15 Minutes of Fame: Jane McGonigal on why gamers will change the world

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15 Minutes of Fame: Jane McGonigal on why gamers will change the world

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.
The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games, by the age of 21. For children in the United States 10,080 hours is the exact amount of time you will spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation if you have perfect attendance. -- Jane McGonigal
Games designer Jane McGonigal wants games to change the world -- and she has good reason to think it's not only possible but in fact quite probable. McGonigal's games harness the power of productivity -- yeah, that same stuff you're pouring all over your push for endgame gear, the energy that's spilling over the sides of your personal quest to score more than 100 companion pets -- to bring gamers together to foster global social change.

Whoa, lofty words ... But listen to McGonigal's 20-minute TED Talk, above, and you'll find yourself nodding along. Harnessing the immensely motivated and collaborative population of gamers makes a lot of sense. McGonigal has a new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World, that colors in the entire picture (highly recommended reading -- thought-provoking without being heavy in the least).

WoW Insider colors along with McGonigal this month with an exclusive, two-part interview. This week, we talk about how and why gaming will change the world. (We do recommend that you watch McGonigal's TED Talk above first for maximum context.) Next week, we'll narrow the focus to World of Warcraft and pick McGonigal's brain for practical advice for making playing WoW the positive, life-enhancing activity it has the potential to be.

15 Minutes of Fame: You've talked about how gaming is creating "a massive virtual silo of cognitive effort, emotional energy and collective attention lavished on game worlds instead of on the real world." The idea, of course, is to harness all that in-game energy for real-world results – but is it really realistic to expect reality to provide rewards and challenges that feel as good as game features that were specifically designed to draw us in and keep us playing?

Jane McGonigal: It's a super-great question. What I'm really trying to do with the book is to show people that they can make reality what they want it to be. So it's certainly not about expecting life to just throw us heroic adventures and superpowers, but that whatever we get from our games -- whatever we feel, whoever we imagine that we can be in our game worlds -- that it would be a real shame not to look at our real life self and see that same potential, whether that's at school or work or with our friends or neighborhoods ... anything we care passionately about.

The rest of the world isn't walking around trying to make us feel amazing, which is what games designers do, right? The game designers want us to feel super-motivated, super-engaged, super-rewarded. That's their job. The rest of the world -- that's not their job to make us feel that way. But it can be our job to feel that way, to look for those opportunities.

So that's what it's about. I think for the rest of the world, people who are designing things, it's important for them to remember what's really important in life. When I look at games, I see games as a way to remind ourselves what's really important in life – that we want to have satisfying work, that we want to have strong social relationships, that we want to have a chance to be successful at something we care about, and that we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

We see that in games, but we don't see that the rest of the time. Teachers aren't necessarily thinking about those four things; they're thinking about much more mundane things. They're teaching to these tasks and curriculum. [Workers in] hospitals, doctors, flight attendants ... They're all these people that we interact with on a daily basis – just imagine if they could bring some of that recognition of what really matters to their work and to the way that they create the world around us. I think that would be genius. Game designers know how to do it; we can share that with other people.

We asked games researcher Nick Yee
what study, paper or project he'd worked on that he believes has the most potential application to sociological/social issues in real life. He told us, "I think it's the Proteus Effect line of studies showing that the avatars we inhabit come to change our behaviors and attitudes in virtual worlds, because those studies show that virtual worlds and avatars can be vectors for change. So there are now studies trying to explore how that mechanism might be used to augment health games, for example." How does this fit in with your own explorations of games you've created such as SuperBetter?

I have a game that I'm working on that's a kind of a dashboard for your recovery from any illness or injury, called SuperBetter. ... I had made this game to deal with my head injury. So we're actually developing a clinical trial right now, an actual commercial product so we can put this game on people's phones or computers.

For me, that's very close to what Nick is talking about. When you think about whatever it is you want out of life, whether it's work at the office or work for yourself -- you know, getting better is a kind of work in itself -- if we can take what WoW and other MMO designers have figured out about giving us quests that feel realistic with our capabilities and where we are in the world, quests that are really custom to physically our location, things that we understand exactly what to ask for from collaborators ... It's not just some random "please help" but something specific that a friend or family member can do to help us out, and that we can feel that we're really making progress of getting these stats are improving. We have a log of what we've achieved. There's always the hope of extra reward or extra loot at the end of something we've done. These are all really good motivational reward systems that can definitely cross boundaries with any kind of work.

I think the key, though, that's really important is not to forget that it's the kind of work that still matters. We shouldn't just be asking people to do a bunch of bullshit work and try to make it fun and rewarding by giving them points and levels and achievements and virtual loot. I think it's important that the work we ask people to do is still meaningful and satisfying. So I'm not a fan of people who are just trying to game-ify everything and just sell more crap and sort of exploit gamers' desire for this kind of work, to just get them to do bullshit stuff – you can quote me, too, on that.

When I look at games, what I see also about the kind of work is this sense of heroic purpose, this sense that somebody else is depending on you. When we do work in our real lives, it can help us to know who is it that we're actually helping with what we're doing. What is the end product? What does it look like? Can I see it? Does it have my fingerprints on it? What is the cause here? And if we tie everyday work to bigger things like that, this bigger sense of purpose and mission, it can feel like we're on an adventure in real work.

So it's not just the feedback systems. It's the design of the quests and the feedback and just work that matters. That's something we can learn a lot from games -- that when people feel like it matters, they really will have this incredible ability to stay engaged. And we shouldn't overlook that as an important part of work, too.

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