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If agencies could tap World of Warcraft

Computer games are pretty amazing in their ability to capture the hearts and minds of their players.

And if Eric Hackathorn, the program manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fragile Earth Studios is right, federal agencies are only beginning to scratch the surface with gaming technology, which could be used to get a message out, engage the public and even solve some of the world’s problems.

To prove his point, Hackathorn hosted a GSA webinar July 31 about how government can use game technology to its advantage, and how feds can get involved in the Federal Games Guild, which researches that topic.


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First, he showed how powerful games are as a lure to players. One of the most popular games right now is World of Warcraft. But even I, a pretty hardcore gamer in my own right, was shocked to learn just how popular that massively multiplayer online game really is in terms of man-hours.

According to Hackathorn, in the 10 years the game has been running, players have collectively spent 6 million years worth of time playing. And even less intense games like the ubiquitous Angry Birds sees 16 years worth of collective time spent playing the game every single hour of the day.

“What if we put that effort towards something real?” he asked.

But to do so, feds are going to have to think like gamers. And that means focusing efforts on gaming concepts like leveling, achievements, badges and the social aspects of play. It’s not about bringing games into the federal space, but about using game mechanics to get jobs done, he said.

Basically, games lay out a path to mastery. Everyone wants to be the best, but not everyone has the discipline to achieve it, Hackathorn said. Games focus that drive and energy and can be used to accomplish great things.

A basic gaming concept that feds can start using include leveling, which means giving new perks, or levels, to players for accomplishments within a game. Agencies can use leveling to reward people for continuing to put work into a project and to clear them for greater challenges.

Leveling, interestingly enough, is almost never linear. Several levels typically are gained early on in a game, with advancement becoming progressively harder as play continues, though the difficutly is balanced by the promise of greater rewards.

Another concept is badge-earning, which is slightly different from leveling. Badges are little icons that are difficult to earn and that can be displayed on a user's social media pages. Not all badges can be earned by everyone, which makes possession of them more exclusive. A good example of a federal game that uses badges is NASA’s Space Race Blastoff game on Facebook.

A close cousin of badges is the leaderboard. It generally shows high scores, but can also be used by government to publicly acknowledge those who most participate in a project, such as crowdsourcing solution. And Hackathorn says it’s best if the leaderboards are divided up somehow, so users can see that they are the fifth most important person from their state or town, instead of being the three-millionth person overall. It’s all about engaging your users.

The website at Fragile Earth Studios has lots of examples of game technology that has been successfully used by government. The projects, such as a perfect 3D model of Rock Creek Park and the ReGenesis Project, where users try to fight a future hurricane in the year 2017, are pretty cutting-edge.

And we have seen successes using this technology before, like the Budget Hero game, which explained the complexities of the federal budget in a fun way.

Hackathorn’s point is that the public is hungry to play games, and a clever agency can harness that powerful draw to improve the way it does business, and perhaps even make the world a better place.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Fri, Aug 3, 2012 Evan Larsen florida

Yes, a lot of the popular community sites use gamification to engage their audience to get them to stay on the site longer. Look at StackExchange . com I think they do this the best. They use badges and rewards for people to provide information and bring value to their site. I see people spend hours everyday just to get their points up and earn more rewards which unlock abilities they can do w/in the site.

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 Cowboy Joe

Been pushin' this idea for a couple of years now. The (virtual) Ann Meyers Medical Center was probably one of the better demonstrations of some really useful properties of "gaming" technology. It created a knowledge management system where information could be stored and accessed in a very natural, intuitive fashion. Closer to the original "gaming" concept, Army does some great stuff with virtual world training...and incorporates cross-over reinforcement between "realities". As the old saying went..."Goodby Windows(tm) - hello world!"

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 Paul

Napoleon once said "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon". As a former soldier myself, I've never understood why. Have we declined so much as a civilization that we only strive to excel if there is a shiny medal at the other end? While not hardcore, I am a gamer and I mainly look to level up as a way improving my character and expand my abilities. Badges and such are nice to get but to me are just a side part of the game.

Thu, Aug 2, 2012

Spend that time on something "real"? Like, what, exactly: professional sports? what they call reality TV?

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 Walter Washington, DC

Forgot to mention Foldit. Great game with practical applications.

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