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Can This Game Help Cure Diseases?

Jane McGonigal, a game designer and future forecaster who builds alternative-reality games, believes that gaming can make the world a better place. That's why she created Breakthroughs to Cures, an online idea-generating game designed to change the way we think about medical research. The game, which launches tomorrow, is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio and produced with the Institute for the Future (where McGonigal works).

Breakthroughs to Cures offers players this future scenario:

A widespread contamination has triggered a neurological disease that is expected to infect as many as 100 million people in the U.S. Government leaders have convened a panel to investigate ways to accelerate the pace of research and find treatments or cures for this disease before it strikes.

Over a 24-hour period, gamers will be expected to contribute an idea — in 140 characters or less, naturally — to solve the problem. McGonigal hopes this will help players brainstorm about new ways to change academic medical research and drug development.

So why not just ask researchers to collaborate on ideas? "The current model used for developing effective, life-saving disease treatments is not keeping pace with scientific discovery," says Nancy Barrand, Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio. "Gaming is the perfect tool to help foster the type of unconventional thinking that is necessary to create radical change in health care and accelerate the speed at which treatments are delivered."

Indeed, McGonigal has proven that gaming for solutions can work—her World Without Oil alternative reality game has racked up more than two million players since its inception in 2007. Since then, many of the oil shock scenarios envisioned by the game have come to pass.

Want to see if McGonigal can do the same thing for medical research? Register here.


Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.