Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Real challenges; virtual worlds; working solutions

We spend a fair amount of our daily lives in problem solving. From child-raising tasks like figuring out why our babies cry or devising reliable ways to communicate with adolescents, to working environment challenges such as re-assigning resources to meet product demand or identifying alliances to go after a tender, it seems that every step in our life is a step into an infinite tangled web of missions, target objectives, challenges, obstacles and desires.

Please do not misunderstand me. This is no cry of despair. It is just the basis of the idea that, since problem solving is the way to push one's life forward, then investing on better problem solving methods - at any level and for any type of problem - is a very useful thing to do.

I'm hardy the first one to express such an opinion. I'm not even close (chronologically) to the group of those avant-guard thinkers that first started paying with the concept of problem solving. Still though, the idea of transforming problems (in the realms of mathematics - e.g., Laplace or Fourier transform), converting them from incomprehensible challenges to manageable bits has been intriguing me since my student years (at least).

Talking about transformations in mathematics, what makes things even more interesting is that it is exactly those transformations that have enabled us to achieve plenty of technological wonders, many of which tend to be taken for granted today (think of communications and anything that makes use of noise filtering or signal processing, for instance).

Interestingly, opportunities for creative problem solving also exist beyond the world of mathematics. Playing games, for instance, is nature's way of choice to teach young individuals the skills/ tricks of life that couldn't be hard-written in the genetic code. The idea of gaming as a means for teaching and skills improvement has been explored via the serious game concept, which - in the modern computer era - is supported by the Serious Games Initiative and embraced by numerous developments and users throughout the world.

However, gaming may have a much greater potential that plainly helping at skill development. It has been supported that gaming environments presenting real-life challenges to players can help people devise and try solutions, regardless of whether they might have looked crazy in the real world, which may be feasible in the real world. Dr. Jane McGonigal, in a very inspiring TED speech of hers (see the video below), suggested that encouraging people to spend time in collaborative online gaming may be a good way of pooling together the problem-solving capacities of individuals across the glove for the benefit of reaching more effective solutions at shorter times.

Are we in position to fix reality with online games? I believe that we are actively exploring those options. Simulation, after all, is a very valid scientific approach. Today simulation is used from training to the design of buildings, to the assessment of impact of pharmaceutical compounds, etc; such tools can considerably speed up practical innovation against actual challenges and limitations.

Having Ender's Game in mind (and having enjoyed the Matrix trilogy :-), I do believe that virtual worlds have a lot to offer to real people, BUT I also do wonder for how much more will the barriers between the real and virtual world stay thick enough to be able to validly tell the difference.

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