Can Humanitarian Gamers Really Save The World?

A new group thinks gamers can save the world by sifting through social networks during disasters. All they need to do is convince WoWers to drop their in-game swords and volunteer at a moment’s notice.

Back in 2010, a TED talk by gaming researcher Jane McGonigal estimated that the world played 3 billion hours of video games per week. Pioneering the concept of civic gaming, she went on to speculate that someday, we might spend so much time playing games that it would become useful to turn virtual questing into real-life problem solving. Only three years later, her wish may have come true thanks to the Internet Response League (IRL), which recently surfaced to call gamers to do their global civic duty.

One of the major questions McGonigal brought up in her TED talk was how to convince the most benevolent gamers to drop their virtual swords and participate in civic gaming. These players love joining in-game teams and helping to save the virtual world, but often shy away from participating in cooperative activities outside of games because they view real-world change as above their human abilities, and receive less rewarding feedback for their efforts.

According to Patrick Meier, a humanitarian and crisis tech innovator who first proposed IRL at the Metropolitan College of New York earlier this summer, the secret is to come to gamers where they spend their time, rather than asking them to leave the game world to participate. That’s why IRL’s first project is to develop a plug-in for World of Warcraft that will notify gamers in the virtual world when real-world disasters break out and ask for help.

To make tasks more palatable for volunteers, Meier plans to break down larger real-world challenges into a series of surmountable tasks that gamers can see immediate benefits from performing. In this case, responding to world disasters by sifting through tens of thousands of tweeted pictures and geotagging and organizing them by how much damage they show.

As Jon Brodkin at Slashdot points out, Meier has experimented with this kind of manual Twitter parsing before. Last December, he used the crowdfunding service CrowdFlower to process 13,000 tweets following Typhoon Pablo last December. For about $250, Meier employed an army of digital drones to tag tweet content (Damage? Urgent? Has location?), but at a slow rate of only 750 tweets per hour. Citing the $2.3 million raised by World of Warcraft players for Hurricane Sandy victims, Meier thinks that MMO players, when properly motivated to solve problems, can do better than crowdsourced contractors and people who simply donate money:

What you can also do is donate five minutes of your time, and that will be as important because what you’re doing with your time donation is you’re tagging crisis information that humanitarian organizations like the American Red Cross are going to use to gain better situational awareness with respect to the disaster, and allow them to operationally respond far quicker than they would otherwise be able to.

During a recent disaster, 65% of disaster-related tweets were useful, Meier said in a recent TEDxTraverseCity talk. Many tweets contained important photos and data attached or included. Using the new plug-in, gamers will be able to triage the photos into multiple categories (no/some/severe damage) and geotag them for first responders, a concept Meier described as "digital humanitarianism":

But is reaching players in-game and narrowing the scope of the tasks enough to convince gamers to participate? Meier thinks that by rewarding digital humanitarianism with some basic in-game perks, he can convince gamers to start volunteering. Once they join, he hopes that the time investment that players put in becomes an emotional investment that keeps them coming back.

To help figure out how to reward players, IRL started a Google Group, where members will discuss the future of the project and how to reward the community. Early suggestions include rewarding participants with an IRL score and creating unique character appearance items (armor, banners, etc) that will allow players to show off their real-life service in-game, and hopefully convince others to join the League.

Of course, IRL probably won’t be able to insert its messaging and items into games without suffering some backlash. In-game advertising is generally abhorred by the gaming community, so making IRL more than a niche community will require getting players to buy into the idea, and maybe even establishing partnerships with game companies. Meier says his team reached out to Blizzard and have yet to hear back, but that doesn’t mean that all game producers will be unreceptive. Earlier this week, Riot Games announced an in-game advertising deal with a reward points-garnering American Express card.

But gamers may be more willing to stomach ads for nonprofit, civic good services than they would credit cards. Prominent gamer-culture webcomic Penny Arcade went from raising $250,000 in its inaugural year of the Child’s Play charity in 2003 to garnering over $5 million in donations last year. All that stands between the idea and reality of harnessing tens of millions of gamers, Meier believes, is winning over the gaming community in the same way Penny Arcade has. No tall order, but neither is saving the world.

[Images by Internet Response League | Flickr user Threephin]

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  • Anthony Reardon

    The idea in general to engage gamers in disaster relief efforts is brilliant. A while back a read somewhere that gamers were recruited to solve a complex problem I think related to cancer or genetics of some sort. The standard approach to the problem had been using algorithms or the like to crunch data maybe for years, and the gamers ended up finding the solution in something like days. Gaming, almost by definition, can be a challenge and competition to overcome some complex problem. Theme park simulators come to mind. Not a stretch of the imagine to simulate disasters with the same goals of most effective resource allocation where it is needed mitigating loss of life and other aspects. In fact, how much different would a real world command center type program be?

    I think you need to give gamers more credit for what they are capable of with their particular skillset than just tagging images on Twitter etc. Check it out, I'm sure Twitter and Facebook for instance could put together some emergency/ disaster tagging tools in place that makes it easier to classify in a useful manner the moment it is uploaded from whoever posted it, or whoever notices it. I think your chances of getting major volunteer support right there is better than what gamers could and should offer.

    Love this point about gamers despising in-game ads. Anyone that is involved with social media and advertising ought to take that to heart. People go to the web for an online experience, and I bet most despise ads in-web just as much as gamers.

    An integrated simulation is an ambitious idea in itself, but I think to work really needs to be consistent with the game design. Going into a room with real world photos to tag, that just doesn't seem creative enough. I do think some kind of discrete announcement pointing out there is a volunteer relief effort by gamers for a given disaster situation would suffice.

    I'm sure plenty of people would do it for the prestige of doing something important as gamers- if not out of pure generosity. Incentive wise, I think you should definitely take into consideration what someone forgoes in opportunity cost in their given game. Beyond that, you can get creative, and probably involve them in the reward process after the fact. Better, though, not to make reward the condition that compels them. That would degrade the meaningfulness of their effort. There are plenty of values that can be extracted from a meaningful initiative done right without promise of reward.

    Best, Anthony