Life: it's just a game. We've all heard that before, and as a philosophy to live by it's never felt too convincing.
But now, scientists, psychologists and tech-heads are seeking to unleash the power of games, and impart new meaning to that old saying. Their idea is simple: games can be about much more than fun. They can help us to achieve cherished goals, solve grave real-world problems and lead more fulfilling lives.
Earlier this year, the unofficial leader of the movement, the 34-year-old game designer and theorist Jane McGonigal, launched her online game Superbetter (www.superbetter.com). Conceived when McGonigal was recovering from a concussion, Superbetter is intended to help players increase their emotional resilience, and so achieve real-world goals such as overcoming illness, losing weight or quitting smoking. Sign up and you're presented with an online platform on which you can set yourself real-world quests, recruit allies from Facebook, and enter "power-ups" - an inspirational song, for example, or a picture of a pet – to go to when you're feeling low. The game was developed in alliance with clinicians, and informed by research into the characteristics – optimism, tenacity, curiosity – that psychologists say are crucial when we set about a difficult task.
Meanwhile a psychology professor at McGill University, Dr Mark Baldwin, has developed an online game intended to reduce stress and increase confidence. The Matrix game at Mindhabits (www.mindhabits.com) could not be simpler: faces appear on the screen in quick succession and players must click on the smiling faces and ignore the frowning ones. Over time, says Baldwin, this instils a powerful new real-world habit: to focus on social warmth and acceptance, and ignore rejection. A study in the Journal of the American Psychology Association found that playing for five minutes a day led to significant reductions in self-reported stress.
These two games are part of a broader movement called "gamification". At the heart of gamification is the idea that all kinds of real-world processes can be modelled as games, and that when we use this technique, we unlock new levels of creativity and persistence in ourselves. By age 21, says McGonigal, the typical American has spent 10,000 hours playing video games: that's a whole lot of tenacity and determined problem-solving that could be tapped for real-world good.
Her call is being heeded. Foldit (www.fold.it) is a Tetris-style game developed by computer scientists at the University of Washington, in which players manipulate shapes in order to fit them together. But the shapes presented in Foldit are representations of the proteins found in cells in the human body, and learning more about how they fit together can move us closer to cures for serious disease. Late last year, 250,000 Foldit gamers solved a protein-folding problem that had stumped scientists for 10 years, pointing the way towards a new treatment for HIV.
Of course, where science leads, commerce is quick to follow. If you're a user of Foursquare – the location-based social network that awards points and badges when you "check-in" to locations such as restaurants and bars – you're already experiencing gamification firsthand.
Expect the trend to creep further into our lives across the next decade, as everything from fashion brands to health services realise the power of games to change habits and drive behaviour.
Determined to fit back into your favourite jeans? There's a game for that.