Whether you know Jane McGonigal from her TED Talk, her research, or her book, she is one person you’ll be hearing more of in the years to come. Not only is she an energetic force within the game-design industry, she’s building bridges between the world of gaming and industries like academia, health care and marketing. During a one-on-one interview, she shared her perspective on why games can and should be used to make the world a better place.
After the tragic events of 9/11, emotional responses ran the gamut from shock, to grief, to anger, to resilience. But of all the possible reactions out there, few mirrored what occurred within the online gaming world. Before al-Qaida became a water-cooler topic, before troops mobilized and presidents declared wars on terror, there was simply a horrible series of events and a deluge of question marks. That’s where the gamers chimed in. “They wanted to use their collective intelligence and their distributive problem-solving network, which was global, to try to solve it and to try to help,” recalls game-designer Jane McGonigal. “At the same time, they thought, ‘This is crazy. Life is not a game. You can’t game reality.’ But they had the skills, and they wanted to help.
It was this dialogue that caught McGonigal’s attention. At the time, she was planning to write her doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley on how physicists approach collaborative research. But those earnest, helpful gamers changed everything. Suddenly the idea that alternate-reality games (ARGs) could do more than entertain people began to unfurl in McGonigal’s mind. They could, she realized, potentially help people. This idea, that gaming skills could be used to solve real-world problems, became the topic of McGonigal’s dissertation and, eventually, the focus of her career.
She is the founder of Gameful, an organization where game developers can create world-changing games. She’s also a renowned speaker and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Reality Is Broken”.
McGonigal knows better than anyone how ARGs can make people happier, kinder and healthier. Just as those online gamers wanted to pool their intellectual resources and game-derived skills to solve the horrific mystery of 9/11, today’s collaborative game-designers are figuring out how to create games that enhance positive skills and changes in their players.
And that’s only the beginning. McGonigal herself is behind some exciting games designed to make people feel better and develop the skills necessary for dealing with real-world problems. SuperBetter, for example, was revealed in a randomized controlled trial conducted by the University of Pennsylvania to reduce no fewer than six symptoms of depression when people played it for six weeks or longer. Other games might concern global issues like climate change (World Without Oil) or individual hurdles like kindness (Cruel2 B Kind), but the goal, McGonigal says, is positive change.
As with many games, there are obstacles to winning. Developing ARGs that lead to a better future is not without its challenges. The first, McGonigal notes, comes from the public, many of whom have deeply entrenched biases against gaming. “That you could play a game for 10 minutes,” McGonigal explains, “and it might work better than a pill or a meditation or a prayer is shocking and upsetting to some people, because it seems like you’re minimizing the problem.”
Winning over the public can happen with time, especially considering the promising data coming out of more and more studies. The most surprising challenge, however, just might be within the game-design industry itself. Game designers, McGonigal says, often consider themselves artists. And just as other visual artists generally reject societal and cultural constraints, game designers balk at assuming moral responsibility for the effects of their games.
But McGonigal sees things differently. When kids, she argues, are spending 200 hours playing a single game, the responsibility of designing it well cannot be ignored. In fact, it’s that social responsibility that is driving the sort of games she’s creating. Moral responsibility, she says, is there. The question is simply whether game designers will shake it off in the name of art, or embrace it as a motivator to make games that help the people who play them. She’s holding out hope that they’ll make society the clear winner in their development goals.
Image Credit: Bells Design/Ryan McGuire