Game Changer
Totally video.


Video games are undeniably popular: Over Thanksgiving week alone, Nintendo sold more than 800,000 Wii consoles. This trend could have serious ramifications for society; experts have speculated about consequences ranging from an uptick in childhood obesity to better-developed visuospatial skills.

But video games’ effects on our way of life could exceed even these expectations. In Changing the Game, David Edery and Ethan Mollick focus on the world of business, explaining how companies are increasingly turning to games to solve various problems. The book both advises companies on how to utilize games and offers a glimpse of where the world is headed. At every turn it provokes broader thoughts and questions, though it rarely supplies any answers to them. This is a business book first and foremost.

Video games, the authors claim, are useful in brand promotion, in advertising, and even for tricking people into working without pay. Hands-down, the most fascinating example of brand promotion is America’s Army. This free computer game has been an incredibly successful and cost-efficient recruitment tool for the country’s armed forces. It’s a lot more realistic and responsible than pretty much any entertainment-only war simulator — players have to go through training, and when groups of players duke it out, each team sees itself as Army soldiers and the opponents as terrorists (so no one has to shoot Americans). One player even saved a real life using the medical techniques he learned in the game. Still, because America’s Army glorifies combat — and undoubtedly plays to teenage males’ obsession with simulated violence — some question whether it’s the face the Army should present to the world.

In-game advertising is another new trend. Because many gamers play with their computers or consoles connected to the Internet, it’s possible to change the ads featured in a game — each time the player boots up his system, the game downloads the new ads that sponsors have paid for. Thus, game ads combine the immersion of product placement (the ads are unobtrusive images in a game’s environment, rather than interruptions of the content like television commercials) with the immediacy of web ads.

The kicker here is who’s buying these ads. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama’s campaign ponied up cash for billboards in the virtual world of Burnout Paradise, a crash-intensive racing game. (This was after Obama had repeatedly used video games as a “metaphor for underachievement,” and also after Changing the Game went to press, as it’s not mentioned in the book.)

The big question: Is this a great new way to reach young people, or just a distressing reminder of the fact that if you want to find large numbers of voting-age citizens and consumers, the best way to go might be a driving game with exaggerated speed, huge explosions, and rewards for driving on the wrong side of the road? We are a free society, and so long as gamers work, take care of their families, and avoid the pitfalls of addiction, it’s hard to see what the trouble is; still, many cultural conservatives worry that childish entertainment encourages adults to neglect their responsibilities. There’s little reflection on this debate in Changing the Game.

Another important development is that companies have managed to trick employees and consumers into doing extra work. Usually this is simple enough; Microsoft, for example, made a game out of debugging Windows Vista, offering points in return for extra output from its employees. The company made each “player’s” point total available to the others, and social pressure did the trick.

In other instances, companies are far more clever. Google, for example, offers a service in which web surfers can search for images — for example, they can type in “dog” and find pictures of dogs. However, in order for this to work, someone needs to go through the pictures available on the web and associate the word “dog” with photos of man’s best friend.

Instead of paying people to label images, the company licensed a computer program called The ESP Game, in which two players on different computers see the same image and type words that describe it. When they’ve both typed one of the same words, they both get a point, and a new image comes up. The goal is to get as many points as possible within two minutes. Meanwhile, Google takes the matching words as descriptions of the pictures for its database.

NASA has a similar program, Stardust@home, in which participants comb through images of particles captured on a special gel in space. They look for incredibly rare bits of interstellar dust–a time-consuming task that computers can’t yet perform. In a year, 24,000 players have given it a shot.

All of this only scratches the surface. In fewer than 250 pages, Changing the Game also covers training simulators, virtual worlds like Second Life, and even games meant to improve coworkers’ teamwork skills. It’s easy to forgive the authors if they rarely pause to ask what these developments mean for the world as a whole.

Robert VerBruggen, an associate editor of National Review and a gamer, edits the Phi Beta Cons blog.