’s clear to me that the potential is enormous. Just as our region’s rich supply of software developers has helped to strengthen industries as diverse as manufacturing and communications, gamification offers the possibility of increasing the competitiveness of broad sectors of our economy by motivating more people to engage in problem-solving activities that provide real benefits to society and to the economy.
If we can get more of our young people tackling real problems rather than imaginary invaders, the world would be a better place. Eric, I’m happy to report, has recently emerged from the dark dungeons of gaming to head off to college with an interest in world health. Who knows? Maybe one day he’ll work on a game that helps eradicate malaria. If he does, maybe I’ll feel a little less sad about the hours we lost to video games.