Five secret ways that games are changing the world.

This post is part of a content series presented in partnership with smartwater. smartwater, simplicity is delicious. 

Jane McGonigal’s 2011 best-selling book Reality is Broken inspired a young generation of game-players to think more broadly about the impact that their controller-wielding lives had on the rest of the world. But aside from games for the World Bank, how exactly are games changing the lives of people around the world? Below are five examples you may not have seen, demonstrating how games are being deployed in novel and powerful ways.

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Unraveling the mysteries of RNA:


Stanford and Carnegie Mellon researchers are creating environments where we can now “play” God with one of life’s building blocks. More than a quarter million people played the protein folding game Fold It, and now its spiritual successor EteRNA challenges you with the task of arranging molecules to design complex RNA strands. Every two weeks, between four and 16 different strands are then synthesized at Stanford. The ideas is that crowdsourcing creativity will open doors to possibilities that one researcher could have never imagined.

“It’s pretty incredible to imagine that somewhere there’s a piece of RNA that I designed that never existed anywhere in nature before,” says Robert Rogoyski, a New York City patent attorney who has had 14 of his EteRNA designs selected for synthesis. He told Wired: “It could encode a protein that no one has ever seen, something that’s important in the discovery of the next blockbuster glaucoma or cancer drug.”

Making us smile:

Can playing happy games make us happy? That’s the subject of the research of Katherine Isbister, a professor at NYU-Poly who we interviewed in Kill Screen Magazine issue #3. Her project “Emotion and Gesture in Games” is centered around a simple idea—the type of movements we make in games can affect our mood.  If you’re playing party games with wild motions that imitate a good feeling, you’ll start feeling that way too.

“Basically, if you move as if you’re happy, you’ll start to feel happy, and then you’ll just label yourself as happy,” she told us. “It’s almost as if your brain is catching up to your body, like, ‘Oh, I must be happy?”

Of course, it’s a lot easier to get into the spirit when you’re wearing one of the custom hats she created for her game Wriggle to study the phenomena. But isn’t that the point of playing games anyway?

Bridging the language gap:


At this year’s Games for Change summit, game designer Chris Bell recounted a tale of getting lost in Tokyo.  After being separated from friends at Tsukiji fish market, the world’s largest wholesale fish market, the former USC student was utterly adrift in a foreign country with no way to find his way. Fortunately, fate intervened:

That person happened to be a woman, about 60 or so years old, speaking to a man in a truck. Upon hearing me she turned, and I pointed to the display and threw my hands up as if to question “Where is this?”. She immediately ended her conversation, grabbed my hand and took off running. We ran about four blocks to the shrine, just as my classmates were boarding the bus to leave. She bowed, smiled, and disappeared forever.

Bell was so inspired by the experience that he used it to create a game called Way, a game designed to bridge languages. Two players don’t need to communicate verbally to solve puzzles, but use universal signals and gestures to “speak.” Try an early version here.

Exposing the roots of revolution:


Navid Khonsari spent years making the cinematic “cut scenes” that interjected the violent gameplay of titles like Grand Theft Auto III and later the moody Alan Wake. But leading a team of actors in a motion capture studio wasn’t all Khonsari wanted to do with his talents. He dreamed of bringing new stories to the world of game players from places they rarely saw or thought about.

Born in Iran, Khonsari chose the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution to frame his upcoming title, 1979, a story of trust, betrayal, bravery, and triumph. The player takes on a number of different roles, from an Iranian born US translator, to a theocratic militant citizen, to an anti-Shah, pro-democracy student. Khonsari also plans to make 1979 one of the first big action titles for tablet devices—all in pursuit of the glory of history.

Diagnosing diabetes:

Polish gaming company Use It Better was initially using its technology to help gaming companies identify cheating players. It’s a lucrative business, bringing in more than $10,000 per client, but founder Lukasz Twardowski (above) has his eyes set on bigger sights. He believes he can use his analytics technology to detect a whole range of human behavior—diabetes, color blindness, or ADD, for example.

When we play games, we are behaving in a particular way, but we usually do so in private. Twardowski’s system has been described as a surveillance camera for gamers, and this allows him unprecedented access to how people are thinking. The unwitting decisions and faces we  make while playing games, however, could be useful to researchers who can collect real data from people and draw conclusions from their behavior. So don’t fret—all those hours spent playing Cut the Rope aren’t for naught. They could save your life someday.