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Flexibility of the Mind, Endurance of the Heart
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by Worldchanging Los Angeles local blogger, Evonne Heyning:

Last week I traveled to Manhattan to speak at Games for Change, the annual gathering of the Serious Games Initiative. In two days we played over 15 new issue-oriented games and witnessed dozens more playable programs for social change and education. From enlightenment pursuit to Real Lives from around the world, I drifted in and out of dozens of personas and possibilities.

There are games like Karma Tycoon that help teach you how to run successful youth centers and nonprofits around the community or Real Lives, a game where you can be born as anyone in the world and learn about the limiting factors of health, poverty and circumstance based on real statistics. Playing Melting Point was frustrating; the global warming game is VERY hard to beat along with Ayiti: The Cost of Life, the Haitian-based game from Global Kids and Gamelab.

Play is essential at every age; there are simple opportunities in the games all around us. Ted Castronova of the TerraNova virtual worlds blog spoke at Games for Change on research and virtual world economies, illuminating the power of games for major social transformation. Economists, quantitative social scientists have great opportunities in games to understand how we function through the petri dish of the virtual space. We have brave new worlds before us and great potential to shape the world we want for generations to come; as leaders in this participatory culture we choose how to use or waste this potential.

Gameplay is the natural evolution of interactive education: as kids we are always experimenting with our world and this childlike wonder often gets us in trouble. How many children turned off their creative engines young because they were punished for coloring on the walls or making mom's jewelry into diamond soup? Most of us lose our ability to be flexible thinkers by the time we make our way through the school system. We are slowly conditioned into scoring our cheese at the end of the standardized test maze; the higher levels of cooperative engagement, critical analysis and creative problem-solving are often taught out of us before adulthood.

It is up to each one of us to exercise our own minds. Question everything, including yourself!

One unusual serious game from USC has me addicted: the Redistricting Game has taught me more about gerrymandering and politics in three hours than 300 hours of watching television. I am consistently amazed at how innovative game designers can push their audience to the edge of their openness and understanding in a matter of minutes. Redistricting's interstitials include simulated news reports on gerrymandering and a quote from Claire Huchet Bishop: "Government is too big and too important to be left to the politicians".

We need playful open engagement like this for every social strata. For a moment let's define openness in gameplay as the ability to see beyond and through to move with life as it comes. This type of openness is not for the weak of heart or for those who are too rigid in their thinking. A flexible practice of rigor over rigidity offers new opportunities to share authentic meaning; the key is avoiding dogmatic rules that frustrate participants. In gameplay the switch in the brain to turn off is judgment; learning to accept life as it flows rather than fight against it with our thoughts.

Game worlds keep us flexible, helping us build essential communication networks, teambuilding skills and toolsets for the future. The lives to come will require us to be stronger, more agile and ready than ever before. Acceleration of time may feel very real and yet we understand that cycles of time flow in spirals and circles, not as linear charts and graphs. New ages will come with lifestyles and challenges that we can only imagine in far-out fantasies and unique game worlds.

Back to Ted Castronova's recommendation: social scientists should use virtual worlds as a petri dish! In the social sciences we have theory but not enough experimentation within a scientific method. When you put data on the problem it's hard to establish causation. Natural experiments are happening all the time; these shards or fragments of play happen in labs, streets, schoolrooms, homes. Some have combat, some do not; some are violent simulations and some are quite real in their punch. Differences in social behavior can be shown with perfect causality easily in virtual research worlds for controlled experiments.

His use of "petri dish" made me very happy; it's a term that shows up all the time at the living learning lab of ManorMeta. In virtual world analysis it is very difficult to present persuasive arguments to policymakers using the current slate of quantitative social science tools. Emerging technologies and educational gameworlds require a whole new language and system for evaluation.

Philip Rosedale, the leader of Linden Lab and their user-created virtual world Second Life, spoke to the need to redefine reality in a recent web video:

"One of the first questions we asked when we started working is what is real? What is the nature of reality? Why do we think that places in the real world as we say are real? What is it about them? Is it that they're physical, that we bump into them? I don't think so.....
The thing that makes the world real is that we can change it. We have the ability to alter it, I think, and those things that we can reach out and change are things that we fundamentally or collectively believe to be real. And so virtual worlds, to the extent that they empower people to alter them, to shape them around themselves, those aspects are what we imagine to be real, in what we call virtual worlds."

This participatory process of worldchanging is nothing new to readers here but proves to be catching on in unlikely locations: these games and virtual experiences are opening minds around the world in classrooms, libraries and homes on the web. What will happen when we learn to play together and create worlds that work?

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>> Back to Ted Castronova's recommendation: social scientists should use virtual worlds as a petri dish!

A game of this sort, however, is no different from any other model: it is an encapsulation of the world as we think it is, created using certain assumptions (oftentimes including value assumptions). A key question to keep in mind is this: what are good ways to validate the models we make?

Posted by: c! on 24 Jun 07

Hi, Ms. Heyning. Would you be kind enough to contact me through my web site? I'd like to bounce some ideas off of you for an undergraduate course I'm doing in the fall. (I couldn't find your contact info anywhere.)

Posted by: Jonathan Pfeiffer on 2 Jul 07



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