Quick Q&A: Why She Thinks Gamers Can Improve The World

Quick Q&A: Why She Thinks Gamers Can Improve The World

Few people have made more effort to speak positively about video games in public than game designer, author and researcher Jane McGonigal. She’s the opposite of all those people who trash games in the media and, in this week’s Quick Q&A, she’s got four answers for us and one big question for all of you.

McGonigal has written that “my #1 goal in life is to see a game designer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.” She’s been doing her best to achieve that by designing games big and small that consistently are about trying to unleash creativity and/or improve one’s self or society. She wrote the New York Times best-seller Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and has talked about the positive impacts of gaming everywhere from the TED conference to the Colbert Report. She talks more about her work and why she’s such a big believer in gaming in the Q&A below…

1. You strike me as an optimist, someone who maintains a faith that games and gamers can and will do good. Where does that come from and why isn’t it shaken by, oh — I don’t know — everything from the banality of so many video games to the hostility that emerges in many a multiplayer deathmatch on Xbox Live?

McGonigal: My optimism about games and gamers isn’t blind or irrational. It’s based on the research that I and hundreds of other scientists and academics have done over the past decade to figure out: How do games change how we think and act in real life? I’ve been researching this for over a decade. It’s what I earned my PhD in at UC Berkeley, and so I don’t come to this opinion lightly: People who spend a lot of time playing video games, for the most part, develop some powerful mental and emotional strengths that can help them solve problems in the real world, or in their own lives. I’m talking about resilience in the face of failure, and the ability to view obstacles as challenges rather than threats. I’m talking about the power to change our emotional state from boredom, anxiety or depression to interest, optimism and awe.

These skills and abilities don’t turn gamers into saints. I’m just pointing them out because they could be of benefit to you, especially if you’re tackling a tough real-life challenge. Of course, there are some aspects to gaming culture today — the fact that beating a stranger online in a video game raises your testosterone, so that you’re more likely to be a jerk to others and feel less empathy for people you perceive as weak — that lead to some game communities being more hostile and sometimes unpleasant than others. I think it’s good for gamers to be aware of these things — because, on the whole, you’ll be happier and more successful in life if you can feel driven and competitive without needing to make other people feel bad about themselves. Games are a window into that.

Meanwhile, the same research shows that if you beat someone you know well in the same game — say, a good friend or family member — your testosterone goes down, because we’re evolutionarily primed to try to smooth over relationships with people who are important to us. So you actually become a nicer person to be around when you beat friends and family at a game. So, you know, either spend more time trying to beat your friends and family, or when you win against a stranger, know that the surge of testosterone you’re feeling will last a little while after you’ve stopped playing and try not to be a jerk to the people around you just because your hormones are telling you you’re now better than everyone else. I know, it feels good, but life is long and you’re better off understanding how your mind and body work together and how games are a part of that.

I guess I’d say my optimism about games is not that all games make us beautiful, happy saints. It’s that all games give us power and help us develop skills, and I believe that most people who love games can use these powers and skills to enjoy their lives more and accomplish more in the real-world, if they want.

2. You noted on Twitter recently that you regularly get piles of e-mails from people who are horrified by games and think your advocacy for them is a problem. Can you share any examples? Do you write these people back?

McGonigal: I never write back anyone who sends me cranky emails. I delete them right away, so I don’t even have a treasure trove to quote you from. This is the one I was tweeting about, which is completely typical and ridiculous:

“You quote ‘scientific studies’ that show spending time ‘gaming’ can possibly be beneficial. We are not so sure. Recent studies show that ~90% of ALL games available (lets face it, Jane…) contain moderate to severe violence….. How about you suggesting that these same ‘gamers’ READ A BOOK. Use your platform to push REAL activity, sports, hiking, etc…not playing X-box with dad. Why did the police find a disturbing trend among the possessions of 95% of the men who performed all the past and current mass murders and shootings. Wanna guess what they found at home in the dresser drawers or closets…?”

I don’t write back to these people because it’s not my job to change anyone’s minds about games, although I know my book and my TED talks have done that. I also put together all the research I can collect for people willing to consider that what they think they know about games might be wrong. But I don’t waste time defending games to people who have strong opinions against them. I think gamers change more minds by leading by example — by being smart, happy, healthy, successful. Yeah, we’re not all of those things all the time. But most gamers are determined as hell, and when we put our minds to it, we have a pretty good chance to become more of those things.

By the way, Kotaku friends, don’t waste YOUR time in the comments arguing with this random dude who emailed me, ok? I know it’s tempting, especially when he gets talking about all the secret video games hidden in mass murderer’s sock drawers (um, WHAT?!) But the reality is: We’re going to change the conversation about games by talking about the awesome potential and the life-changing stuff, not by arguing with people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

It’s easy to get baited into debates, but it’s more important for the future of games to take the time to discuss, with each other, the upside of games and how we want to harness their incredible power.

3. You collaborated with U Penn to test whether your self-improvement game, SuperBetter, can help people fight depression. The results were promising. What did you learn from that study about how and why the game works?

McGonigal: I invented SuperBetter when I was recovering from a really tough concussion. It took me a full year to recover, and there was a lot of depression and anxiety that went along with the physical pain and cognitive symptoms. At first, because it really worked for me, I thought SuperBetter would be the perfect game for anyone recovering from a traumatic brain injury — in fact a lot of doctors agreed, and Ohio State University Medical Research Center just received an NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant to investigate the use of SuperBetter for TBIs [traumatic brain injuries]. But over the past two years, as more than 250,000 players have used SuperBetter to tackle everything from weight loss to finding a job to post-traumatic stress disorder, it seems like what I accidentally actually designed the game to do was to help with my own depression and anxiety. It wasn’t really about the TBI! It was about the mental and emotional challenges of having a TBI.

McGonigal: ‘People who spend a lot of time playing video games, for the most part, develop some powerful mental and emotional strengths that can help them solve problems in the real world, or in their own lives.’

Everything in the game, it turns out, was really more about finding agency in a tough situation, turning a threat into a challenge, helping friends and family understand the challenge better, and developing a realistic basis for optimism and hope. So when we started to look at the data of our 250,000 players, we realised that SuperBetter was actually having the biggest positive impact on players who were struggling with depression and anxiety, and to some degree, other tough mental challenges like chronic pain and PTSD.

That’s why Penn stepped in to conduct a randomised controlled study of the game for depression. The study had just under 250 participants. The main finding was that, for a typical player with depression, they were able to eliminate six symptoms of depression from their daily lives by playing the game for six weeks. That really floored me. To take someone who has been dealing with depression for a long time, and to help them conquer six problems — like feeling pessimistic about their future, or having no energy to do things they usually enjoy — just with a game, I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

The main take-away from this study, and all the research on games and health really, is that games are incredibly powerful tools, because of the positive emotions they provoke, the social connections they build, and the mental resilience they help us develop in the face of tough obstacles. This is a really exciting time for gamers and game developers. We are just learning how to use games to improve our real lives.

4. I understand that you’ve got an identical twin sister, Kelly (as featured on OUR not-so-identical sister site, Lifehacker). So… how similar are your gaming tastes? Any idea if that twin intuition stuff is useful in multiplayer games?

McGonigal: Kelly and I might be proof that there is no gaming gene! We share identical DNA, but Kelly has never been as drawn to video games the way I am. Growing up, I think she played maybe one hour for every 30-40 hours that I would put in. I do think Kelly has a lot of gamer traits that would make her a great player if she ever wanted to be one. We’re both very goal-oriented, very determined, and we love to learn new things and master new skills. If there is a gamer gene, I think those three personality traits are definitely a part of it — but maybe they don’t always lead to a lifetime of video games!

… and, as we always do with these Quick Q&A’s, we’re inviting our interviewees to turn things around. Here is Jane McGonigal’s question for Kotaku:

1. I always love to hear how or if gamers feel like they’ve brought a certain skill or knowledge from games into their real lives. For example, when my husband and I played Portal 2 co-op, my husband and I got a lot better at communicating to each other during runs and races, where you have to do a lot of gesturing and coordinating to stay together in a pack of 30,000 or more runners. Has your favourite game made you better at anything, and if so, what?


  • You’re off the case, McGonical!

    Seriously though, interesting read.

    Gaming has made me better at assessing the value of time-intensive tasks.

  • Jane is a painful self promoter with remarkably half baked ideas that for some reason are taken seriously. Anyone who drops they have a Berkeley PHD as some kind of validation of ideas is automatically a wanker. Please never put her in serious media again.

    For those who TL;DR –
    You develop some habits in games that could be used in real life

    • Clearly she’s doing something right if she’s being taken seriously. Yes, the ideas presented in this article might be common sense among the gaming community, but making those views known and seen outside the gaming community can be a challenge. To those who only get their information on games and gamers from the mass media (and this is possibly more people than you’d realise), gamers are a bunch of social recluses who lash out violently at those who they believe oppress them. Look at the mass murders and shootings that pop up in the news aroud the place. A lot of them seem to mention that such and such person played Call of Duty, or so and so person played Gears of War. Jane at least is painting gamers with a more positive brush, and pointing out that there are actual real benefits to playing games.

      From games, I’ve learned a lot about managing people and resources, problem solving and critical thinking, just to name a few. Oh, and gamers have a higher chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse.

  • game of girlfriends… finish one then on to the next
    game of music… listen to electronic techno make it get better at it mix it
    game of science…. try to make things out (GMO chemicals drugs)
    game of belief… on a scientific astrological quantum physics and genetics
    game of addictions…. bad because gaming is bery addictive so that trait carrys over into your life
    game of friends…. social networking and not having many real life friends there all on the screen
    game of livestreem and feeds….. projecting reality through the computer

    and one that im loving more and more

    game of dressing up and cozplay… game fashion

    game of knowing your technology and applying that to any other subject

    game of life or life is a game

    the only winning move is not to play

    (dont suicide or cheat)

  • I believe any good puzzle game has helped me develop skills in critical thinking and problem solving. All through pattern recognition and understanding different mechanics. Its helped me develop a logical mind without even realising it until I was about 19.

    Also I know she said said not to discuss the guys email, but I can’t help but say this “~90% of murders and criminals have used toilets, OUTLAW ALL TOILETS!”

  • I felt like Shadow of the Colossus taught me patience.

    You can’t rush anything in that game. You can’t rush your stabs, you can’t rush your climb, and you can’t rush locating the colossi (or else you’ll get lost). It makes you stop and think before you act, and it makes you study your surroundings and observe the world around you.

    It was totally intentional on Team Ico’s half, as well. I mean, how could it not be? Shadow of the Colossus is quite possibly the loneliest game ever created. That level of isolation, as always, sparks some deep introspection. Combine that with a game that punishes you for being rash and impatient, well, it’s almost like Ueda is sitting you down and dominating you into being calm and at peace with yourself and the world around you, all while never taking control away from your hands.

    This is why I think Shadow of the Colossus is gaming’s greatest masterpiece. Years ahead of its time, even to this day. The gameplay has THEMEING, not just the story; the game teaches you a lesson through its actual mechanics. This is why I feel Last Of Us, in regards to its praise of being the “Citizen Kane” of video games, was a failure. Sure, the story is great, but how does the gameplay communicate the message? Does the gameplay teach the player anything? Or is it just another third person, cover based shooter?

    Games have SO much potential. Games can literally challenge you, unlike films, that challenge you in a non-consequential way, and that’s only if they manage to be confronting. Games CAN sit you down and tell you through its level design that “Hey, you will not be able to overcome this challenge, unless you learn to understand [insert theme here].” That is what Shadow of the Colossus does, that is what Ico does, and that is why Team Ico and Ueda are masters of the art, and that is why Shadow of the Colossus is the perfect example to give as an answer to your question, because its the very reason as to why Shadow of the Colossus is considered to be one of the greatest games ever made.

  • ANSWER: Perhaps a bit counter-intuitive, but I think I learned a lot of social and leadership skills from World of Warcraft.

    When you’re a recruitment/HR guild officer in a large end-game guild or a raid leader/guild leader in smaller guilds, you have a lot of personality conflicts to smooth over to get your objectives completed, and you can be surprised how many perspectives can be revealed to you when you’re willing to take someone aside and say, “Hey. Just between us, I wanna get feedback on this and I know you don’t speak up much… So, you wanna spill your guts, tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll see what I can do or how it fits into the puzzle.”

    When you can successfully incorporate that new knowledge into a working strategy (and it won’t always be successful), and the team’s performance lifts because of that renewed faith from a previously-struggling member? Everyone gets happier and more motivated. That shit applies ALL OVER the place.

    That, and make sure ALL expectations are reasonable and up-front, in advance.
    A lot of guilds set raid start times, but they don’t set end-times – and ending is where shit usually falls apart. Set an end-time. People will know what they’re getting into, and if you want to push ahead past the end-time, you make sure it’s understood that it only takes one person to veto. People have shit to do, and 3am raid-finish is not necessarily what they signed up for. If they do it out of a sense of obligation, it’ll build resentment. And no-one can complain, because they knew in advance that this is what was planned to happen. It means those times when everyone is supercharged and ready to continue, you make great progress, and if people aren’t feeling it and want to stop, you probably weren’t going to make great progress anyway.

    Clear expectations are good in any scenario. Even if it’s something people don’t like, you’ll find they like it a whole lot more than a surprise they don’t like.

    • Came here to say this.
      Even though the stereotypical WoW player is far from social, people seem to forget that it’s a multiplayer game. You can’t Raid alone. You can max level your character alone, but that’s about it.
      In recent years the game has become more casual with things like Looking For Raid. However back in the day, an endgame guild would be one hell of a business.

      Time management, organisational skills, dedication, patience, team leadership and conflict resolution were all incredibly important. Obviously this varied depending on the level and expectations of the guild but it applies to almost every in-game group.

      On top of all that, the leadership group (or single leader) would have to implement (and enforce) polices, such as loot rules, behaviour rules and someone has to handle recruitment.

      People sometimes don’t realise that you have 9 or 24 other people relying on you, and at the tougher end of the spectrum, every single person has to give 100% for the team to succeed. And it’s also easy to forget that the other people in your team are just like you, paying a monthly fee and giving up their time to play a game with others.

  • Playing WoW a lot taught me to manage time better and make more efficient use of the time I did have. It also led me to be more organised and see problems as mere equations to be solved.

    edit* jumping on transientmind’s train here to add in leadership skills, this kinda ties in to my original point I suppose where time management and organisation are key, but it also let me balance reasonably well, the need to be amicable, lead by example and to be blunt and not sugarcoat criticism to ensure a problem is fixed sooner rather than later

  • Fuck I hate Jane McGonigal, was forced to study her for one of my university units.

    Trust me, it doesn’t take long to get past her bullshit spin and get down to the facts that she has absolutely no idea what she is talking about, but keeps talking because people keep sticking a camera in her face or a book deal on her desk.

    • Interesting that you studied her rather than the concept of gamification. Do you think the concept of gamification is real though?

      • gamification is real, but she builds it up to be this idea that with gaming you can convince people into doing things they would never do before and enjoy it or work harder or work faster and its just complete rubbish. gamification can put a slightly positive spin on something, but its not going to make people smile while shoveling horse crap.

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