Gabe Zichermann at OGC2012

So, as you might already know, the 1st annual Ottawa Game Conference was held last week at the Ottawa Convention Centre. It was a veritable success; the event had over 400 attendees, 30 speakers, all sorts of panels, a crazy after party, etc. It was truly a great opportunity to meet people and learn about developments in the video game industry.

And of course there were some awesome presentations and discussions, from Jason Della Rocca’s insightful analysis concerning the importance of community support for the growth of regional video game industries, to panels on the changing face of gaming and social game design. For me, the presentation I found most inspiring at OGC2012 was Gabe Zichermann’s impassioned discussion on gamification.

Now I had heard the term before, but to be honest I never really thought about its meaning or significance. I used to think it was all about turning random things into a game, kind of like teaching spelling by playing Boggle or Scrabble. What I came to realize through Gabe’s talk is that gamification is not just about turning everything into a game, but rather the ongoing process of using game thinking to make the world more engaging for people. It’s really about applying game mechanics to tasks and contexts not traditionally thought of as games.

He gave some astonishing examples. One in particular was that of the Foldit ‘game’ which challenges people to, um, fold proteins. So I’m not too savvy about this topic, but what I understood was that folding proteins is important for studying DNA, and that humans are much better at it than computers. So programmers and researchers the University of Washington developed this puzzle ‘game’ that allowed players to do just that: fold proteins. And it isn’t a task that’s hidden within a game or sugar coated to make it seem more fun, it is literally just a game where you fold proteins. And people really got into it. Foldit led to a major breakthrough in the sequencing of a piece of DNA needed for the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Within three weeks or so something like 40,000 people solved a riddle that scientists had worked on for 15 years. Astounding. Absolutely mind blowing.

The other example that stood out for me was that of a business executive, Ananth Pai, in Minneapolis who didn’t like the way his kids were being taught, so he left his job, got a teaching degree and started teaching. The school board ended up at giving him a failing grade 3 class, but granted him autonomy to restructure the curriculum as he saw fit (since they were failing anyway). He went out and bought a bunch of computers and Nintendo DSs with his own money, brought them to the class and, coupled with traditional teaching methods, taught the reading and math sections of the curriculum using computer games, not books. The kids’ scores ended going up exponentially. Again. Mind blowing.

He went on to give a bunch of other interesting examples, including one about using gamification to influence people’s behaviour to stop them from speeding – and what I learned from this talk is just how important gamification can be, or rather is, for societal progress. Gamification represents a critical problem-solving tool for helping society move forward in a complex world of increasingly overwhelming social, environmental, health, and economic problems. As Gabe asked near the end of his presentation (I do believe he reflected on this, but don’t quote me on it): How do we apply the principles of gamification to tackle issues such as poverty? This made me think: How can we use gamification to combat homelessness, stop global warming, cure cancer, fight hunger? The opportunities are endless, and it’s not about whether there is a way to achieve this, but rather what is the way to achieve this. Ultimately, we must challenge ourselves to come up with the ‘gamified’ models that can be effectively applied to these contexts.

There is so much more that Gabe discussed at OGC2012, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. Thank you for your presentation, Gabe. It was a privilege to have participated.

(For a variation on this talk, check this video)



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