Intriguing reportage on collective intelligence and gamers from Lucas Conley in a recent Fast Company article called "The Wisdom of Gamers":

The Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowiecki perks up at the notion of getting gamers to solve complex problems. "Games are an entertaining way to get people to do labor for you," he says. And gamers, coming from diverse backgrounds, can spark unconventional solutions. "There are certain fundamental assumptions that experts agree upon," Surowiecki says. "Amateurs or outsiders don’t have those assumptions."

Of course, they have to want to play first. "You’ve got to have something that connects to people’s lives in an imaginative way," says Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. While best-selling games such as SimCity and Railroad Tycoon simulate real-world environments, a game about drilling for oil or predicting the weather would have to be far more sophisticated, perhaps integrating real-world data in real time. "It’s an exciting idea," says Jenkins. "Technically, it’s doable, but no one has done it yet."

The idea of harnessing all that creative/entertainment horsepower reminds me again of the SETI project at UC Berkeley: a million screensavers churning away in the background at deep space radio telemetry. Except in the Wisdom of Crowds model, the churning happens in the foreground. In the article’s gaming-as-problem-solving scenario, a game’s level of sophistication would have to match the complexities of its real-life analog. The challenges of designing such a game would be daunting; the more genuine and convincing a game’s approximation of real-life situations, the more its entertainment value leaches away. But what if we try the classic misdirection play? If the problem-solving aspect of a game is sent backstage, the work we’re doing camouflaged by all the interesting fun we’re having, then the motivation remains intrinsic. Hang the problem to be solved on a compelling metaphor, and base the game’s design on that.

Didn’t Mary Poppins have something to say about this? And let’s not forget Tom Sawyer and whitewashing the fence.

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