Video games and virtual worlds are big business – recent releases, such as Grand Theft Auto V, have budgets that rival Hollywood blockbusters. But could we use gaming to create social value as well as entertainment? We take a look.
The tech boom has undoubtedly changed the way people interact and consume information. We now have the Internet in the palms of our hands and whole worlds of online friends. And, thanks to the trend for gaming, we can play the parts of soldiers on the battlefield or farmers in the field from the comfort of our armchairs.
A higher gaming purpose?
It’s been suggested that the world’s population spends a whopping three billion hours every week playing video games. That’s a serious amount of brain power being harnessed, and its potential hasn’t gone unnoticed – campaigners are increasingly looking at how we could use games to educate people and create a better world.
Take this week’s announcement from the Red Cross. The charity has partnered with games manufacturer Bohemia Interactive to ensure that real-life rules of conflict are applied to their virtual war zones, with war crimes being punished. And if a "responsible" dimension works for combat games, surely it could work for farming games too?
The virtual field
The popularity of farming-simulation games has skyrocketed in recent years. These role-play platforms, which let the players control various aspects of farm management, including rearing livestock, ploughing fields, and planting and harvesting crops, have become a global phenomenon.
The most famous of these is FarmVille, which was at one time the most popular game on Facebook. Others include Happy Farm, Harvest Moon and Farm Town. Users win points or in-game "currency" when performing certain tasks that will increase their yield and improve farm efficiency. They’re challenging, they’re competitive and they’re addictive.
Farming fun, but with Compassion
We feel that these multiplayer farming simulations are crying out for a makeover – the games could help to educate people about better farming methods and make it second nature to buy and eat less but better meat.
Gameplay could involve winning bonus points for sensible farming methods that nurture animals and the land, including: keeping free-range chickens and pigs, and grass-fed cattle; introducing crop rotation, to improve soil quality; retaining hedgerows, to improve diversity on the farm; implementing organic farming practices; and feeding pigs waste products from the farm kitchen, instead of throwing it into landfill.
In a similar way, points might be lost for keeping livestock indoors for long periods, cramming too many animals into a small space, making fields too large and using fertilisers (dubbed "instant grow" in FarmVille).
As long as these better-farming rules function within the existing structure of a game, it shouldn’t affect enjoyment. In fact, they could be introduced subtly – but after hours of play, it’s likely that some of the messages would begin to filter through and positively shape attitudes towards food and farming.
From pixel to pasture
As a slight aside, it was interesting to see that FarmVille inspired a real-life farm-management scheme known as My Farm Experiment in 2011. More than 10,000 "farmers" worked together through a digital portal to help run a large National Trust estate in Cambridgeshire, voting on issues affecting the day-to-day running of the business. The project is a fascinating example of the potential interest among people to get involved in agriculture through digital technologies.
Game for change
The gaming industry could play a vital role in feeding responsible farming messages back into society and influencing the outlook and behaviours of their devoted fans.
Who knows whether such a new feature would go down well with gamers, but the idea that games developers might begin to build ethical signposts into their products, which are so voraciously devoured by the Facebook Generation, is an exciting one. It could be the start of "game over" for factory farming.