The average World of Warcraft player spends between 16 and 22 hours a week fighting monsters, completing quests and wandering around looking at CGI scenery.

At 11.5 million subscribers, this amounts to 210 million hours of game-play every week. This is a source of great hope for the Institute for the Future’s Jane McGonigal. “Whoever figures out how to effectively engage them first for real work is going to reap enormous benefits,” she says in her new book Reality is Broken .

According to McGonigal, the way to do this is to “gamify” so-called “real work”. Her new book looks to the enormous potential of game-play as a way of rethinking participation in our social systems. She thinks that games might be an ideal platform for empowering citizens to change the world and to re-imagine more inclusive, kinder societies.

This philosophy of “gaming for social good” has taken off in recent years, with games popping up seeking to tackle issues of hunger, poverty, community cohesion, environmental sustainability and education.

At MaRS, developers such as Steven Brown of Practiquest have created games designed to teach social skills like empathy and respect to elementary school students. Practiquest is an anti-bullying game that engages and challenges students. Brown’s greatest success is the number of students who log in from home to continue playing
outside the classroom.

Good World Games
Toronto-based Good World Games recently released My Conservation Park, a socially conscious game that sees players build and manage a wildlife reserve

Windsor-based Online Training and Education Portal (OTEP) has turned the entire process of assessing students suspected of having autism or developmental delays into a video game. Since students spend so much time playing games anyway, President Rob Whent figured out a way to use the medium to reveal information to psychologists and educators on the needs of their students.

McGonigal has designed her own fair share of games for social good. SuperBetter ( is a game designed for patients with acute injuries. McGonigal reframes rehab milestones as “missions” and rebrands your support group as “allies” in your quest to “level up” (i.e. get better).

The Extraordinaries is a game with a dashboard very similar to World of Warcraft, where players choose an avatar and build up virtual treasure and experience points by performing quests. The only twist is that the quests are real-life activities, like locating a defibrillator in an apartment building, or bringing an isolated senior her weekly groceries.

Online, games such as and rely on a business model where advertisers pay for food and water for impoverished communities in exchange for eyeballs on ads. Folding@home and are games that allow average people to fold proteins into different configurations, earning points and leveling up while contributing to the complex body of knowledge on protein behavior.

A screenshot from, a game where players fold proteins, which helps researchers understand to target them with drugs

EVOKE is an on-line game published by the World Bank that is based on a graphic novel set in Africa. In the comic, readers are encouraged to perform quests, earning points by accomplishing real-world challenges. Currently 19,000 game players have envisioned solutions for the comic-world/real-world game like solar-powered boats, community gardens and local libraries.

Considering many video games take place in dystopian landscapes of the future, games can also be an ideal platform for imaging alternate realities. Games like World Without Oil, CityOne, CEO2 and Lost Joules allow us to play through different scenarios that seek to imagine a world of clean, renewable energy.

Games don’t even need to be very high-tech to be successful. MaRS client Mary Jane and Carol McPhee have created a board-game called Lifetimes: The Game of Reminiscence, designed as a way to bring together multiple generations of families and friends eager to share their past experiences.

Initiatives like this are starting to be recognized as a movement. The New York-based Games for Change supports the creation of social impact games by gamifying usually boring content from government agencies or not-for-profits.

So if you’re in the game development business, it’s time to add a third criteria to your list of what constitutes success: 1. make some money, 2. engage players and 3. change the world.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…