Halo 3, the action, shooter video game, earned $170 million within 24 hours of its release in September. That's more than the estimated first-day revenue of every Harry Potter book and Hollywood blockbuster to date.
And it's not just Halo 3: Video games are expected to earn $37.5 billion this year. But the global gaming world is not only producing revenues. It's also creating new ways of thinking intelligently – one that will help digital gamers contribute to society by helping solve real-world problems.
The much anticipated release of Halo 3 sparked a frenzy of online collaboration. Players immersed themselves in the game not just to enjoy it, but also so they could be among the first to share their strategies and discoveries on the Internet. By the end of Day 1, hundreds of thousands of gamers had built a sprawling and sophisticated body of online resources. They compiled what they'd collectively learned – secrets, tactics, lessons – on discussion forums, blogs, and wikis. (A wiki is a collaborative website that allows users to create and edit content.) They uploaded and annotated maps, videos, and screenshots.
One popular Halo 3 forum now features more than 2 million replies to about 150,000 topics. There's also Halopedia, a wiki devoted entirely to the Halo universe. Halopedia is currently the fourth most active wiki on the Wikia network, with almost 4,000 articles and counting. In fact, three of Wikia's top five most active wikis are dedicated to creating shared knowledge about digital games.
These gamers' collective knowledge-building projects represent one of the most important aspects of contemporary video game culture, but also one of the most overlooked. Despite stereotypes of antisocial gamers who prefer to consume rather than create, most video-gamers are in fact engaged in a highly collaborative effort to exhaustively understand their favorite games. The video-gaming community is, quite simply, engaged in intense and highly successful "collective intelligence."
The term "collective intelligence" was coined by French philosopher Pierre Levy in 1994. He argued that, because the Internet allows a rapid, open, and global exchange of data and ideas, the network should "mobilize and coordinate the intelligence, experience, skills, wisdom, and imagination of humanity" in new and unexpected ways.
Thanks to the unique nature of digital gaming, gamers may be the world's most literate and practiced community when it comes to developing these new, real-world skills of collaboration and collective intelligence.
The emergence of a collective intelligence culture among video-gamers is not surprising when you consider that all games, even nondigital ones, are at heart both a social and a problem-solving activity – the two core ingredients of any collective-intelligence effort. Decades before the invention of video games, Albert Einstein, an avid chess player, wrote, "Games are the most elevated form of investigation."
When playing the same game, players' attention and intelligence are focused together on solving the problems posed by the game, which are often visual-spatial, psychological, and strategic. The networked nature of today's most popular digital games heightens this social, problem-solving effect. At any given time, there are massively more players for an individual to collaborate with. The Internet amplifies the learning by allowing collaborative authoring environments such as wikis and forums.
Many game developers are starting to realize the potential of this new collaborative task force to tackle real-world issues as they play.
This spring, the Independent Television Service released an online game called World Without Oil, for which I was a lead designer. World Without Oil was designed to harness the collective intelligence of gamers and apply it to a serious global problem. It invited players to participate in a collaborative simulation of a global oil shortage. They spent six weeks investigating an online mystery that explained the reasons for the shortage. Then more than 1,800 gamers from 12 countries spent another 32 days generating their own stories about the crisis and strategizing ways to manage it.
During the game, players worked from a shared "alternate reality dashboard," which provided real-time data on oil prices and availability, as well as descriptions of their impact on regional economies, society, and quality of life. They used this data to inspire their own ideas about how the fictional crisis would affect them personally and play out in their part of the world. They contributed fictional firsthand experiences and proposed real-world solutions to our oil dependence in thousands of blog posts, podcasts, videos, and wiki articles. The result is an online, immersive archive of the collective forecast and solutions toolkit created by the players (which you can find at www.worldwithoutoil.org).
Parents and educators can help young gamers benefit from this positive phenomenon by encouraging them to take part in collaborative forums, wikis, and other knowledge-sharing platforms online.
And hard-core gamers can take pride in knowing that, as they play, they are taking part in the most elevated form of investigation – all while training to solve the world's toughest problems.