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.
What 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.