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Master Chief in Sneakers: Making Life Not Suck

Russ Pitts | 8 Apr 2008 12:16
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"Life is Crap"
Jane McGonigal is the kind of developer who makes other developers squirm. It wouldn't be too far off the mark to say she's above making games that are merely fun, merely captivating. She's out for bigger fish.

"Reality is broken," McGonigal told the standing-room-only crowd at the Game Developers Rant at this year's GDC. "Why aren't game developers trying to fix it?" It's the simple questions like this that get things moving. Revolutions are started over less interesting sentiments, and McGonigal, designer of the much-discussed alternate reality game I Love Bees, is no stranger to those.

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McGonigal holds that if anyone can make life more interesting, more fun, it's game developers. After all, fun is their business. We're talking about videogames, where teams hundreds strong work for years making the prospect of logging on for hours at a stretch, crafting, selling items, undertaking routine quests just for the experience points, so you can level up and go on longer quests so you can come back tomorrow and do it all again seem fun. Surely these people have considered applying their same creative leverage to real life. Surely.

But no. Most game developers have their head in the game, not life. Life's too big, too unwieldy. In a game you can control all variables. In a game the only rules are your rules, and you can bend them if you really need to. Games are games, life is life and never shall the two meet. That's just the way it is. But what if life were a game ... now that's just crazy talk. Or is it?

"Games have a value as an aid to quality of life even greater and more direct than has hitherto been suspected," read a slide at McGonigal's SXSW keynote speech in Austin, TX. "The ordinary routine of playing a game is fatal to conditions of depression, existential angst, human suffering and other serious afflictions of real life." In other words, playing games makes us happy.

"Games are the ultimate happiness engine," McGonigal says. "When I'm in games I have all the info and feedback I need, I have superhero skills ... it's just better than real life. ... Life is crap."

Life is crap. It's so true it hurts. Hurts like my sides hurt as I hit the halfway point. A mile and a half behind me, a mile and a half to go. The wooden planks of the sidewalk bridge feel good on my feet. Softer than the concrete. And this is when I know I'm pushing too hard. When the relative merits of various paving materials make me happy or sad. I don't slack up, but I remember this moment, pledge to recall this image when I complain about my knees later on.

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