Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 10:23 UK

How games will change the world

By Margaret Robertson
Games consultant

TVC office
Can games make the office a more stimulating place

I'm insufferably lucky: for the last few years I've made my living playing. First as a games journalist and now as a consultant, my work is - partially at least - a game.

Yesterday, alongside e-mails and reports and statistics, my work included playing five games - one old Dos (Disk operating system) game, one Wii, and three Flash games.

For now, I'm in a minority, but within a few years, many - if not all of us - will be able to say the same. Soon we'll all be playing at work.

The first signs of the shift may come when you apply for a job. Already, the rising reputation of gaming has changed how people handle it on their CVs.

Once a taboo amongst all those impressively fraudulent hobbies listed at the bottom of the page ("Orienteering, wetlands conservation, daguerreotyping and blow-fish preparation" it says on mine) gaming now takes pride of place.

It's becoming increasingly common for gamers to list things like running World Of Warcraft guilds in their applications, and increasingly common for employers to recognise the organisational, managerial and inter-personal skills such experience brings.

Employers are already looking at Facebook profiles

And, just as employers are now routinely checking applicants' FaceBook pages to gauge their characters, there's no reason for them not to check their online gaming identities.

A seemingly innocent Xbox 360 GamerCard widget on a personal blog will give a future employer a great deal of information on how much time someone spends gaming, how skilled they are, how obsessive, how collaborative, how determined.

High scores

How long before you find yourself proudly appending your Brain Training data or your Hexic high scores to an online application form?

And even once you're in the interview, the games won't necessarily stop.

Psychometric tests - widely used, but also widely criticised for being too formulaic and too easy to cheat - seem a poor and clumsy tool compared to the kind of insight a well designed game can give you into someone's ability and character.

Xbox GamerCard
Should your GamerCard be scrutinised to assess your skills?

Any online gaming veteran knows how quickly games reveal whether someone's a risk-taker or a banker, impetuous or strategic, obedient or rebellious - and how hard it is to fake your responses in the heat of the moment.

And, as the population becomes ever more game literate, there's less and less reason to rely on the old-fashioned, inert interfaces that so many psychometric tests require.

So say your CV and your performance in Battlefield: Office Combat pass muster. In the future there's no reason that what's waiting for you at your desk on your first day won't be a game.

More and more we're finding that game mechanics, and game presentation, can make otherwise difficult or tedious tasks more palatable.

The pioneer in this field was The ESP Game, which uses an online game mechanic to coax human players into labelling pictures for image-based search engines.

Great success

Its great success has produced a stream of similar projects, not least the cluster of word and image based games now housed at Carnegie Mellon's Gawp.

Projects like the Firefox plug-in PMOG show how the application of tried and tested gaming incentives - experience points, levels, medals - can change how people interact with software they use for work every day.

Similar projects to make e-mail management more playful are also underway.

FoldIt uses a graphical gloss and high-score hunger to lure ignorant oafs like me into spending an hour on some cutting-edge bio-chemical research we wouldn't otherwise be qualified for.

So are we heading towards a utopia? And an end to boring spreadsheets, and a new dawn where the ugly repetitiveness of much of the work we do can be masked with adventure, achievement, and excitement? Not entirely.

A hallmark of all of the projects listed above is that they use the entertainment inherent in play to convince people to work for free.

For now, all of them are running for fun or for research or charity purposes, but that trend won't last.

Google has already adapted The ESP Game to help up its commercial advantage, and has enlisted an army of unpaid players in the process.

PMOG's user-created missions currently award medals for visiting much-loved sites a particular number of times a week, but there's no reason a commercial equivalent couldn't use a similar tactic to encourage traffic to advertiser's sites.

And while the idea of call-centre work being enlivened by a gaming ethos is an appealing prospect, the notion of employers offering lower wages to those being enabled to play at working is all too easy to imagine. Will we be so comfortable with the idea once it's all play, no pay?

We may be some years off play becoming that closely integrated into our working lives, but make no mistake that gaming has already had an enormous impact on many of our jobs.

How enormous? The inspiration behind the ESP game came from creator Luis von Ahn's calculation that we spend nine billion hours a year playing Window's Solitaire - and most of it, I'd wager, while at work.

Couple that with recent estimations that the entirety of Wikipedia took only 100 million hours to create, and that means we could be making around a 100 Wikipedias a year if only Solitaire was a shell for something worthwhile, rather than a deliciously infuriating waste of time.

How long do you think employers will keep ignoring stats like that?

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