March 6, 2007 4:47 PM PST

Future games to harness players' collective wisdom

SAN FRANCISCO--The future of games, particularly of games in education, government or industry, might well lie in players' ability to work together to solve problems.

That's the prediction of Jane McGonigal, a longtime developer of alternate-reality games who has now gone to work as the in-house game developer for the Institute for the Future, an independent nonprofit research group that forecasts future trends.

"I'm officially the first person in the world "whose job title includes the phrase, 'I design games from the future,'" McGonigal told the packed house during her keynote speech at the Serious Games Summit of the Game Developers Conference here Tuesday.

Game Developers Conference

At her talk, titled "The future of collective play: Fostering collaboration, network literacy and massively multiplayer problem-solving through alternate-reality games," McGonigal spent an hour explaining how "collective intelligence," and games designed around that concept, could be a prime component in future learning, as well as in helping governmental agencies and private organizations solve a wide range of problems.

"The central problem I want to consider," McGonigal said, "is can a computer game teach collective intelligence? I believe absolutely yes, and it's the single most important thing we can teach as we prepare for the future."

She explained that collective intelligence, broadly speaking, is when many people come together, using technology, to solve problems or advance knowledge. A prime example, she pointed out, is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows anyone to create and edit articles.

Other examples of collective intelligence include Yahoo Answers, Google Image Labeler, MapHub,'s Mechanical Turk and many others.

And as both public and private organizations seek to incorporate collective intelligence to achieve their goals, McGonigal said it will be vital to create a curriculum that can teach such institutions how to leverage the concept.

She then talked about the 2004 alternate-reality game, I Love Bees, which she helped run. That game, which was designed to help promote Halo 2, tasked players across the world with solving problems by working together, despite there being few instructions and nowhere to turn for direct answers.

For example, the game presented players on a Web site with 210 pairs of GPS coordinates and time codes. Players were supposed to figure out what the combinations meant.

Over the course of several weeks, hundreds of thousands of players from many countries came up with various suggestions, most of which did not lead to the solution.

Eventually, by self-organizing into smaller groups that approached the problem from discrete angles, players were able to come up with the solution: that the codes designated pay phones around the world and specific times each would ring. Players then determined that there had to be someone on hand to answer each phone and get the clue that would be delivered.

But McGonigal also said that many of the failed suggestions ended up being incorporated into the game at future points, something anyone wanting to utilize collective intelligence in game design or education would be wise to take note of: reward participation, not success.

"Our system has to be flexible enough," she said, "to incorporate myriad uses and ingenious interpretations."

Ultimately, McGonigal added, collective intelligence is about letting many people be involved in approaching a problem and letting everyone feel that participating is worth the effort, even if individuals don't personally solve the problems. Further, the collective wisdom of thousands of people can produce the kinds of results that smaller groups can't.

That sentiment is not new--take for example James Suriowiecki's successful The Wisdom of Crowds--but applying the concept to games and making those games the centerpiece of learning may well be.

"It is urgent we start creating engaging, firsthand instances of collective intelligence for as far and as wide and as diverse a population as possible," McGonigal said. "I hope you can imagine how collective intelligence can affect the organizations for which you are designing."

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I'm not sure I want to be tought collective intelligence
Working together is all good and fine, but too much collective
intelligence isn't something I'm not sure I'm looking forward to. I'm
probably just paranoid, but for some reason, part of this article
made the borg come to mind.
Posted by Dr. B (91 comments )
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this would make school much more interesting. iv seen it happen in highschool classes, math in particular(calculus). There are some minds that work faster at one step, and others for different steps, but they all give lines to further the problem one after the other. collective intelligence cannot help you on a test, but for furthering specific intelligences for a certain need, is easier to accomplish. (follows suit with the article) <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by jjnk--2008 (3 comments )
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First games now need to be intelligent
How do I trust a game industry that has dunbed down PC games so much in the past 10 years to now teach me about real life. Good idea but first they need to learn the basics about making more intelligent games.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
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Myst online
Also don't online games like URU online already do this pretty well?
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
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Shoulders of Giants
As a high school teacher I understand very well the concept of collective wisdom. And so did Sir Issacc Newton, whose discoveries of the laws of motion and gravity have made it possible for our avionics industry to be successful. When Newton said that if he saw further than others it was only because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, that is, his discoveries were only possible because of the collective wisdom accumulated, often at great cost,by a host of other great minds. What this collective gaming model offers us today in our educational institutions is the chance to pool our cerebral talents in ways that will attract contemporary students steeped in digital technology. Problems of global proportions require global participation and this gaming model offers us that chance. Institutions of learning should take a very close look at this potentiality.
Posted by kevikens (6 comments )
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Two-Edged Sword
I played Final Fantasy XI online and there was very little instruction as to what you were supposed to do in the game and you often relied on the help of other players. This promoted a feeling of community that I really appreciated.

However, there was pretty much no major accomplishment on the game you could do on your own and at times had to settle for less than adequate help.

The other problem is that you would not be able to do things on your schedule. When you logged on you would have to wait until you could organize a group of people. This would often take hours in itself. It makes a game be far more involving, but at the cost of your REAL social life.

Games the require collective intelligence move from time filler, what games have been, to time monopolizers. Most gamers, I believe, are not ready for that kind of commitment.
Posted by zgreenwell (156 comments )
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