21 November 2013

Imagining the World in Games

Many of my waking hours as a boy were given over to imagining and playing solo games like Bedroom Hoops Basketball; Front-Yard Mini-Football; Concrete Foundation Backstop Baseball; and Stick Pebble Home Run Derby. In this imaginary world I played each athletic position, provided play-by-play narration, and listened to the roaring crowd noises in my mind. I conjured leagues of teams comprised of fictitious personalities who generated real and meticulously recorded statistics.

And as an adolescent insomniac I'd conduct Finger Boxing matches where my left-hand index finger would pluck my right-hand index finger, and vice versa. When my left-hand index finger received a roundhouse pluck, it'd stagger then strike back. After rounds of stinging blows from the left and the right, one finger would deliver the knock out that ended the match.

Imagination is fertile ground. Games engage us, but more importantly, games can motivate inquiry and inspire a deeper understanding of observable events and phenomena.


Game designer Jane McGonigal demonstrates the brilliant Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling in her TED talk. With the novelty of thumb wresting as a communal activity, she describes the opportunity for participants to experience ten positive emotions in 60 seconds or less. Emotions like joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, wonder, contentment, and creativity.

Humans are an emotion-seeking species. Emotions engage and grip us. And emotions experienced through communal activities can be a powerful community-building potion.

My early imaginary games were a self-indulgent escape hatch from boredom, but today I brainstorm about competitive games that might bring people together through shared experiences of the world.

One such game is GrokEarth.

Grok is a word coined by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that means to understand intuitively or by empathy.

GrokEarth is competition based on live earthquakes occurring around the earth. Participants select GPS stations around the world. A participant's stations accrue daily points based on their proximity to the seismic jostling of the Earth's crust. Whether we feel the earthquakes or not, hundreds of them are recorded daily in our largest cities and remotest islands. The higher the magnitude of the earthquake, and the closer the GPS stations are to the epicenter, the more points accrued.

Games like GrokEarth have promise as educational tools. To gain a competitive edge one must inquire and acquire a deeper understanding.

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