MMOs are a big deal. According to MMOData, there are roughly 20 million players globally. The MMO genre is unique due to its deep social hooks, its never-ending story and its often addictive nature. The addictiveness of MMOs have given the genre (and its players) a bad rap. Many consider MMOs a colosal waste of time. However, I see opportunity…

The irony of MMOs is while they have garnered the reputation of being useless time-sinks, the in-game mechanics are almost always built around continual self-improvement. The problem is that the self improvement is focused entirely on your in-game character. It is understandable how this is appealing to many people. Their character is not impeded by the drudgery of daily life and with enough effort they are able to be an important piece of a large community. In many MMOs, their character can even shape the very fabric of the virtual world itself. That is compelling. To achieve these goals, players are willing to grind countless hours. People put in serious work for their character and/or their guild. The problem is that work exists solely within the confines of that game. Many critics of games say players are too invested in their games. I think there needs to be even greater investment.

If you can figure out EVE, you can figure out Algebra.

From my view, the problem with games like MMOs is there still a clear line between reality and game. This model is fertile grounds for creating an escape mechanism. So while your real life is falling apart, your in-game life is doing just fine. Interesting opportunities arise by more closely coupling the in-game character with the player. Positive actions made in real life have positive impacts for your character and poor choices in real life have in-game consequences. All of the sudden, the achievement hunter mindset doesn’t turn off once you log off. The “game” is always being played.

How This Could Work

The questing system in MMOs has worked for quite some time. The basic mechanics are as follows: Give the player a small, clear, challenging, yet achievable task. Upon completion of that task, reward the player with experience points and/or items. This mechanic can translate well to real-world jobs to complete. These could be as simple as getting good marks on a test or photographing and geotagging graffiti in their hometown. As the player completes these quests, they gain in-game experience, powerful items and trust points. Trust points allow the player to take on quests that may be more complex or rely more on trust that the player is actually completing them. Obviously, if the player is caught gaming the system, their trust is dropped significantly. If they are caught too many times, they can be banned permanently. If a player accumulates enough trust points, they can help shape quests/activities in their local community and in the game.

Quest complete.

By keeping grades up, going to gym regularly or completing helpful tasks in their local community, they would get access to items that are otherwise impossible to obtain.

Example Scenarios

Jack is a 13 year old boy and a WoW player. He’s quite smart, but lacks attention to his schooling. Recently, as his game play has increased, his grades and classroom participation have begun to decline. Instead of taking the game away from Jack, his parents sign him up to bind his grades to in-game achievement. Jack’s teacher submits monthly grade reports to WoW quest managers. If his marks are high, Jack gets achievement points. Those points can be traded in for experience points and/or special in-game items.

Jack's B+ earned him Doomhammer.

Steve is a high school student who battles obesity. He recently got hooked on Star Wars: The Old Republic and is spending 30+ hours a week playing the game. He wants to level faster, but there literally is no more time in the week to make that happen. However, he sees that the game has an agreement with a local gym that is you log 5 hours a week at the gym and show progress, you can get huge amounts of in-game experience points or items. Steve is not interested initially in exercise, but he is interested in leveling his character. When Steve checks in to the gym, his account is credited with experience. Steve loses 20 pounds and gains 5 character levels.

Emma is a 24 year old who is a year out of college and lacking some direction. She did moderately well in school, but never found her calling. During college, she spends a disproportionate amount of time playing EVE with her guild (or in EVE, corporation). She continues to make EVE and her corporation a central part of her life. She is one of the corporation leaders who manages hundreds of members through activities and events. Emma discovers that she can use the organizational skills used in-game at the local food bank. By volunteering weekly, she gets extra ISK (EVE currency) to support her in-game activities.

Emma leads thousand-ship fleets. She can handle a 5 person volunteer team.

In our current view of the world, Emma’s skill at running a successful corporation is not something she could put on a resume. All the social collateral gained remains trapped in New Eden. Meanwhile, we have begun to understand the value of someone with 100,000 Twitter followers. Why the disconnect?

Doing The Math

This idea is just as much about the gamification of reality as it is the tangible manifestation of gaming. These real-life hooks could extend to voting, psychological/physical therapy, vocational training, etc. This approach provides an intangible yet significant incentive for people to do things and engage in spaces they may never have otherwise. In short, it is a gateway drug to personal and community improvement. It provides opportunities to show people that significant impact in the real world is possible, it just works and looks different than in games. It makes “gameplay’ a persistent and ubiquitous experience. You are playing the game just as much when you are working out at the gym as you are when in front of your gaming console.

If this seems unrealistic, consider how minuscule the participation rates need to be in order to get significant numbers. World of Warcraft has 10.2 million subscriptions and the average player logs in roughly 20 hours a week of game time. That’s almost 11 billion human hours a year.

If 1% of the World of Warcraft player base reallocated 10% of their game time to real world quests, it would equal 10.6 million human hours. That’s the equivalent of 5,100 people working full time for a year. A lot can happen with 10 million hours of effort…

Last Thoughts

This idea is not without its problems. People will no doubt try to game the system. Just like in any game, if cheating becomes rampant, the vast majority those who don’t cheat will move. Additionally, many players will only opt in while there are significant in-game incentives. Once their character is max-level and all the items have been collected, they will no longer engage. These issues are inevitable, but do not seem insurmountable or an impediment. In fact, MMOs have worked for years (fairly successfully) to keep these issues in check.

This is not a new idea.
Jane McGonical has spent years discussing this subject. Her TED talk is worth a watch.

The image of gaming as childish is as engrained in our society as it is destructive. Gamers prove daily their willingness to devote hours of work in pursuit of long-term goals (with the stipulation that it needs to interest them). Rather than admonishing this behavior, we should fine ways to draw from it for mutual benefit. Gaming is not going away. We can continue to brush it aside as some fool’s errand or we can view it as an important part of many peoples’ lives. By choosing the latter, we can tap into a remarkable amount of human energy.