Listening to Jane McGonigal’s podcast,Gaming as a Spiritual Practice on Buddhist Geeks shortly before her book, Reality Is Broken, was published in February, I was struck by the similarity between her vision for how gaming can make a better world, and Clay Shirky’s notion of “cognitive surplus.”
McGonigal estimates that people spend 3 billion hours a week playing games. While they’re immersed in games people are highly motivated to take on epic challenges, work productively and collaboratively, and accomplish big goals.
McGonigal says that people can be induced to behave this way in the real world too – to use their skills, time and energy to make the world a better place. They would be motivated by the same things that motivate them in the virtual world: the joy of the challenge, their confidence that they can make a difference, the pleasure in being part of something larger, their interest in achieving the goal.
Clay Shirky would describe what gamers have to offer as “cognitive surplus,” and says this commodity is already being put to use on projects that have in his words, “civic value” – projects that make the world a better place.
In his TED talk, Shirky describes how people with the skills and the desire to be of help stepped up and used available digital technology to create the crisis-mapping platform Ushahidi. Ushahidi is now in use around the world.
Did the challenge that produced Ushahidi have the elements of a game as Jane McGonigal describes them?
- a clearly articulated challenge
- required skills
- specific roles to play
- opportunity for satisfying work
- feeling of belonging to something bigger
So do the ideas of “cognitive surplus,” and game-playing only apply to helping solve crises and major newsworthy events? Can they be harnessed to accomplish smaller tasks on a local level? Could they be harnessed to help small museums rejuvenate themselves to serve old and/or find new communities more usefully?
This question is fueled by Nick Poole’s distressing post on the OpenCulture blog, about the perceived irrelevance of small local and historical museums – the ones that don’t have blockbuster, or even new, exhibitions, or a social media presence, and are not as visitor-focused as most museum-goers expect these days. They’re stuck and need to evolve if they’re going to survive, but they lack financial and other resources to do it.
Enter cognitive surplus. Both McGonigal and Shirky believe that the volunteer manpower is everywhere. It just needs to be attracted, and nurtured.
I bet there’s local “cognitive surplus” in every community that can be harnessed. Can a project designed with a game like scaffold help local museums dust themselves off and demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities and niche content audiences?
One place to look might soon be the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, where Nina Simon has recently become the Executive Director. Both of these notions are related to the concept of “participatory engagement,” and as she wrote in her announcement about taking the job, “I also believe that small and mid-sized museums are the leaders when it comes to innovation, particularly around participatory engagement.”
If you know of examples where this is happening right now, please share them here.