Can Gamers Shape the Future?

March 26, 2018

Virtual Reality Cityscape

Sci-fi movies and novels predict virtual reality and artificial intelligence will lead humanity to an inevitably dystopian future. But what if game design thinking, including principles used to create virtual worlds, was used for global-scale social good?

Futurist Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research + Development at the Institute for the Future, is optimistic that alternate reality games—those designed to solve real problems—can help humanity shape bolder, more positive outcomes.

In a conversation with Jody Hoff, Director of Education & Outreach at the San Francisco Fed, McGonigal discussed the possibilities.

“We have to play [games] to find out what happens. When you start a game, there are so many possibilities of how it can unfold. In chess, there are literally more possible variations of the game than there are atoms in the universe. What’s great about it is that when you have millions of people playing, they all bring their own strategies and life experiences to it. You develop this incredible collective intelligence,” says McGonigal.

She envisions enabling all 7 billion people on the planet with future-thinking skills to “level up” humanity’s collective knowledge in order to address the world’s biggest problems, including poverty and hunger.

Developing future-thinking skills doesn’t have to come from a classroom. In fact, it’s a mindset anyone can develop on their own, at any age. McGonigal suggests starting by setting up a weekly calendar alert to search for the “future of x.”

“The future of food. The future of dogs. The future of movies. The future of space travel. Anything that you are interested in. Every week, something different. Read an article. Watch a video. Listen to a podcast. Everywhere you look, people are inventing new technologies and cultural practices, and studying what’s possible,” she says.

One of the biggest challenges is envisioning yourself as part of these futures. McGonigal explains, “There’s this weird glitch in our brains when we imagine our far-future selves; who we’ll be five or 10 years from now. The part of our brain that usually turns on when we think about ourselves powers down. The neurological activity looks more like when we think about strangers or people with whom we have nothing in common.”

This “glitch” helps explain why it’s hard for people to make choices, from healthy eating to saving for retirement, which will benefit them in the future.

“One of the things we’re doing at the Institute for the Future is trying to figure out effective ways to help people connect with their far-future selves so they make better choices for themselves and society. We see that people who are more connected to their future selves are more likely to vote. They’re more likely to take seriously long-term social challenges,” she says.

An easy way to connect with your future self is to imagine yourself in the future.

“If you’re reading about self-driving cars, picture your first time riding in one. What are you wearing? What time of day is it? What’s the weather like? What’s the interior of the car like? This has been shown to really improve our connectedness with our future selves. The future may not happen exactly as you imagine it, but you don’t have to predict it correctly. You just have to get better at seeing the possibilities,” says McGonigal.

Building a better future takes more than being a passive observer, of course. McGonigal encourages people to seek out exciting projects, finding ways to collaborate on world-changing work, whether it be for a startup, nonprofit, or school.

“Every decision we make today affects how the future will play out. The more people you have thinking about futures—self-driving cars, the future of work, etc.—and playing with them, the more intelligence we can build so we wind up making the futures that we want,” McGonigal says.

Tune into the San Francisco Fed’s Does College Matter? podcast for the full interview.

Listen to this and past episodes, or subscribe to future episodes of Does College Matter? on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

Does College Matter? is produced by the SF Fed Education & Outreach team and hosted by Director Jody Hoff as part of its college and career readiness initiative.

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Quotes have been edited for clarity. Views expressed are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.