Lisa Smith

Jeffery Sachs, Video Games and Social Change

In mid-December Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City, came to the University of Michigan to discuss “Sustainable Development Politics, Policy and Priorities.” (You can find a recording of the talk below). To improve global sustainable development, Sachs suggested combining economic aspirations with environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation. His discussion focused on the relatively low concern for the environment in many developed countries as well as rapid economic convergence (i.e., the ability of developing countries to narrow the income gap by absorbing technologies available from developed countries).

Through his discussion of economic convergence, Sachs pointed out concerns over future population and economic growth, specifically way in which current economic models neglect to consider boundary constraints in development. For instance, these models should take into account the available technological capacity to support economic and population growth. Sachs demonstrated through his discussion that not only do we have a very good idea of the environmental thresholds of the planet, (Rockstrom et al, Nature Magazine Sept. 23, 2009 “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity”) but we also have many technologies available to make the appropriate changes to reverse and/or prevent future damage.

This lecture ended with what I felt was just the beginning of another discussion, one which focused on the national sentiment toward climate change and environmental policy. By and large, as cited by Sachs from the Pew Research Center’s survey on climate change, certain societal groups within the United States have moved away from the belief that human activity is a primary cause of global warming and that global warming is a result of natural climate change. This may not be new news, however, it does bring up the point that in order for large social change with implications for poverty alleviation to occur, there must be a certain degree of social/political will involved.

The issue deepens when considered in the context of today’s society or perhaps more importantly, tomorrow’s society. In a recent interview on the NPR program, “On the Media,” program host Brooke Gladstone interviewed Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, a game design and development studio. Schell said he sees changes in society this way: “… the twenty-first century is going to be a war on the attention of humanity; where a civilization focuses its attention, that’s what defines what the civilization cares about.” The connection to Sachs’ discussion of environmental change and sustainability is direct: How can we maintain purposeful and productive interest in sustainable development practices within a population, society and world that is growing exponentially and moving from one new activity to another at an increasing pace?

The discussion with Schell during “On the Media” focused on the integration of meaning and purpose into video games. This idea was discussed as an opportunity to engage a specific population with a unique skill set (i.e., gamers) in work solving larger societal issues. The suggestion of Schell and Jane McGonigal, who also is interviewed toward the end of the program, is to engage the millions of gamers who already operate in collaborative environments, in tasks that are relevant to today’s issues, thus potentially translating their behavior/skill sets into real-life contexts. Video gamers represent a large population of individuals who are simulating life experiences while also developing practical skills such as decision making and task management, usually performing these tasks at once. McGonigal goes so far as to list traits of gamers that make them prime candidates for future meaning-infused gaming and an unprecedented human resource for problem solving. These qualities include:

  1. Urgent optimism: Desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope for success
  2. Ability to weave a tight social fabric: Building up trust, spending time with individuals, developing bonds and working toward social cooperation.
  3. Blissful productivity: We are happier working hard than when we are relaxing if we are given the right work.
  4. Epic meaning: Attached to awe-inspiring missions and innovations and working to create information resources that help us to understand our world better.

All of these elements, McGonigal argues, add up to the belief of many gamers that they are individually capable of changing their virtual world (Listen to her TED talk here). The remaining issue is then to transfer this energy from the satisfaction of online gaming communities to real-life issues like Sachs’ description of environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation. McGonigal’s argument, and Schell’s for the most part, both center on the realization that gamers don’t feel the same way about solving problems in real life as they do in game settings. Their objective is to catalyze the problem-solving capacity of this population into new circumstances that are socially relevant.

This objective is not unlike Sachs’ goal of using available technologies, coupled with human capacity and political will for change, to improve our sustainable practices. Much like the video game industry, I would argue that many professions are moving to projects, missions, ventures etc. that are socially relevant (a prime example being corporate social responsibility). The example of video gamers can easily be substituted for other disciplines of work or specific populations with a unique skill set.

After considering these seemingly unrelated, yet converging discussions of modernity, I was brought back to the idea of social entrepreneurship. As traditionally defined, a social entrepreneur is someone who “identifies and solves social problems on a large scale. Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society, seizing opportunities others miss in order to improve systems, invent and disseminate new approaches and advance sustainable solutions that create social value.” (Excerpt taken from The New Heroes a PBS series). As I reflected on this definition, I was reminded of those defining features McGonigal described within gamers-optimism, trust, productivity and meaning. The ideals align fairly well.

Perhaps one of the greatest responsibilities with which social entrepreneurs are charged is to become a broker of social change; that is, creating systems for collaboration, inventing new ways of solving social problems and disseminating this information in a way that appeals to individuals from a variety of backgrounds and expertise. Social entrepreneurs can help to answer questions like: How can we improve the translation of larger problems requiring both innovation and collaboration so that we engage a diversity of groups within society, while still building on the skill sets and unique interests? Furthermore, in doing so, how can we garner support and motivate individuals to remain engaged even in a society where attention is a commodity?

In addressing the large-scale environmental challenges described by Sachs, social entrepreneurs will not only play a role in innovative business solutions, product development and technological advances but also in catalyzing social/political will and captivating the attention of the masses. Moving forward, social entrepreneurs can and will likely be a decisive voice in shaping “where a civilization focuses its attention” and in doing so, help to define “what the civilization cares about.”