What’s the hottest new company in Silicon Valley right now?  Answer: Zynga.  Online gaming has taken off like crazy.  The buzz is everywhere.  I hear it among entrepreneurs, investors and even academia, but what about the social and public sectors?  Once again, somehow we’re missing the party.

That is except for Jane McGonigal.  Just recently I saw the TED video from this futurist from the Institute for the Future.  She makes the outlandish claim that the best way to solve the world’s ills is to get people to play more computer games.  Check it out here.  I agree.

My twist on her compelling presentation is that it’s really not about gaming but game mechanics.  The latter is the highly sophisticated science behind the engineering of games that makes the average US kid spend over 10,000 hours playing video games by the time they graduate high school(and adults almost as much now).  Game mechanics puts forth a wide-array of tools like points, levels, collecting, rewards, etc that can all be deployed to motivate behavior.  It’s about human psychology.  If you think about it, it’s a big part of our lives way beyond gaming: airline miles, thank you points, coupons, compensation benefits, etc.  These mechanics are crucial motivators that help give people that extra little push they need to do things.  Social change is also principally about behavior change so we better start becoming game mechanic experts!

The social and public sector is once again way behind.  If I mention game mechanics to my colleagues and friends in the social and public sectors, they have no idea what I’m talking about.  More important is the output; something’s very wrong if high school students spend on average 10,000 hours playing video games while only about 400 hours on community service! 

Instinctually we know that people are willing to spend their free time to make their community and the world a better place.  Wikipedia has proven this to be true, building an amazing public good by capitalizing on more than 100 million volunteer hours. The point is that if we got a little more creative around human resource mobilization instead of fundraising, we would be much better off.  In fact, the very fact that civil society organizations are so obsessed with fundraising is the #1 reason people give for not wanting to engage with organizations.  An interesting psychology experiment (sure to be in Malcolm Gladwell’s next book) in Minnesota has shown that people are less likely to help others if they are made to think about money!  Stanford GSB professor, Jennifer Aaker, comes to a similar conclusion as seen in her 2008 paper, The Happiness of Giving: The Time-Ask Effect.

What would happen if organizations put more energy and creativity into recruiting people’s time and skill instead of their money?  More concretely, what if civil society and government did a better job of tapping into the power of game-mechanics to drive civic participation?  My proposal:  social leaders should step up and set goals for ourselves.  Community leaders should set operational goals i.e. 10% increase in volunteerism & civic participation, and we should keep clear metrics.  Every university, school, organization, corporation, church, etc. in the nation could be put to the challenge.  With the proper leadership, we can apply the new and emerging social technologies and maybe, just maybe, Zynga won’t be the only buzz around here anymore.