A Worldchanging Interview
Solving the world’s biggest problems will require a superhuman outpouring of energy, passion, creativity, and collaboration. Fortunately, Jane McGonigal has a strategy for unleashing people’s capacity to take on hard challenges: playing games. A celebrated designer, researcher, and future forecaster, McGonigal specializes in alternate reality games that engage massive online audiences in real-world issues ranging from energy shortages to health pandemics.
McGonigal brings to the task both academic credentials (Ph.D. in performance studies from U.C. Berkeley) and veteran gamer instincts (as a kid, she hacked games on the Commodore 64). As director of game research and development for the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., she frequently collaborates with global partners on game development. Her new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Change the World, will be published later this year by Penguin.
I caught up with McGonigal by phone as she was putting the finishing touches on her latest project. EVOKE, which she is developing for the World Bank Institute, promises to deliver “a crash course in changing the world” when it launches in March.
Suzie Boss: For the uninitiated, what are alternate reality games?
Jane McGonigal: When people think of computer or video games, they often think of playing in a virtual world that doesn’t exist in reality. But alternate reality game designers are trying to get people to play in the real world. We want people to bring the same curiosity, wonder, and optimism that you feel when in your favorite video games into your real lives and real problems.
SB: Your games sound pretty different from commercial products like World of Warcraft.
JM: There are two big distinctions. First, alternate reality games are not in a virtual environment. They’re built on top of social networks, so we use ordinary online tools like online video, blogs, wikis, and being part of a network. It’s not about graphics and avatars. Second, it’s real play and not role play. You don’t adopt a fictional personality. You play as yourself.
SB: Do your games actually change how people act in real life?
JM: CryptoZoo is a good example of a game oriented to changing your everyday behavior. I developed it for the American Heart Association with the mission of changing the way people think about physical activity. Right now, many of us think of physical activity as requiring you to carve out an hour and changing into your gym clothes. You think you have to go to a special place to sweat. It feels separate from our everyday lives and not integrated into what we do when we’re hanging out with our friends. CryptoZoo inspires people to say, let’s be active for the next five minutes. We teach people to see real streets, real parks, real physical environments as opportunities for playing the game.
SB: How does it work?
JM: CryptoZoo is about chasing these imaginary, bigfoot-like creatures called cryptids. Each cryptid runs in a distinct way. It has specific style of interacting with the environment. Summit monkeys, for instance, swing around any poles they see and run up and down steps. Slaminas run backwards, without stepping on any cracks. (The website includes field reports that describe creatures’ behaviors, along with videos created by players.) So if you’re walking down the street and notice telephone poles and a staircase at city hall, you might say, “Let’s chase the summit monkeys through this block.”
SB: Has CryptoZoo gotten people moving?
JM: That’s the cool thing. Gamer-type people do not necessarily see themselves as athletic. So when we’ve organized CryptoZoo events—such as a late-night cryptid chase through Manhattan at the Come Out and Play Festival—we gather data. At the start, only one in eight people considered themselves athletic. But just from playing the game, they ran more than a mile. They were sweating. Their heart rates were up. These were the same people who had said earlier, “I hate running. That’s not what I do.” But then they did it. It was transformative. The experience changes the way people see themselves. Games are really good at showing us that we’re capable of more than we thought.
SB: Is there more going on here than old-fashioned play?
JM: A lot of people are interested in play. I’m more interested in game play. And here’s the difference: Play is exploratory, open-ended, improvisational. It’s very free. All animals play. Game play is different. It’s outcome-oriented, goal-oriented, and structured. Humans are the only species we know of that comes together to structure an experience where we all understand the rules and work toward the same goal. In fact, cognitive scientists now define the ability to play a game as the distinguishing cognitive trait of the human brain.
People have been playing games as long as we’ve had civilization. As I explain in my book, the earliest dice games were played during times of famine. Whole societies would come together and play these games as a way to diminish their suffering and create social resilience. I interpret that history to mean that games are a way to get massively many people to rally around a common goal.
SB: And that brings us to EVOKE, your new massively multiplayer change-the-world game. Give us a preview.
JM: EVOKE is about rallying as many people as possible around social innovation goals. The goal is to build up our global capacity to change the world in as short a time as possible, for as many people as possible. I call it a crash course in changing the world.
Every week for 10 weeks (starting March 3), there’s going to be a new episode about social innovators working out of Africa. They travel around the world solving epic crises, like food shortages or power outages in major cities. (Game narrative is a graphic novel written by Kiyash Monsef, McGonigal’s husband, with illustrations by Jacob Glaser.
Players take on three missions each week. They learn—basically, filling their brain with information about the topic. They act—doing something in real life to implement what they’ve learned. And they imagine. What could they do about this problem today if they had a team, money, and resources? That’s what social innovation is all about—scaling up local solutions to make big, sustainable solutions that can spread.
The first week, the episode is about a scenario 10 years from today when there’s a major famine in Tokyo. Players learn about the issue of food security. They do something in real life to increase the food security of at least one person they know. And then they imagine a bigger solution.
Meanwhile, real experts (from the field of social innovation, World Bank Institute, and other domains) are watching, mentoring, and giving feedback. At the end of the game, we’ll set up year-long mentorship for people who have ideas. They’ll get support to develop their ventures. We want the game to be a springboard to real action.
SB: Who do you hope will play?
JM: Young people in Africa are our ideal audience. We’re working with universities throughout Africa to get the game into classrooms. Then there’s a wider audience of people anywhere in the world, but especially in areas of high poverty where there’s an urgent need for social innovation. I’m imagining mostly young adults—under 35 (although there’s no age limit).
Finally, there’s a third level. And that’s anybody who knows anything and is willing to funnel that knowledge toward people who can do a lot of good with it. They can participate as a mentor or ally. By coming once a week and spending 15 minutes, they can offer players attention, positive feedback, and ideas. The idea is to create a critical mass of engagement and attention so we have a big swarm of people who come and do something together.
SB: What sort of numbers are you hoping for?
JM: If we could get 50 students in Africa to work their way through the entire game, and get to the point where they have a social enterprise ready to pitch, that’s a huge win. That would be fantastic. Then, I always set a lucky number for people who feel that their life is transformed by the game. They’ll spend enough time participating so that the rest of the work they do afterward is influenced by their new powers, new capabilities, and new allies. My magic number is 1,100. Beyond that, I’d love to see 10,000 people signed up and participating.
SB: I notice you sometimes use superhero lingo when you talk about games (i.e., developing “new powers”). Is that deliberate?
JM: Anytime you work really hard at something you care about, you do develop strengths and abilities. That’s how we humans learn. With games, the level of emotional engagement is so intense. With the bigger games I’ve designed, people play them like a full-time job, sometimes for 40 hours a week. When you put that much time in—and you do it because you love it—you’re going beyond normal learning or normal skill acquisition into the world of superpowers. It’s heroic effort, and you wind up with all these great attributes and assets.
SB: Where did your own passion for gaming come from?
JM: I was a computer geek growing up, hacking my own games on the Commodore 64. But I never thought of gaming as a viable career path. Then when the first-person-shooter genre came out, I fell out of gaming for a while. My brain doesn’t enjoy that. Meanwhile, toward the end of college, I worked in parks and recreation in New York. We put on big game festivals at parks and schools, and I saw the power of games to bring people together and create community. Those were athletic, playground-type games. Once that became possible to do with technology—with all the narrative and interaction of computer games—that was an exciting moment.
SB: Recently, you blogged about how you created a game to help you recover from a concussion. What happened?
JM: I had a fluke accident last summer and slammed my head into a cabinet door. I was in the middle of working on my book and suddenly, I was in this fog. If I tried to read or write, my brain would basically shut down. This dragged on for weeks. There was no purpose in my days. Everything just stopped. It was bleak. So I started making up a game. The idea was, I’d become this Buffy-the-vampire-slayer-type hero and slay my concussion. I came up with missions and allies so I could get my friends and family to help me. It was a cry for help, and it started to work.
I might eventually take it further.
SB: Finally, you’ve said you’d like to see the Nobel Peace Prize go to a game designer someday. Why?
JM: Games wield enormous power in our culture. They’re controlling the attention and getting the most energy and passion out of many, many people.
The commercial gaming industry is our innovation lab. By making games purely for entertainment, we learn more about how to make people happy and how to develop these superpowers.
But if you don’t do something real with these powers, it’s a waste. If we’re not developing games that use all that insight and all that powerful technology for good, it’s a big, tragic waste. So, my benchmark for the games I want to help create is that they should only be games that serve a humanitarian purpose, that give people a chance to tackle urgent problems like poverty, that lead to world peace. These are big human goals that I think games are capable of tackling.
Images courtesy of Avant Game
great! i am really happy to hear about this!
although i never was a gamer, i always thought there is so much potential and power in gaming,
why does nobody use it for something good?
with me it's the same,all the shooter games...my brain and heart don't enjoy that either.
but i am a happy learner and i think in it's most perfect form,learning is just the same : playing with a direction.
so thanks again.good luck!
for sure i will be checking it out.
elation, I contribute my focus of energy to your cause Jane McGonigal
that's impressive and superb. made me smile.
I distinctly remember a simulation game in my freshman year of college in 1978, to learn about the human interaction with the environment. I don't remember the name but it was great fun, and I changed my degree program to Natural Resource Development as a result. So many years later, I am now managing energy efficiency programs for business and industry. GO JM ! I'd love to participate as an energy expert in Evoke.
The EVOKE game seems to be really interesting, I wish I could try it, but my computer is not strong enough for this program. :(