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Games that launch companies, games that heal: Q&A with Jane McGonigal

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Jane McGonigal is a game designer with an apparently simple idea: some of the billions of hours we spend playing games can be used to solve real world problems, and it can be done by playing games. Her new book, Reality Is Broken, explores the power of games to change people’s lives. It’s just out this week. The TED Blog caught up with her in the middle of the release to talk about games, saving the world, and the simple power of Angry Birds.

Since your TEDTalk, you’ve managed a full run of Evoke, you social entrepreneurship game.

It was really exciting! We were just formally announcing Evoke at TED. That was our first glimpse to see if people would be interested in it, excited about it. We were able to run the game a few months later, a ten-week crash course in changing the world. Our original goals were to try to enroll a thousand students in the game, and we wound up enrolling just under 20,000. We had them from over a 130 countries, all playing the same game and collaborating with each other, which was really amazing.

The most eye-opening outcomes were how many real-world businesses, real-world social enterprises were founded by players of the game over the course of the ten weeks, and then actually launched in the summer following the game. We have more than fifty social enterprises started by gamers. Companies that were designed to deal locally with issues like food security, clean water access, women’s education. That was pretty much a first; the idea that you could come play a game and ten weeks later wind up with a real social enterprise.

One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically, what if there were a McDonalds of libraries? What if you could have a franchise for libraries and that the people who would implement and start a library in a village, or anywhere, that it would be a money-making venture, a self-supporting venture, and that other enterprises could pop up around the act of lending books to people: selling them food, selling them phone service or internet access. What a super-creative, novel idea to try to franchise libraries. That came out of the game, and it’s actually in development now. They have their first library prototype in the field.

That’s fantastic. It sounds like you’ve gotten a great reception.

Yeah, when I talk to the media they really sink their teeth into these problem-solving games, but I want to say, the first half of the book is about the way that games integrate into our real life, to improve our health and happiness. What you would call ordinary video games. When I talk to readers that’s the part they’re interested about, but when I talk to media we almost never get to that.

The subtitle is “Why games make us better, and how they can change the world.” I’m really interested in not just these world-saving problem-solving games, but also in how games like Angry Birds, Farmville and World of Warcraft can actually make our lives better. So, the first half of the book is full of science, looking at things like the fact that people who play Rock Band and Guitar Hero are more likely to learn how to play a guitar. This is fascinating, to see that games, rather than distracting us from our real-life goals, seem to be a springboard to real-life goals. There’s science that shows that when we play cooperative games we’re more likely to help strangers, friends, family members in real life. Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life. We’re more likely to see opportunities to help someone, and more likely to act on them.

Playing with avatars that are powerful in a game world, or avatars that we find attractive, makes us more confident and optimistic, so that we’re more likely to successfully flirt with strangers or negotiate in a workplace meeting. Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours.

So, there’s all these ways we’re starting to see that the line between the games we play and the lives we lead is much more porous than we imagined. I think this is really great news. It shows that we don’t have to play fewer video games in order to lead the lives that we want to lead. There are all kinds of games that can actually support our real-life goals, strengthen our real-life relationships. That’s such a transformative way to look at games, to realize that they’re not distracting us from our lives. They’re filling our lives with more strength and better relationships. Even the tiniest game, like Angry Birds, can power us with optimism and resilience throughout the day. It’s really remarkable.

Why do you think the default assumption is the exact opposite?

I think it’s two things, one is very old and one is very new. There’s this old, old sense that there’s a divide between productivity and play, and that playing games is somehow not productive. In fact, my research shows that playing games literally produces some very good things. It produces positive emotion. It produces social bonds. It produces more ambitious goals. Yes, it doesn’t produce economic capital; it doesn’t produce consumer goods. But we should ask ourselves, why does “productive” mean producing economic or consumer things? Why isn’t productive producing things that really matter, like improving quality of life? But that’s an old thing, that goes back before video games — games were seen as not productive.

Then, for the last twenty years there’s the idea that the virtual is somehow removed from real life, that we have avatars that are “alternate identities,” and that’s not who we are really are, we get to be somebody else. Of course, we are the same person when we play games. It’s not like we dissociate and become somebody else; it is us. The games increasingly are real in physical ways. Like the X-Box 360 Connect, and how amazingly physical that is, and how real the dancing is. It’s not fake dancing, it’s real dancing. You look at how many people are playing games on Facebook with their real-life friends and families. I’m playing Cityville with people I know in real life, people I really like. it’s not like playing with “strangers on the internet.”

We have this misguided notion that somehow games are just totally virtual. At the very least, the feelings they produce in us are real. The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from. We need to stop thinking that just because something is digital that it doesn’t have a real impact on our minds and bodies and hearts.

You had a very personal experience with that, designing a game to help yourself recover from a severe concussion.

When I first decided to make this game, I had a very epic, important meeting with my doctor. It had been about a month, and I was having very slow recovery from the concussion, so they diagnosed post-concussion recovery syndrome. She said that if I was feeling stress and anxiety or depression or loneliness — that these emotions get in the way of the brain healing itself. They see in a lot of patients this vicious cycle. You get depressed because you’re not getting well, and then that depression slows you down even more. You have to break that cycle. If you miss the first month of recovery, then on average it’s three months, and if you miss that window then it’s six months, and if you miss that then it’s a year. I was looking forward to possibly a year of not being able to think straight, of not being able to be in public spaces. It made me so depressed and anxious and despairing that I thought there was no way I was going to break the cycle.

It just came to me, coming home from the doctor, I have to make this a game. If I don’t make this a game I will never get out of depression. I’d already written the first few chapters of the book, and those are largely about the idea that gameplay is the opposite of depression. Clinically speaking, depression is a pessimistic sense of your own capabilities, and despondent lack of energy. The opposite of that, an optimistic sense of your own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity, is the perfect textbook definition of gameplay.

So if I could just make this a game, I could do it. I couldn’t play regular video games because it was aggravating my concussion symptoms. So I was still in this mental fog, and there are these crazy videos of me from that day online on YouTube where I’m trying to design the game out loud, and you can see how much of a fog I’m in, and how much joy.

It was interesting even in that state to be able to reach into game design and design my way out, but it wasn’t until after I’d been playing for quite a while and was better that I was able to redesign it for other people to play. I started having friends test it for things like asthma, diabetes, knee surgery, chemotherapy. I started to get a lot of anecdotal and subjective feedback about how it was working.

The main point is to take the despair out of a diagnosis. You can use the strength of positive emotions and social connectivity to make the process of trying to get better, much, much better and faster.

I’m actually developing a personal version of this game that will be available to the public this summer. And we’re working right now on clinical trials to demonstrate the scientific medical validity of this game. That’s very exciting because there aren’t many games that have been through clinical trials.

There’s a lot of research now on the placebo effect, and how to harness it. It sounds like this is a way.

It’s interesting, somebody was asking me, “Isn’t it just a delusion? In games, to fly, or have an avatar with magic powers coming out their fingers? It’s just a fantasy, it’s an illusion of power.” But what the science shows is something very similar to the placebo effect, that having this imaginative capacity, that you somehow have this power, activates in us that we feel the positive. When the placebo effect is working, people are looking for positive outcomes, and that’s what they see. I think games — hopefully they have real impact — but even if we are just tapping into the power of people’s imaginations to imagine themselves better, that seems like a really good way to go.

Well, even if you are worried about the social transformation part, getting people used to using games to do things is a first step.

Exactly. The social transformation is a 10- to 25-year project. So, in the meantime we’re building these competencies and these skills.

Back to Evoke, with twenty thousand players, thousands interested in mentoring, it sounds like there’s been a good reception.

The reception was great. That’s the thing. When people ask me, “What’s different about the gamer generation?” I say it’s a sense of wanting to rise to the occasion, a sense of heroic purpose: If there’s a heroic mission and I could be the one who’s destined to fill it, I want to do that; I want to be that person. I want to be on a journey; I want to be on an adventure, or part of an adventure. And when we reach out to people, particularly in that gamer generation, and give somebody an opportunity to do something heroic — and it’s something authentically challenging. We weren’t asking people to donate five dollars. There’s nothing challenging about that other than if you don’t have five dollars — but actually to do something, they do rise to the occasion. That’s where a lot of my optimism comes from. We’re still in very early days of trying to harness what’s amazing about games and gamers, and so there’s a lot we really haven’t figured out yet.

The thing that evokes the most skepticism in the comments on the talk is, how do you translate solutions in the game to solutions in the real world?

That’s a great question. I should really take a lot of responsibility for this misconception. I didn’t really talk about my games in the TEDTalk very much.

The great thing about these games is that you don’t have to translate the solutions in the game to solutions in the real world. The game is all about doing things in the real world. So, in World Without Oil, you’re living your life as if there were an oil shortage. You are doing the things that would be the solution; you’re changing the way you eat and cook food, you’re changing the way you get to work. In Evoke you’re going out and you’re actually starting a community garden. You’re transforming how your laptop is powered from regular electricity to solar, or your iPod is getting powered by riding on your bike. You’re actually doing stuff, and it feeds back into the game.

I’m not a fan of simulations. Where, ‘Oh, we’ll go play a simulation of world peace and figure out how to make peace’ and then somehow magically that will get translated into the real world. No, that’s not the kind of games that I make. The games that we make, if it’s going to be a game about world peace, it’s going to be a game in which people go out and actually make friends with people that they’ve had disagreements with; they’re going to go out and do something to actually make a difference.

So, it’s not about simulation, but more about attaching the things about gaming that give people this sense of accomplishment to real-world activities.

Right. Real-world activities needs to be at the core of it.

— Interview by Ben Lillie