Peak Youth Gaming for the Public Good

Sarah Severn

Sarah Severn (British, born 1956) has spent the last seventeen years at Nike working on sustainability in numerous roles, now as director of Stakeholder Mobilization, Sustainable Business and Innovation. For twelve years she has led Nike’s efforts in climate change and is now working on activating system-level innovation, based in Beaverton, Oregon.

Kagiso was born in Soweto, South Africa, in 1994, the year Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. She grew up in poverty but through a series of early interventions was able to stay in school, became part of a girl’s soccer league that included education about HIV prevention, and ultimately gained a university scholarship to study computer science. By 2014 Kagiso was studying Chinese, with many of her courses delivered online. She was already clear that she was going to set her sights on completing some of her graduate studies in China, as she wanted to immerse herself in the culture of a country that was making huge land and natural resources acquisitions in Africa. She obtained a scholarship to North Carolina State in the United States, which in turn enabled her to study at the China Agricultural University, a partner university. An extensive internship at Oxfam enabled her to look at sustainable intensification farming practices in sub-Saharan Africa. During her graduate studies Kagiso became a huge fan of EVOKE, the social-networking game designed to unleash solutions to global problems and foster social entrepreneurs. She won seed funding for her idea and returned to Africa to establish her own business delivering access to agricultural extension services through mobile technology. Kiva investments provided further start-up capital, and the business was established as a cooperative. By the time she was thirty Kagiso had over two hundred employees and the business was expanding into other countries across Africa. By 2052 Kagiso had developed and sold several businesses, primarily related to the deployment of mobile technology and the use of social networking and gaming to solve many of the most pressing environmental and social problems facing the African continent.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century we reached an era of peak youth, a time in history when the share of youth in the world’s population was almost 29%. By 2025 there will be 72 million more, but the share will have been reduced to 23%.

In 2012 most youth live in developing countries. More of them are educated and fewer of them live in poverty. Their life expectancy is higher, and they are more connected to each other and the rest of the world, having grown up as “digital natives.” Their educational opportunities have improved. Still they live in a world of growing inequity, increasingly scarce resources, and human-induced climate change. Roughly 12 million of those aged fifteen to twenty-four are living with AIDS, three-quarters of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, where the life expectancy is now only forty-six years. On top of all this unemployment levels among youth are increasing globally.

Amid all the narrative of tragedy and breakdown, however, there are signals from the influences shaping the world and values of youth today that give us reason for hope. In 2052 today’s youth will have assumed leadership roles in government, business, and civil society.

Many of them will not have waited this long to usher in a new future, however, but will have broken through with social and environmental innovation through their own start-up enterprises. In general this youth cohort, often referred to as the Millennials, appear to be:

– More connected: A recent Accenture report on Millennials’ use of technology showed that Chinese youth spend an average of thirty-four hours each week using real-time communications and social media/networking tools. This is almost triple the average of the other twelve countries profiled in the report. Additionally, the percentage of those using mobile phones is rapidly growing worldwide.

– Demanding of transparency: Millennials’ use of digital technology shows that they are prepared to share a great deal about themselves, and they expect a similar degree of transparency from business and government. They have less trust in business and public institutions than previous generations. The age of the Internet and Wikileaks has given this generation the opportunity to see through the emperor’s clothes, and they don’t necessarily like what is revealed. With prospects for traditional forms of employment very weak, an increasingly educated and globally connected youth will continue to become more politically active through necessity.

More supportive of liberal and progressive agendas: In the United States it is clear that youth are politically more progressive, and the youth vote was largely credited with Obama’s success in 2008. The Egyptian uprising and other movements across the Middle East in 2011 also represented well-educated youth movements choosing to change repressive regimes that do not serve their needs, and organizing through the use of mobile technology and social media.

– More flexible: This is a generation in which many don’t expect to have a lifelong career in the traditional sense. High levels of unemployment and good levels of education mean they will create their own livelihoods out of necessity. The key challenge is for them to find meaning and hope in their lives, through belief in themselves, connection with each other, and linkages to systems that can support rather than exploit them.

– Community oriented: Millennials have grown up in a world defined by terrorism, September 11, economic turmoil, and environmental degradation. Their connectivity enables them to witness every major natural disaster from tsunamis to earthquakes and every example of geopolitical instability. Their own stability comes from family, friends, and their digital community, and they are more team oriented and collaborative than other generations and seemingly more compassionate. The Pew Center remarks that “civic trends have always risen with age. This generation is now emerging as being much more involved at a much younger age.”

– More spiritual: In 2052 recent discoveries in the fields of quantum physics, human consciousness, and noetic science will be considered mainstream. Patricia Auberne in her book Megatrends 2010 points to the emergence of spirituality in business as a key trend for the next decade. We live in turbulent times and the search for meaning in life is becoming a powerful driver. While Millennials are less likely to be engaged in formal religion, the physical context within which they are developing (high levels of connectivity and collaboration) and the implications from value system research like that of Spiral Dynamics all indicate that the human species will continue to develop the capacity to deal with greater levels of complexity and alternative realities.

The Role of Social Gaming

So how might the value systems of the Peak Youth generation change the world of 2052? One of the more surprising contributors to young people’s sense of community and collaboration is the advent of gaming—particularly social gaming, which has become all the rage on social networks such as Facebook. Jane McGonical is at the forefront of thinking regarding social gaming. At her TED talk in 2010 she made a case for how a vast increase in gaming could solve some of our most systemic challenges such as climate change, hunger, poverty, and obesity.

The average young person today in strong gaming cultures will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games; this correlates to the level at which cognitive science research suggests mastery is achieved.

McGonical notes that when playing games players tap into their best qualities: to be motivated, optimistic, collaborative, cooperative, and resilient in the face of failure. The joyful emotions players feel in games actually start to spill over into real life, which also has the benefit of enhancing creativity.

It also appears that gamers love to be tied to human, planetary scale stories, and McGonical has already created several games that aim to model a better world. For example, World Without Oil, developed with the World Bank Institute, was piloted in 2007 with 1,800 players. EVOKE is another social network game designed to help empower people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.

The expansion of games and gamers will have profound implications in that we can potentially accelerate the future that we desire by collaborating on existing problems in a virtual setting.

The potential for games to be created about themes like global food supply is substantial. Engaging large numbers of youth in these types of activities will also create more awareness of the political and institutional barriers that are blocking forward movement and could in turn lead to their increased engagement in political advocacy.