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Introduction: Online games for civic engagement

Online games have an incredible potential to unite the collective power of society to foster sustainable innovation. Ever since the ancient Egyptians, gaming has been a way to engage people and challenge them to find new solutions. Nowadays, millions of people commit billions of hours a year to playing games in virtual communities. Whether it’s “Farmville”, “World of Warcraft” or “Angry Birds”, serious gamers spend on average 20 hours per week working to solve “epic problems”.

The passion, dedication and enthusiasm that these games generate are a powerful force. However, they are currently often self-centred in nature and promote a culture of individual consumerism in a world with infinite resources, without a sustainable outlook. Yet if this energy was harnessed through games with a positive and socially beneficial purpose, there would be the potential to create an engaged and active community that contributes to a socially sustainable future.

The concept of gamification, the use of game design techniques and game mechanics to enhance interactions and participation in non-game contexts, has already been successful in the private sector. Nike+, Foursquare and Zynga are only some examples of companies that have fruitfully applied gamification dynamics to their businesses. If this model was translated to the civil society sector, the themes of creativity, problem solving and teamwork implicit in the gaming world could result in tangible social change.

Digital technology is at the forefront of social innovation and can respond to developments in the social sector in real-time. For example, Data Dealer, the Games for Change Festival 2013 winner for Most Significant Impact is an accessible and engaging environment in which users can learn more about the hot issue of internet privacy. By exploiting the competitive nature of the gaming world, users experience the moral and legal issues of internet privacy and become engaged in the debate.  

At their heart, games are a creative and entertaining form of education which allow users to explore new environments and learn from mistakes in a safe environment, in order to progress. By participating in virtual communities to solve social issues, online games could be used as a tool in the creation of sustainable social change.

More needs to be done to change the culture of games from that of individual consumerism to civic engagement. How can we ensure that the virtual learning experience is translated from the fantasy world to the real world? Is it possible to actively promote the educational aspect of games without detracting from the identity of entertainment? Will games only highlight issues instead of inciting active engagement? SIE will be exploring these questions and more in this month’s magazine on Digital Social Innovation.