Join Jane McGonigal In Gaming The World Out Of Poverty

With Catalysts for Change, the game designer is asking people on the Internet to find innovative ways to change life for the world’s poorest people.

Join Jane McGonigal In Gaming The World Out Of Poverty

Ask the Internet community to come up with a list of ways to get the world out of poverty and you’ll probably collect some decent ideas. But ask the Internet to play a game that could help lessen poverty and you end up with 1,200 players in 50 countries working on the problem within the first two hours of launch.


That’s what happened with Catalysts for Change, a game created by renowned designer Jane McGonigal, who serves as the director of game research and development at Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the chief creative officer at SuperBetter Labs.

The 48-hour game, created as a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and IFTF, started on April 3rd and will end on the 5th. In the meantime, anyone can sign up. The game, which is built on McGonigal’s Foresight Engine platform, is simple: Users play cards that allow them to express their ideas about the future of poverty. The cards have a limit of 140 characters and come in two varieties: Positive Imagination cards that describe new paths out of poverty and Critical Imagination cards that warn of paths leading to vulnerability. Once someone plays a card, other users can build on it by exploring what might happen if that path is taken and how it could play out in different parts of the world. The more players build on a user’s cards, the more points they get.

“We’re trying to stimulate creativity. We’re trying to free people up from the constraints that block truly novel ideas. You can come to a game and feel free to say anything. Then you might start to get ideas you hadn’t heard before,” said McGonigal at the launch event for the game.

During the event, McGonigal challenged me to play a card examining how journalism can lead people out of poverty. The reasoning: People are most able to think of good ideas in spheres that they’re comfortable in. I played one (admittedly weak) card on journalism and poverty; I’m still waiting for other players to build on it.

Other cards are getting more action. One card from player Bradganistan proposes that “alternative currencies create new ways to account for value creation in local settings.” A follow-up card predicts the next step would be “your bank account stored on a mobile device which does all of the currency exchanges automatically, and allows financial transactions.”

IFTF is culling the most insightful cards for a live blog. Rockefeller will also take note of the most worthy submissions. “For us this will create opportunities to really have new ideas enter our vocabulary and expand our thinking. We are, after all, funders and we’re looking for the most creative, the most interesting ways to approach some of the world’s most pressing problems,” says Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.


This is not the first time Rockefeller has teamed up with IFTF. In 2009, Rockefeller brought together a network of 11 future-oriented organizations around the world to find new technologies, strategies, and policies to create change in the lives of the poor. IFTF collected the observations and turned them into a repository of “Searchlight Signals,” available here.

Crowdsourcing is a fairly new idea in the philanthropic world, but one that Rockefeller is embracing. “The wisdom of the crowd is real. Often the innovation comes from defining a problem as much as defining a solution, and often expertise defines a solution. The crowd is helping us to realize that reframing the problem may be the first step,” says Rodin. “We don’t think all the good ideas come from us sitting in our offices thinking about how we can solve the world’s problems. Those days are really over.”

Interested in learning more about McGonigal? Here’s a video about her that recently aired on Fast Company:

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.