Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Can we use Massively Multiplayer Games for Good?

Note: This is a rant I wrote back in 2003 or so and had at my home page at Berkeley. I'm putting it up on my blog now since my old home page is no longer there. I've made some updates to the original, with additional updates at the bottom.

This is going to be a lengthy but serious discussion of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). I wrote this after talking with Jen Mankoff (a fellow professor here at CMU), and after reading this article on the New York Times about how this person spends 7+ hours a day online playing a single game, having racked up 2400+ hours already.

Usually, when I read these kinds of articles about game addicts, I always think, "if only we could use his powers for good!" If only we could make it so that people get more out of games than just fun. If only we could actually get something genuinely useful at the same time (so we don't end up with stories like this one from The Onion).

My canonical example is Crazy Taxi. In this game, you drive a taxi, taking people from place to place in a pseudo-San Francisco city. You get more points for driving recklessly, getting as close as you can to crashing things without actually crashing into them. What if...you could actually learn the streets of San Francisco while playing this game? I hate driving there because I don't know what the streets are, because of all the one-way streets, because of all the cars and pedestrians. But what if you could actually learn the streets incidentally while playing the game? You would actually be learning something useful beyond the game console.

Now, analogously, what if we could get something useful out of MMORPGs, more than just entertainment and player-killing?

Here's a crazy idea: what if we could actually simulate real problems of society in MMORPGs and harness the power of players in solving those problems? For example, homelessness or pollution?

What if these MMORPGs were modelled such that they actually reflected real aspects of the world, creating an environment where we could actually experiment with different public policies, or even have the numerous players (who are clearly very intelligent people) try to figure out different solutions to these problems? Try out different ideas that may eventually influence what we actually do in the real world?

One example that's pushing in this direction is University of Washington's UrbanSim, where they try to predict what the impact of different public policy decisions will be on the environment. (They also run tests on old data to make sure their model matches the actual

I'm aware of how difficult this would be, all of the barriers in making convincing and realistic models, in making an appropriate reward system to incentivize players, in convincing game developers to implement features to make it happen, in actually convincing academic scholars in sociology and public policy as well as policy makers that these ideas can be realistically and feasibly implemented with the expected results. (I'm a professor in Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon, I have a pretty good idea of how difficult it would be).

But think about the potential here as well. A simulation with thousands of people interacting with one another, where we could try out radical new ideas in solving problems. Think of it as SimSociety. Think of it as a variation of Doug Engelbart's vision, where we need to get better at solving problems because the ones we're facing these days are far harder than anything we've ever seen before. Players could be doing more than just having fun. They could also be making a difference, for the better.

(Special thanks to Jen Mankoff for brainstorming these ideas with me)


  • As more evidence of how many hours people are spending on massively multiplayer games, I would also add all of this excitement about how players in World of Warcraft are coordinating in groups of 100+ to conquer some difficult area and open up a new playable area]

  • One of my friends tells me that some motorcyclists and race car drivers play games like Gran Turismo before a real race, to get a feel for the actual track.

  • Apparently, Project Gotham Racing 3, for XBox, has made a great effort to replicate real cities. Evilgamerz has a side by side comparison showing actual photos taken in Tokyo with corresponding shots in the game. Not multiplayer, but a game where you will learn something useful as a side effect.

  • My economist friends also reminded me of DARPA's terror futures market, where people could bid on what incidents will happen. The idea, before it was canned, was that you could harness the knowledge of a great number of people and make more accurate predictions than groups of analysts. Good idea, terrible marketing.

  • Other researchers have pointed me to America's Army, a game where you take on the role of a US Soldier. This game has a novel design in that you always play "the good guys". If you are storming a base, then you see the defenders as terrorists. However, if you are defending that same base, you see the attackers as enemy forces (probably from North Kosan).

  • There is a new conference called the Serious Games Summit that looks at how to use games for more than just fun.


Anonymous said...

The folks at PARC are up to some serious research on MMPOGs. A list of publications in this area can be found at:


Ashwaria said...

Massive multiplayer games is really awaresome games.I played this game many times and I really enjoyed a lot.