Jane McGonigal's Reality Is Broken: How Videogames Change the World

Superstar videogame designer Jane McGonigal talks to The Daily Beast about her new book, Reality Is Broken, and how games can make people happy—and help solve the world’s problems.

Videogames let people pretend to save the world, but they can’t actually help them do it, right? In Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, game designer Jane McGonigal says they can.

Games, says McGonigal, help us develop valuable skills. So the 183 million self-declared “regular” gamers in the U.S., playing on average 13 hours a week, or the millions of World of Warcraft players who have collectively put in over 50 billion hours since the game’s launch, aren’t frittering away their time, they’re learning how to work together and stay optimistic in the face of adversity. What’s more, games can be designed that bring those skills to bear on real-world problems.

As a game designer, McGonigal is at the forefront of developing games with real-world applications. Last year, she developed Urgent Evoke, a game for the World Bank Institute that challenged players to come up with practical, local solutions to global problems, like food security and sustainable energy.

The Daily Beast spoke with McGonigal last week.

In what ways do games make us better, and is that something all games do, or are some games better at bringing out certain virtues in players?

There are lots of studies that show how the kind of optimism and altruism we get in games spills over into real life. And people who play music games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero are more likely to pick up an instrument in real life, even if they’ve never played an instrument before. Surveys of thousands of gamers have shown that they’re more likely to play real music if they play a music videogame. So it’s an interesting relationship where the games aren’t replacing something we do in real life, they’re serving as a springboard to a goal we might have in real life, like learning to play an instrument.

There’s also research that shows if you play even for just 90 seconds with an avatar that is powerful or attractive in a virtual world, that that changes our confidence levels for the rest of the day, that we’re more confident and therefore successful in flirting with members of the opposite sex or negotiating contracts or difficult workplace situations, that we bring that sense of confidence and power into the real world with us.

Also, I mention in the book that great nine-university study that playing a game where you help another character, just playing it for 30 minutes, makes you more likely to help a friend, a neighbor, a stranger—for the entire week. Those are just some of the ways you can see how the games we play impact our real lives, so you can start to figure out what are the rules for the best games to be playing. Games that make you feel good about yourself are good games to be playing.

Is this something that people in the mainstream game industry are looking at? I imagine that games that make the players feel good about themselves would also be the games people want to buy.

Yeah, at a lot of major game studios have play-testing labs where they track gamer emotion. There are companies that will come in and consult with you when you’re making a game and they’ll take photos or videos of player’s faces while they’re playing so they can actually show, this is where the player is feeling pride, this is where the player is feeling optimism, this is where they’re feeling love, or awe and wonder. Or they’ll do biometrics to show where people are most engaged in the game. Where they’re feeling the most positive stress. Positive stress is another important thing that we get from games, a physiological activation that gets adrenaline going, charges up our attention centers—we can really focus. You can measure all that in the lab.

You write that work and school should become more like games, but it seems like positive stress is something you can only feel when you’re doing something you want to do. Can work and school become more game-like without positive stress becoming negative stress?

Right, it’s all about putting that sense of opting into a challenge into schools and workplaces. School is a great example. We would normally be tested in school, normally you don’t get to pick when you take a test, and you have to take it on that day, no matter how well you feel or how prepared you feel, and if you fail, you fail, and that’s it. And if you do well, that’s it, but you get one shot at it. There’s a great charter school in New York City where they’re trying to take the best aspects of games and apply them to curriculum design, they’re looking at the way people perform in game worlds. In game worlds, you choose when you’re ready to tackle a difficult quest. It’s up to you to say, I’m ready, I want to try.

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When I was reading the section about the New York charter school, it reminded me of a part of Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, that compares Facebook to No Child Left Behind in that both are dangerously reductive, they make people quantify complex things like relationships and learning. How would you respond to that view? Is it possible to make education more like a game without also reducing what counts as learning?

It’s an interesting question, but I would say it’s the exact opposite of a school like Quest to Learn, where they’re not reducing it to bare abstract metrics and performance goals, they’re looking at what kids are actually interested in and in what their strengths and capabilities are, and they’re finding mentors for them to work with, the same way as when you go into a game world you get mentored by experienced players. And they’re putting people in collaborative teams in which people get to work according to their strengths and abilities. So it’s actually the opposite of that kind of flattening, reductive, technological sense.

You point out how much work gamers are doing—something like six million years collectively performing tasks on World of Warcraft. And you also say there’s something subversive about games, in that they let you opt out of a culture that looks for happiness in external things, like having a nice car or clothes. How would respond to someone like Steven Poole, who takes the opposite view, that games are becoming more like work, that players performing tasks in exchange for experience or gold and then using that experience and gold to buy skills and assets is actually training in, I think what he calls it is, “capitalist virtue.”

He’s talking about a specific genre of games, mostly MMOs [Massive Multiplayer Online Games]. Some social games are like that now as well. When I think of the subversive act of gaming, what matters to me is that those people are saying, I value these virtual goods more than I value a new car, or a new three-thousand dollar handbag, or sneakers, or whatever. They’re saying these virtual goods, which bring me better gameplay, are worth more than what I could buy in the real world, and therefore I will work for them in the game world, this is what I want, I want more engagement, I want more superpower—that is subversive. Even if they’re working hard in the game world to acquire those powers and experiences, I mean, that’s work. Games are work. There are economies popping up in games now because people value them. I just think it’s rather extraordinary that there are easily tens of million of people who believe that experience is more valuable than stuff.

So gamers are working really hard. You say in the second half of this book that this is a workforce that’s just asking to be directed toward real-world problems. Can games get people to volunteer for these jobs that wouldn’t already be volunteering for things like stopping climate change or ending world hunger?

The Foldit game is a really great example, that’s the game developed by scientists at the University of Washington. They wanted to take something that was really a strong skill of gamers, creativity in solving problems, and resilience in the face of failure, they wanted to take those gamer skills and apply them to curing cancer. So they created this virtual environment where gamers could play with 3D proteins and fold them up into different shapes. You can think of it as super-dimensional Rubick’s cube meets Tetris…And they asked gamers to find new shapes to fold these proteins into that might, if they were reproduced in our physical bodies, actually prevent disease.

And that’s where the real state of the art is right now in these world-changing games, it’s figuring out what can ordinary people do, safely, without fear of failure, that can really add up to something extraordinary.

Part of it is about motivating people to volunteer. But part of it is about making accessible problem solving opportunities. So these scientists figured out how to make a game that gave gamers something real to do. And that’s where the real state of the art is right now in these world-changing games, it’s figuring out what can ordinary people do, safely, without fear of failure, that can really add up to something extraordinary.

A lot of your examples in the book have superheroes and secret missions in them. How important is the fictional narrative in enticing people to play the game?

In Evoke, we use that narrative to inspire a sense of possibility. We were primarily reaching out in that game to people in sub-Saharan Africa, because one of the goals was to help young people in sub-Saharan Africa start coming up with solutions to the problems they face, as opposed to just giving them aid money. What we found was that a lot of young people in those countries didn’t feel like it was realistic for them to do anything, to be successful. They didn’t see that possibility for themselves. They were kind of mentally stuck.

We used the narrative to tell a story set ten years in the future where it was the young people in Africa who had been working on these incredibly daunting challenges who had developed the creativity and the ingenuity to save the rest of the world. So each week there was a crisis in Tokyo or a crisis in London or a crisis in Rio, and it was the young people in Africa who said, well, we’ve been dealing with food shortages, we’ve been dealing with floods, with not having clean water, and that enabled the students we were working with to see a positive future, to see that epic win, and to be inspired by the story. I do think narrative is important, it provokes emotions like awe and wonder and curiosity.

Games aren’t just fun because we can win them. There are all these other emotions that are part of it, and narrative and art and music can be a really important ways to provoke the emotions that are necessary to stick with the challenge and to imagine that epic win.

Josh Dzieza is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast.