06/29/2011 08:59 EDT | Updated 08/29/2011 05:12 EDT

Playing Video Games for Social Change

As school wraps up and kids retreat to virtual worlds, parents fear their children are hunkered down in the basement, slaying aliens. What if they were solving real-world problems? Could video games be the antidote to apathy?

Mission One: Tokyo, 2020. The city is on the verge of famine, with rice rations expected to run out in weeks. Pacific fisheries are at an all-time low. Temperatures are rising; crops are dying. The population is malnourished. It's not just Tokyo, but the entire world.

Will you help? You, yes you, can become part of a global network of secret agents who must complete 10 missions to solve the world's most pressing problems: poverty, hunger, water security, energy, disaster relief. Humanity needs your help. Go.

As school wraps up and kids retreat to virtual worlds, parents fear their children are hunkered down in the basement, slaying aliens. What if they were solving real-world problems?

Could video games be the antidote to apathy?

The scenario above is Evoke, an online game developed by the World Bank Institute with designer Jane McGonigal. A comic-book narrative calls on players to become agents of social change.

Using the game's "superpowers," such as collaboration, resourcefulness and local insight, they invent solutions to humanity's greatest threats, then share ideas in blog and video posts. The most innovative solutions received seed money, scholarships or mentorships to turn fledgling ideas into functioning social enterprises.

McGonigal is proving that games can engage players in alternate worlds while promoting skills that translate to real life. Gamers experience "urgent optimism," which she describes as the intense desire to achieve something combined with the unwavering belief that anything is possible.

In her 10 years of research at the University of California, Berkeley, she's found that all types of games have positive psychological benefits. With online games, kids are part of global networks as they learn to cope with failure and persevere when faced with a challenge.

We're frequently confronted by kids -- and parents -- who, distraught from tragedies in the daily news, feel frustrated instead of compelled to act. What if the 'can-do' attitude kids learn from video games manifested in their daily actions?

The question seems odd, since we think of video games as an escape from reality. But we grew up in an age of solitary teens playing Mortal Kombat. Maybe it's time to reconsider the social impact of virtual reality.

It used to be that kids had international pen pals to become aware of global issues and promote cultural understanding. Xbox Live now boasts 30 million users worldwide, and that's just one console. Now kids can chat in real-time with friends on the other side of the planet.

Evoke sparked a worldwide movement. Its first round saw 19,000 players collaborate to increase food security and access to clean water, and fight poverty in 130 countries. After 10 weeks they'd founded 50 real-world organizations, including Libraries Across Africa, now in its pilot phase in Gabon.

McGonigal has also built World Without Oil, an online game that simulates the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. Fictional news casts and data feeds list local petroleum prices, explain how food delivery is affected, whether there's rioting or school closures, and players adapt strategies to survive the shortage. McGonigal tracked the 1,700 pilot participants for three years, and most had kept up their energy-conserving habits post gaming.

If we want to turn younger players onto social issues through games, there's Club Penguin's Coins for Change. Kids play as penguin avatars, decorate their igloos and earn coins to distribute, prioritizing needs and assessing social impact by donating to real-world causes. So far, Club Penguin charities, including Free The Children, have helped 200,000 kids go to school and provided medical care for two million people across the world.

Still, there are miss fires. Recently, the Danish Refugee Council had to suspend a game called "The City That Shouldn't Exist," where players tried to help 100,000 starving refugees destined for the world's biggest camp. The prize for participants was a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Dadaab, home to 332,000 refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. This game was accused of being in bad taste.

But video games, with some sensitivity, hold the promise of reaching new levels of engagement on an epic scale, instead of an escape from responsibility and reality.

His Holiness the Dali Lama once told us that the greatest plague of our time is raising a generation of passive bystanders. Collectively, people around the world play three billion hours of online games per week. Think of it as a potential investment in social capital.