I spent a morning this weekend in a virtual world that promised to teach me (along with each of my 440,000 fellow players) how to become a more productive and generous person.
The experience percolated my thinking about how to change good inclinations into good behaviors, and then make those good behaviors a more natural part of my life through repeated use.
But wait, there was more! Somewhere in the sweaty little palms of all these players, the unremittingly sunny experience also gave me a glimpse of what might be a whole new way “to get ready for” the kind of work where your personal rewards are bound up with the benefits that you bring to the world.
The repetitive activities in this virtual world didn’t feel like rote learning because the over-and-over-again was embedded in the diversions of what was, at least at the front end, only a game. Playing it came with surprises (blinking “opportunities” and “limited time offers”), cheerful reminders (to water my “giving tree” or harvest my carrots), and rewardsfrom all of the “work” I was doing (the “energy,” “experience,” and “good will” credits I kept racking up by remembering to restock Almanzo’s store or to grow my soccer-playing community of friends).
The social benefits game I was playing was WeTopia.
Where once we had to practice our altruism in the real world, it now seems possible for us to do so with a couple of mouse clicks.
(Yes, every one of those yellow, smiley-faced balloons is really a benefit you’ve earned, or are about to earn at your home, farm or factory!)
Can this kind of playful learning really help us to become more productive for ourselves, and more productive for others, in the real world?
That’s certainly WeTopia’s back-end—where the obligations I’d met, and the yields I’d obtained, were taken from this virtual world of chubby multicultural tikes and lite-calypso music and delivered to what looked a lot like their equivalents in the real one.
For example, watering my “giving tree” produces a “special seed” that (once planted) promises to “grow into a hot meal that I can send to the real world to help kids!” The credits I’ve earned from harvesting fields, building houses, or replenishing the bakery all are conglomerated into “Joy!” that is exchanged, by virtual magic, for real dollars and cents when I send it in a hot air balloon to real world charities. Whitney Food Pantry or Haiti Hot Meals 2 for hungry kids!, something called Homeless Children’s Care for kids needing a place to stay!: these were three of the places where I could share my Joy!—that is, after I’d “earned” enough of it to share.
(The exclamation points embedded in the total experience, along with endearing faces like these, help to ensure that it would be difficult for anyone to miss the relentlessly positive, and not entirely unpleasant, rush of generosity in all of this.)
Knowing that nearly 2 billion dollars of virtual goods are purchased on-line in the U.S each year, and that advertising is more tied up than ever with my Facebook experience, put me on the lookout for the funding sources that were helping me to convert all this Joy! into food and shelter for smiling, needy kids.
I didn’t have to look very hard.
While you can power the exchange between virtual to real giving by your hard work and growing skill at the game, you can also do so by buying “building blocks” or other virtual things with your (or your parent’s) credit card. Even when you decline to do so, I noticed that upon delivering my Joy! to the pictures of those smiling kids in Haiti, my currency visually merged with the contributions of the game’s sponsoring advertisers to put actual food on actual tables.
Whether “my” charitable giving came from my hard work, my credit card or one of my advertising partners, I received new goodwill and energy tokens “to do more good later on” in the increasingly complex and engrossing cycle of working and harvesting, giving and receiving.
WeTopia’s platform was interactive across my network. (Sending “gifts” to my Facebook friends would build my inventory of credits, while hopefully turning my connections into good-deed-doers as well.) Its format also tantalized by promising future fun, full of expectancy. (When you pick your strawberries in only 7.3 minutes, or 3.1 hours from now when your fountain starts spouting, all of these additional benefits will be yours!)
What I’m wondering is whether this kind of immersive on-line experience can change real world behavior.
We assume that the proverbial rat in this maze will learn how to press the buzzer with his little paw when the pellets keep coming.
Will he (or she) become even more motivated if he can see that a fellow rat, outside his maze, also gets pellets every time he presses his buzzer?
And what happens when he leaves the maze?
Is this really a way to prepare the shock troops needed to change the world?