Computer gamers to save the world

A lecturer from the University of Portsmouth is the only person in Europe with a lead role in a new online computer game aimed at solving some of the world’s most difficult problems such as poverty, hunger and disaster.

Simon Brookes

Simon Brookes, a lecturer in entrepreneurship, is one of the lead mentors on the 10-week game which addresses a new challenge each week. The idea behind the game is that thousands of players from across the world will join forces to generate solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing mankind.

The game, EVOKE, is supported by the World Bank Institute which means there’s real capital behind the enterprise which is aimed fundamentally at tackling problems faced by developing countries such as many of those in Africa. In just two weeks the game has attracted over ten thousand players.

Simon is usually found teaching in the University’s Centre for Enterprise, but his online role bestows him with even more entrepreneurial ‘superpowers’ and involves helping to direct how the game is played, following the game’s progress and encouraging players to collaborate with each other.

Participants gain points for demonstrating qualities such as courage, creativity and resourcefulness and there is a leader board where top ‘agents’ can compare scores. But the game is more than just an online fantasy where players act alone.

Simon said: “The most exciting element is that at the end of the game some of the best ideas will be turned into real life projects on the ground. The prospect of actually making a difference is very real.

“People may never have spoken to each other but they’re communicating online and new groups are forming every day that recognise that they can achieve much more together than they can as individuals. We’re harnessing the power of the many to help the few.

“For me the other motivating factor is that people are being educated about issues they won’t have seriously thought about before. It’s a crash course in changing the world.”

The current challenge is based around the worlds diminishing energy resources; the scenario is that more than 1.5 billion people around the world live without regular access to any reliable electricity. Participant’s skills and ingenuity are challenged to harness renewable power sources, on or off the grid.

“With the world’s energy resources under increasing pressure, it’s a situation we could very well face in the future,” Simon said.

The game’s Creative Director, Jane McGonigal who is a professional game-designer, said that ‘gamers’ are the best people to tackle tough scenarios because they are less likely to give up at the first hurdle. She said: “Computer games constantly challenge the player in more and more difficult ways which helps them develop perseverance and resilience. Gamers are the most optimistic people in the world.”

Simon agrees, and says that the mix of imagination and determination of gaming ties in well with the enterprising essence of the game. He said: “What’s interesting is that whereas the game set out to harness Western ideas about problems faced by developing countries, the game has been picked up by players in those countries too where the entrepreneurial spirit is even more active but where people are more constrained by resources.

“People in developing countries might learn how to look within themselves to find skills they didn’t know they had, but we in the West can learn a lot from them about necessity being the mother of invention.”

The World Bank Institute (WBI) is the arm of the World Bank which delivers education across the globe. Usually it runs learning activities such as training courses and seminars for government officials in developing countries so this is a radical departure. Learning is still key, but this time they hope big ideas will come out of the exercise. Participants who successfully complete the ten game challenges will join the first graduating class of the EVOKE network and become the World Bank Institute Social Innovators Class of 2010.

Simon said: “There are some great things happening on the site already and players are spontaneously organising themselves into groups to solve the problems. For example there is a teachers group who are working on education related problems. We even have a group of librarians who are volunteering their time to provide answers to any questions the agents might need answering. There’s a real sense of community and it’s a huge honour to be involved in something with potential to make world changes.”

It’s not too late to join the game, go to www.urgentevoke.com

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