Jane McGonigal: The Gaming Fix for the Real World

By Andrew Moseman | January 25, 2011 11:23 am

When you bundle up all the time that gamers everywhere pour into their favorite games, the statistics are simply staggering. World of Warcraft’s legion of devotees, for example, have now spent more than 50 billion hours—about 6 million years—roaming their mythical, digital universe. Halo 3 players banded together to reach a kill tally of 10 billion, and when they blew past it, kept on shooting in pursuit of 100 billion.

If 10,000 hours of practice represents a sort of genius threshold, then gamers around the world are crossing that threshold. “This means that we are well on our way to creating an entire generation of virtuoso gamers,” writes game designer Jane McGonigal.

You might recognize McGonigal from her talk at TED, “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” But now that speech has become a full-on how-to guide: her new book Reality Is Broken, which came out yesterday. It details how games can fix what’s wrong with the real world (and not just escape from it).

When commentators bandy about those eye-popping numbers about how much time gamers invest in games, it’s usually done to bemoan the youth of America wasting their time on trivial pursuits. But to McGonigal, the allure of games can be used for good. Where our workaday lives can be filled with tedium and busy work, games challenge us with what she calls “hard fun”—hard work that’s satisfying. Games can improve our social connections, and they can provide a huge arena for collaboration.

Games, McGonigal writes, can fix what’s wrong with reality on small or large scales. A personal example: When she was struggling to recover from a concussion, she invented a game and enlisted friends and family as characters with tasks to fulfill, like coming over to cheer her up or keeping her off caffeine. A world-level example: EVOKE, a free online multiplayer games that challenges its players to solve major social ills like hunger and poverty.

We talked to her recently about her mission to save the world with games:

DISCOVER: What are you working on right now?

Jane McGonigal: There are a couple of big things. One of them is Gameful—we’re calling it a secret headquarters online for gamers and game developers who want to change the world. That was based on how many emails and Facebook messages I get from people who saw my TED talk or heard about these games and want to make one or play one, or learn how to design games so that they can make one. It’s a cross between a social network and a collaboration space online. So far we have over 1,100 games developers signed up. That’s a pretty significant proportion of game developers in the U.S. They committed to not just entertaining with games, but making a positive impact.

I also have a new start-up company, called Social Chocolate. It’s a company with which we’re creating gameful experiences that are based on scientific research about power-positive emotions and positive relationships—basically, games that are designed from top to bottom to improve your real life and to strengthen your relationships.

In the book, you write about games’ ability to captivate and satisfy our minds on a “primal” level. Why are games so good at getting in touch with our primal nature?

That is such a cool question. We’ve been playing games since humanity had civilization—there is something primal about our desire and our ability to play games. It’s so deep-seated that it can bypass latter-day cultural norms and biases. If you give us a good game, we can overcome our society’s “make you feel stupid for dancing in front of other people” feeling, or trying to block all thoughts of death because it’s depressing and we’re not supposed to be depressed. The game is much older than any of these societal constraints. So that, I think, makes it a powerful platform for getting in touch with things we’ve lost touch with.

Dancing’s really interesting because if you look at the new games with Kinect and PS Move and the Wii, it’s opening up this different kind of gamer experience. When you watch people play these games, the word “joy” is what you’d use to describe it. It’s different from the kind of immersion that we think of with games where we’re really focused mentally. The physical engagement in combination with music and movement and other people makes it feel more like ritual than computer games have been.

Yet, you say, the mission to create joy in games is often hampered because of the “uncoolness” of happiness. So how do we get over ourselves?

I was curious when I started the Gameful project if game developers would really get behind this idea. Because, there’s definitely that sense among some game developers that it would ruin the fun to be serious about making people happy or improving real life. Is it corny? Does it take away from the fantasy of games? I think there will be a huge part of the game development world that continues to feel that way. But what I’m seeing every year at the gamers’ conferences in a higher percentage of the game industry waking up to the responsibility that comes with the power. I hate to say this, but it’s not so much about wanting to make the world a better place as it is saying, “Wow, we are wielding a tremendous amount of power over young people’s lives. This is great; we’ve invented this powerful medium that’s capable of engaging people like nothing else. But is that what we want to do with our lives, or do we want to do something that matters while we’re wielding that power?”

If you make it a game, gamers will play it no matter what your motivation is in making it. FoldIt is a good example. Clearly, a lot of gamers would rather cure cancer while they’re gaming than do nothing while they’re gaming. It didn’t make the game less exciting to be doing good; it made the game more exciting to be doing good. But it only works because they made a really good game.

Is the world ready for this idea that games can fix serious real-world problems?

In general, I think there are 2 groups of people who don’t push back at all. One are the hardcore gamers who know that they’re capable of doing amazing things and are happy to hear somebody actually talk about that possibility seriously. There’s been a lot of talk about gamers as if they’re wasting their lives, or they’re never going to amount to anything, or they’re not learning anything that really matters. People who play a lot of games love to hear this idea—the games that you love could become a part of your life, not a distraction from your life.

Parents of gamers also seem to get it right away. Parents know that their kids are capable of doing extraordinary things, and they want to believe the best in them—and to have somebody explain to them the science of why games could actually empower their kids rather than waste their lives. They see how much time their kids are playing games and they know that there’s nothing wrong with their kids. They just don’t understand what that passion is about.

People who don’t have gamer friends or family are the hardest to convince. There’s still a perception that games are like single-player experiences with guns more often than not. Usually I have to explain to people that 3 out of 4 gamers prefer cooperative to competitive, and that the majority of our game play is social.

RealityIsBrokenWhat about the idea of gamer’s regret? Despite all the positive possibilities you’ve outlined for games, even gamers get that creeping feeling—after hours of play—like perhaps they’re wasting their time. How much is too much, and will that stand in the way of games changing the world?

There was a really significant study that tracked 1,100 soldiers for a year, and looked at how they were spending their free time with things they considered coping mechanisms—using Facebook, listening to music, reading, working out, or playing video games. They correlated this with incidences of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicide attempts, and domestic violence. The found that by a very wide margin, the most psychologically protected individuals—who had the lowest rates of any of these negative experiences—were people who were playing video games 3 to 4 hours a day. The benefit started at an hour a day, and it got better and better on this perfect U-curve up to 3 to 4 hours a day. And then if you started to play more than 4 hours a day, it got steeply less beneficial until it was actually harmful to play a lot of video games. That was fascinating—it was more beneficial than anything but working out 7 hours a day.

If you think about how much time that is, that’s about 21 hours a week, which is where you see gamer’s regret kicking in. Usually, after 20 hours a week, people start going online and asking questions like, “Is this too much?” or “Am I the only one doing this?” It’s almost as if gamers have naturally hit upon the appropriate level. And now we have this huge scientific study that shows, with a lot of rigorous data analysis, that that is the level at which it becomes dangerous and harmful. It’s in the science, and it’s in our experience.

There have all kinds of interesting studies that have come out even since the book was finished about games providing psychological resilience or preventing nightmares or preventing PTSD by playing Tetris. The short version is: If you start to look at the literature about how absolutely, quantifiably games are making us better—better psychologically, better socially—then you don’t really need to worry about how much time you’re spending playing games unless you cross that threshold.

You talk about using games to strengthen relationships you already have, like playing Lexulous with your Mom. But what can games do to build new relationships?

There are a lot of people thinking about city-scale games, and neighborhood-scale games, which definitely hold the possibility of strengthening relationships with people whom it could be useful in the future for you to know and trust. I’ve talked to people about designing apartment-scale buildings, multi-unit scale buildings where nobody in the building knows each other, or playing games in companies, where there are a thousand people and you don’t interact with most of them. There are a lot of companies that are using games to facilitate that ambient sociability, so if you walk down the hallway you’re more likely to recognize somebody and know who you might want to cooperate with.

Take something like a game on a plane: Even a weak social connection with a flight attendant or someone you might see again is important. Evidence shows that having even weak social connections in a stressful situation is really good for your health and your ability to handle that situation. Just a vaguely familiar face can diminish your stress levels. It’s interesting to think about weak social connections. Obviously playing with your mom is important, but even that possibility of someone’s face being more familiar as you walk down the street or get on a plane could be really beneficial.

But is gaming really making us more connected? Just a few weeks before your book was released MIT professor Sherry Turkle‘s book Alone Together came out, warning about the isolating dangers of technology. What’s you’re response to that?

The social connectivity benefits of gaming do work better when you’re playing in the same room, because face-to-face contact and physical presence are crucial to the social bonding science. When parents or gamers ask me “what’s the best game to play?”, I say that playing face-to-face is more beneficial than playing online.

But a lot of people don’t have access to friends and family face-to-face as often as they would like. You’ve got kids who move so they don’t see their friends anymore, or their parents won’t let them out. They want them to be home; there’s a lot of sense that the world isn’t safe. So you see a lot of young gamers saying this is the closest way that they have to keep their old friendships alive or to actually have social interaction in the evening. That’s definitely better and more social than nothing, than just passively watching TV or passively reading a comic book.

And you also see for introverts, who are less likely to seek out social interactions, the online meditation can serve as a good psychological buffer. They can build social connection through the Internet that they would be less likely to build in real life, because in real life it’s stressful and exhausting. But the Internet makes it safer and less exhausting. It can be kind of a gateway for them to new friendships or relationships.

You say games can fix reality both on the small scale—like bringing joy and connectivity into people’s lives—and the large scale, addressing serious issues. What real-world problems need games, but don’t have them?

The two biggest problems that will be solved together, potentially, are obesity and world peace.

There’s really interesting research that came out this year looking at the rise in diabetes and the influence of diabetes on aggression and violence and crime. It turns out that there’s an extraordinary correlation between rising diabetes rates and all kinds of violent crime, and the tendency to wage war—even when you control for poverty and other social aspects.

So there’s new, interesting thinking that the best way to create world peace would be to reduce the diabetes trend, which is tied to the obesity trend, which is our number one health concern in the U.S. There is this huge space of games that are being created for physical activity, and games have also historically had quite a lot of content around war—World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Call of Duty. But this idea that we could use games to reduce obesity, stop diabetes, and that that would lead to world peace, I think is really fascinating.

I would like to see long-term future forecasting games dedicated to exploring connections like that between unexpected trends. If you weren’t in the field of glucose research, you might not know that the fastest way to innovate peace is to solve diabetes. So you get people from different fields looking at really science, and then they can start to make connections.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Mind & Brain, Top Posts, Video Games

Comments (16)

  1. “there’s an extraordinary correlation between rising diabetes rates and all kinds of violent crime” The same correlation obtains with manga publication volume, flash drive memory manufacture, number of breast implants, annual corn harvest, number of TV channel feeds… If you really want to end blue collar crime, decree contraception and abortion on demand both free for the taking. No polity short of people is violent. The only sustained peace and properity in Europe followed the Black Plague.

    How do you know traffic is being regulated unless it is being regulated badly? Government and religious hegemonies arise from failure and crisis not success and contentment. The donkey must be driven to pull.

    21st century failure of SOP policy has two origins. First, one manufactured incurable crisis was the deserving and the diverse. One does not pull a wagon by having jack****s ride it. Second, means became end. Crises no longer justify gainful efforts (e.g., European infantry enagements limiting supply of unemployable young males). Crisis has gone Ouroboros (Homeland Severity, FEMA, HHS, Department of Education). There is burgeoning process but no gainful product. Crisis has positive feedbacked out of control.

    Gamers know the answer here, too – the software crashes.

  2. Brian Too

    “…even that possibility of someone’s face being more familiar as you walk down the street or get on a plane could be really beneficial.”

    I relate to this comment in the workplace. Getting cooperation and coordination on projects/work is much easier if you have a connection with the individuals involved. Some prior contact is much better than simply forming transactional relationships on the fly.

    The problem is the transactional relationship itself–‘this person only cares about me for as long as they want something’. No one wants to be used, and putting all relationships on a quid pro quo standing fosters feelings of being a disposable human being. Maybe not to yourself, but to the other person.

  3. Kevembuangga

    I dunno about world peace but expecting to fight obesity with gaming is incredibly silly.
    Obesity has to do with bad food habits, what else?
    When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, but a hammer can do a lot of damage when misused.

  4. dianne

    I love your theory-I’ve been studying behavioural science-but somehow this doesn’t compute for me.
    I am the parent of an Asperger’s child-I don’t see that giving in to the falsified world of gaming is going to benefit in the long run…
    I agree with Kev-when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail…

  5. Ryan

    I’ve seen this chick talking about her games for quite awhile now. “Games” have always been a means to work our understanding of the world and exercise our minds. The electronic medium does not change that. It would be nice, though, if games could take into account the fact that we are physical creatures and rely on our bodies to exist. Therefore, I suggest “gaming” coupled with physical activity. The Nintendo Wii is a good step in the right direction, but I imagine something much more physically intensive than that.

  6. A User

    I enjoy the prospect of making gaming productive, but I don’t see it happening without some serious intervention. When television came out there was this same push to try and make television productive.

    Neil Postman wrote an interesting book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”. The basic idea was that the medium used determines the context, and consequently, the content of the message. Also, the medium changes how you think, and how you interact.

    Anyone that’s read a book, verses seen the movie adaptation understands this. Reading an auto-biography isn’t the same as watching the hour special on the history channel.

    I see games in much this same way.

    I’ve easily put 10,000 hours into gaming. Young and in the ghetto, my parents bought me a NES and told me stay inside. You name it I’ve played it. Those hours did entertain me, and keep me safe, but came at the cost of socialization. Ten years later at age 20 and still a virgin, I realized I was alone with online friends, online games. I worked hard and now seven years later I’m married at going to school for computer networking. I’m a strange hybrid social geek, with few friends. My class is 99% male, and I’m in the 85% percentile among my group for social skills.

    My classes meet in silence. There is group pressure to stay quiet, to make it less painful. IN agreement we stare at our desks. This is what you get when you live in a digital reality. Some of my classes force group work. This is the only real world interaction some of these people get. They desperately need it.

    Many attempts to make friends go something like this.

    “Do you play Team Fortress 2”? Oh, …
    “Do you play World of Warcraft? What server?” Oh, …
    “Have you played game X?” Oh, ….

    The …. means trails into silence as the other person contemplates gaining the next level, or getting a new item, or buying a new game. We are rats pressing buttons for drugs. You put a rat next to the right button, it will even stop eating.

    Sadly, sometimes a prerequisite to being friends is playing the same games. Being friends simply means playing the same games.

    Story time
    Online games routinely match up random strangers in a cooperative setting. League of Legends is a 5 v 5 player game that does just that. Like basketball, you need all 5 players cooperating to win, but unlike basketball, you will never see these player after the game. This quirk as a nightmarish side effect, a bad player, or someone ‘off their game’ is treated to the worst kind of name calling imaginable. People have become TV dinners. All the social cues that would act to keep some civility are removed, and people turn into animals. The process of becoming progressively more hostile until all control and civility is removed is called RAGE.

    My friend, who I did hang out with in the real world, that I did meet at the above mentioned school, was this kind of player. He would rage online, typing the cruelest obscenities to people imaginable. It was humiliating to play with him, but I had to be his friend. I told him that I didn’t want to play with him if he RAGED, and he controlled it for quite a while.

    I should have figured, as it was only a matter of time before he did the same thing to me, only in the real world, and somewhat muted. We always had these pointless arguments. The last time we got into an argument he said he was tired of me, and it was over. It was the middle of winter and my car battery was dead. Did he come outside to help me jump my car? No. Did we ever have a meaningful conversation? No. Who called every time to set up the get together? Me.


    I feel like making games “world-changing” is like mixing aspirin into dog food. When the dog finds out, it won’t eat it.

  7. Interesting to have a comment from an actual gamer, quite different from the “do gooder” perspective.

    Games are world-changing nevertheless, for instance they provide funding for microchips design and production, neither the industry not the military would have given us the mass production of high performance cheap electronics.
    May be it will also end up boosting AI via the demand for more realistic responses from the games.

    but I imagine something much more physically intensive than that

    Almost there…

  8. Marcus

    So the avid videogamers among the soldiers suffer the least from killing human beings? That hardly speaks for games. When we hear the voiceover on the “collateral murder” film, we hear them bragging about the number of kills as if it were a videogame. I fail to see how this leads to world peace.

  9. Jeremy

    this is a specious assertion rationalizing escapism condoning mindless antisocial regression in modern society. i don’t buy it for one moment.

  10. Bill

    Wow, I’ve never seen so many retarded comments to a single article. I suspect all you naysayers have so much time to comment because you’re doing nothing with your own lives. This woman has been on TED and so many news outlets because she’s doing things that have impact and are genuinely making a difference. I challenge any poster here to prove that they’ve done anything even remotely significant besides complaining on internet message boards.

    U jelly. Trolls.

  11. @Bill
    This woman has been on TED and so many news outlets because she is SELLING stuff!.
    Marketing/trade is the name of the game and pretending to do it “for the greater good” IS the dishonesty, much worse than pretending that, say, “Smoking Marlboros will make you look like a cowboy”.

    So, may be you should not be speaking of retardation…

  12. @Bill
    BTW, why isn’t there any link behind your name?

  13. Ilya

    The dirty secret of modern video games is that they are unbelievably, fiendishly hard. Completing last level of Ultima Online or Dungeons & Dragons Online easily requires at least as much work as becoming a chess master. Often-mentioned “eye-hand coordination” has nothing to do with it — most MMORPG’s require no special hand dexterity nor extra-fast reflexes. What they do require is ability to plan weeks and months ahead for a bewildering number of goals, sub-goals, and sub-sub-…-sub-goals, allocate resources for them, figure out which can be done alone and which require cooperation — and with whom, — contact people you need to cooperate with, find out out what they need from you in order to meet their long-term goals, organize group actions which often involve players in multiple time zones, actually execute raids.

    To put it bluntly — outside of business schools and military academies, MMORPG’s are the best tool invented for learning executive skills. There is simply nothing else in life of a child or a teenager, or of many adults, where you need to do THAT much planning, goal setting, prioritizing, and resource allocation — and cooperation with other people, who often have conflicting agendas. It is very social indeed.

    When I do a job interview, if I have two otherwise identical candidates, one a chess master, the other has completed Dungeons & Dragons Online Vault of Night on epic setting — I will pick the latter. Both demonstrate equal amount of patience, dedication, and tactical skills, but the latter also has heap of executive skills — and demonstrable ability to work with other people. And I am a Russian, and had been playing chess since kindergarten.

  14. @Ilya

    Thanks for your valuable comment, may I ask you a further assessment .
    In your opinion what is the cost/benefit ratio of gaining an edge in executive skills via MMORPG for the individual himself (not considering the economic/corporate gain), i.e. how much extra benefit for the individual.
    I reckon that in cases of hit or miss it can be critical, but what about averages?
    I suspect a diminishing return here…

  15. Ilya

    I am sure it is a diminishing return. One could get same amount of executive skills much more quickly by taking a dedicated MBA class. But last I checked, people play MMORPG — or chess, — because it is fun. Not for any specific gain. 🙂

    Which is what makes attacking ANY game fairly easy, and defending them hard — by their very nature, games are not the most productive way to spend one’s time. But a) life would be boring without them, and b) some are more productive than others.


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