Crowdfunding is Gamification Solving Real Problems

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In her popular TED talk and resulting book from 2010, game designer Jane McGonigal argues that gaming can make a better world. She posits that if we, as humans, approached real-world problems with the same sense of control and collaboration that we bring to multiplayer role-playing games, we could solve them. So, we should do it. We should make solving big real-life problems more like playing games.

McGonigal’s daring proposition comes from research that she did years ago, after having observed the different way that people react to challenges in games and in real life. When we confront obstacles in real life, we often feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or cynical, but when we play games, she found, we never have those feelings. She wanted to identify what it was about multiplayer games that inspired such a positive attitude, and concluded through her research that it came down to four things that the gamers experience:

1) an urgent and reasonable hope of success;
2) a fabric of trust created through interacting with other players;
3) a feeling of flow; and
4) the feeling of making a difference in an important quest.

As McGonigal sums up, gamers are empowered, hopeful individuals who believe that they can change the world. The only problem is, the worlds they believe they are capable of changing are virtual, not real. (But one real advantage of a virtual world, as’s Kevin Berg Kartaszewicz-Grell points out, is that it may inspire us to overcome everyday mental barriers and nurture a greater empathy that we then can experience in all worlds.)

So how do you apply the power of gamification to real life problems?

McGonigal’s own SuperBetter provides a game-like frame that motivates and rewards people to help themselves recover from illness. Darfur Is Dying raises awareness of the war in Sudan by dramatizing how dangerous and difficult it is for refugees to get water. In a different vein, Kapitall gamifies the first-world problem of managing a stock portfolio, representing it as a “playground.”

But more broadly, I see crowdfunding as a gamification of the real world. Through crowdfunding, just as in a massively multiplayer game, you can create or join new quests and easily connect with others who want to collaborate. Through an easy click interface, you access and direct your money to do the things you want, and your contributions are recognized and appreciated by others instantly. Many games distill real-world phenomena and compress the time they take to unfold; similarly, crowdfunding and other forms of crowdsourcing focus on specific projects and speed them up to a point where limited attention spans no longer find them too slow, frustrating, or boring. You can invite people to crowd-redesign their local public spaces using Minecraft, say “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum” on IndieGoGo, or organize an Amish barn-raising in person — the underlying mechanic is not so different either way.

Also like games, crowdfunding can be addictive. One recent article wonders if serial Kickstarter backers are “do-gooders or addicts.” From personal experience, I know that it’s both.

If crowdfunding resembles games, then we might expect gamers to be the most avid crowdfunders. And indeed, they are. The Games category on Kickstarter raises more money than any of the other twelve categories on the site. And, according to statistics from ThingsWeStart, game projects raise the most money per category, even though they have the second-lowest per-person pledge amounts.

The primacy of games in crowdfunding is even more dramatic when you look at the blockbuster projects on Kickstarter that have raised over $1 million. To date, nine projects in the Games category have raised between $1 and $10 million, most recently Star Citizen, which raised more funds off of its own site ($4.1M) than it even did via Kickstarter ($2.1M). In all other Kickstarter categories combined, eight projects have topped $1 million. One of these is a Virtual Reality game headset classified under Technology, and another is a reprint of a comic book series about a group of friends who play role-playing games. So that makes 11 out of 17 blockbuster Kickstarter projects that are game-centric.
It’s true that games lend themselves to crowdfunding for purely practical reasons: unlike physical products, they’re cheap and easy to duplicate, distribute, and update. But so do other types of software, which do not share the enthusiasm and success of Games among crowdfunders. Many people dig crowdfunding, but gamers dig it the most.

So if crowdfunding is gamifying collective efforts in the real world, then it’s not surprising that gamers are leading the way. The rest of us, the non-gamers, can learn much from the hopeful and empowered mindset that they are bringing to the real world. Like modern day Don Quixotes, role-playing gamers think in terms of epic narratives and beautifully dare to apply them to their own lives. Now, by embracing crowdfunding, they are showing the rest of humanity how to join countless real-world quests designed to conquer the forces of evil. Or at least create fun new games.

– Thanks to Kevin Berg Kartaszewicz-Grell for helpful discussion.