252: Jane McGonigal Lives the Game

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Jane McGonigal Lives the Game

Suffering from a concussion, the noted designer of Alternate Reality Games tested her theories by turning her own recovery into a game. In this profile, Allen Varney expresses why Jane McGonigal could be the first game designer nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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I dig this lady.

who wants to see a game developer nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by 2032

WHY SO SPECIFIC WITH THE YEAR?!

I saw her TED keynote and it absolutely blew me out of the water.

Thanks for bringing this visionary woman to the attention of the Escapist, Allen.

I'm interested in the development of ARGs. When done well, they can become the most immersive type of game as it pervades real life.

Wow.

I'm amazed by this woman, her ideas and, most of all, her effort for recovery of that concussion. I read her nblog entry on Supper Better, and it is great. It kind of reminds me of old kid's movies where a sick kid makes up a fantasy world to aleviate the pain (also remind's me of the first Narnia movie, too. Sort of).
Also, I don't know if her ideas of using game mechanics to do usefull and epic things for the world will ever come true, but I certainly HOPE that our future looks a little bit like this.
Congratulations on the article, it just made my day.

I see it as an interesting idea, but the flaw I see is the inability to convert the ideas generated to action. It is easy coming up with ideas it is much harder making them happen. The virtual world doesn't have to face the reality of accomplishing tasks. You can come up with great ideas that would solve problems but you still have to convince people to go along with you. If just one powerful person doesn't like you ideas then you will face great hardship to enacting them. A harder question to answer than say how to end hunger is how do we deal with irrational people? How do you deal with somebody that just wants the world for themselves? How do you deal with people you can't placate because the only thing they desire is your demise? To put it in gamer speak how do you deal with the evil monsters and cruel bosses? What do you do when our opponent has only one goal and it is to kill you? Games teach us that the only way to deal with that is kill or be killed. Translate that into the real world. When we are faced with monsters that won't listen and want to take everything that is ours and kill all that oppose them the choices are to capitulate or fight. You can try and bribe them but if they won't stop till they have everything then that course won't work. Throw that question out to the masses and what is the answer that arises? I would be fight. That leads to war and death. This kind of thinking just seems very naive that you can being peace to the world through games. You could bring a lot good to the world, but it only takes one monster to bring it all tumbling down. Idealists need to recognize they will never achieve their goals because they can't change the hearts of all humans.

Forgive me for not remembering the fellow's name, but this is brought to a simple explanation in the lecture by a fellow from DICE. He never really touched on the 'games to help people' aspect of ARG's, but this is obviously important. Plus, in a terribly selfish manner, if there is a plethora of new companies backing gaming in general, well, maybe we can get some new tech.

Lastly, may the fourth be with you! Ha!

instantbenz:
Forgive me for not remembering the fellow's name, but this is brought to a simple explanation in the lecture by a fellow from DICE. He never really touched on the 'games to help people' aspect of ARG's

Jesse Schell's widely noted 2010 DICE talk concluded (about 3:55 into this clip) with a vision of pervasive gamelike Skinnerian conditioning. His ideas resemble those in my August 2005 Escapist article "Lifegame 2020."

Thank you for your article. This is the most informative article I have ever read on this site, and I am linking it to my friends. Excellent work.

I am inspired! I'm gonna get that book about losing weight by playing the game and make changes in myself, then I'll go fix the world.

Hello, optimistic traveler! There are new missions available on the Jane McGonigal Bounty Board!

I think this is my favourite article I've read on here to this date. This woman is a true visionary, someone to finally break down the "social outcast" and "games-are-toys" prejudices the gamer culture is subject to.

I played Superstruct when I heard of it, but I never followed up on it. I think I'll do that now that I've been reminded. I'm also going to make a point to remember her name: Jane McGonigal.

BlueInkAlchemist:
I saw her TED keynote and it absolutely blew me out of the water.

Thanks for bringing this visionary woman to the attention of the Escapist, Allen.

Stole my words. :) She's a fascinating lady and I can't wait to see what she has in store for the world.

This was an interesting article. It defenetly has a lot of potential.

Concussion...for FIVE WEEKS? How hard did she smack her head? That kind of sick-leave makes it sound like she had a mild brain haemorrhage...

LOL at the weaksauce 'criticism' at the end of this piece. I have no problem with using games educationally, but the entire attitude here smacks of "Let them eat videogames!" I realise The Escapist is an entertainment rag and not journalism and as I'm totally uninterested in forum-debating the role of Bretton Woods Institutions in the world economy I won't elaborate on the ideological problems with Evoke, but I do think the end of this article is just plain bad writing.

Why even mention criticisms of the source of funding to then dismiss them as 'niggling'? Why do you think the other ARG is 'arch' as opposed to, say, someone who gives a talk at TED? Your editor should have mandated that as a puff piece it's best not to mention these issues at all, lest the reader expect that you will go on to substantively address them. When serving up a confection, it's a poor show to leave any gaps in the icing.

nicholasofcusa:
I realise The Escapist is an entertainment rag and not journalism and as I'm totally uninterested in forum-debating the role of Bretton Woods Institutions in the world economy I won't elaborate on the ideological problems with Evoke, but I do think the end of this article is just plain bad writing.

Sorry to hear this anonymous person's crippling ennui makes him too tired to marshall his obvious economic expertise to demolish my insipid puffery. Possibly a good multivitamin might help.

"Possibly a good multivitamin might help."

Or an ARG? You seem to think they will help malnourishment in Africa after all.

Sadly I don't think revealing my identity (or my gender!) will improve your article. Engaging maturely with the criticism I raise rather than indulging typical forum ad-hominem behaviour might, though.

nicholasofcusa:
I don't think revealing my identity (or my gender!) will improve your article. Engaging maturely with the criticism I raise rather than indulging typical forum ad-hominem behaviour might, though.

Haven't seen any criticism at all yet, champ, just innuendo (and gratuitous insults that apparently don't count as "typical forum ad-hominem behavior"). If you muster the strength to offer actual argument, I'll address it with whatever credibility I gain by speaking in my own person under my real name, like a grownup.

You're right, my posts probably won't be winning any awards for internet politeness. I apologise.

I'm happy to clarify: my criticism doesn't have anything to do with my economic expertise. It's to do with the article's ending where you raise issues which I think are very important only to dismiss them. By using adjectives like 'arch' and 'niggling', you trivialise any problems or grievances people might have with Ms. McGonigal's employer. Now you might have an argument supporting the WB but you don't present it in the article - although there's no doubting your position given the way you've characterised the opposing view. I believe a fairer article would have dealt more substantially with these issues (or, alternatively, not have raised them at all).

DarkSpectre:
I see it as an interesting idea, but the flaw I see is the inability to convert the ideas generated to action. It is easy coming up with ideas it is much harder making them happen. The virtual world doesn't have to face the reality of accomplishing tasks. You can come up with great ideas that would solve problems but you still have to convince people to go along with you.

I agree with a good deal of this post, but there are a couple of particulars that I'm not sure about. I agree that it is hard to motivate large groups of people to follow your ideas. Even if the games managed to come up with a perfect solution to all our problems, that idea would still be completely untested, so it would be hard to actually implement. On the other hand, the ARGs never claim to be perfect solutions to all the world's problems. They just try to help. They accomplish this in two ways. First, by getting people to think about important issues, like a worldwide oil shortage, before they become problems. Thus, if or when an actual shortage occurs, these people will be a little more prepared. Second, it encourages people to apply their solutions personally and locally. This may not be a huge change for the better, but it is certainly a change for the better. With enough little changes, a large change is possible.

DarkSpectre:
Games teach us that the only way to deal with that is kill or be killed.

I agree with this in reference to most games. However, McGonigal is not trying to change the world with Gears of War. Her games encourage alternate, nonviolent solutions.

DarkSpectre:
Idealists need to recognize they will never achieve their goals because they can't change the hearts of all humans.

I'm not sure how an ARG would deal with the war scenario you raised. Maybe there is no good solution, but this is not the fault of the games. It is, like you said, because humans are generally terrible to each other. Idealists may never fully accomplish their goals, but this is no reason not to try. McGonigal's games are not perfect, but I think they are an innovative step in the right direction.

On a sorta related note, I recommend watching the TED talk McGonigal did. It's only about half an hour long and it's really interesting, and goes over all the stuff I just said, but better, and with powerpoint slides!

nicholasofcusa:
my criticism doesn't have anything to do with my economic expertise. It's to do with the article's ending where you raise issues which I think are very important only to dismiss them. By using adjectives like 'arch' and 'niggling', you trivialise any problems or grievances people might have with Ms. McGonigal's employer.

My article discusses McGonigal's beliefs that games and gamelike structures can harness or improve social productivity. Those beliefs are the issue at hand. I briefly raised the matter of sponsorship in order to demonstrate the criticisms on this count don't pertain to her message.

If it turns out the World Bank's sponsorship undermines the effectiveness of Urgent EVOKE, that will be a substantive point -- but no effect of that kind, beyond the parody site, has yet been demonstrated.

APVarney:
My article discusses McGonigal's beliefs that games and gamelike structures can harness or improve social productivity. Those beliefs are the issue at hand. I briefly raised the matter of sponsorship in order to demonstrate the criticisms on this count don't pertain to her message.

If it turns out the World Bank's sponsorship undermines the effectiveness of Urgent EVOKE, that will be a substantive point -- but no effect of that kind, beyond the parody site, has yet been demonstrated.

This is exactly my point: why raise an issue only to summarily dismiss it? Whether or not it's a substantive critique of McGonigal's work, you raise the matter at the end of a highly sympathetic bio piece and characterise it as 'arch' and 'niggling'. This is doesn't count as a demonstration of anything in my book. Nobody expects Escapist writers to be H.L. Mencken, but it would be nice for them to show more critical edge in the articles than they do in the ensuing comments thread.

Even if you're primarily concerned with evaluating McGonigal's ideas about social productivity, they're easily obviated. You mention social pathological games... don't they disprove her whole thesis? You might have pressed her how much business productivity has been lost to Facebook and Zynga.

I saw her talk at TED a while ago. While I liked what she had to say, most often, when her talk has come up, on the occasions on which it has come up, most of what I hear from others is pretty derisive. Or she is simply outright mocked. I'm not bashing your article, but Jane Mcgonigal does herself a disservice when presenting her ideas. Her nerdy presentation has alienated the people (at least the group I've met so far) she wants to "employ". Of course it was TED, so probably the idea of some sort of translator went out the window. But she needs some help getting her ideas across in a way that seems hip to the people that create those huge number of man hours she wants to use.

I had a similar idea about the use of the time spent playing video games by a lot of people, and when I saw her talk, I thought it sounded really interesting, I went to Superstruct.org and never actually signed up, the description was enough to turn me away.

What she doesn't do (or seemed like she didn't do there) is provide a visceral experience for the "player" (more of a participant really). Games are predicated on fun, what she seems to create is contrived version of fun to me. A shallow metaphor that's not a good enough deceit to get the kind of effort she wants for these projects.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm all for utilizing the man-hours put into gaming for a good cause, that concept is one that has real merit. But the more I see of her, the more I see her as not particularly able to create something that's genuinely engaging to the largest number of players. And this is not based solely on my impression, this is based on a fair number of people's impressions of her game. They had no real interest, I suspect that is partially because of her very nerdy presentation of her ideas, but also, for a very real and large part, because it doesn't offer escape! There's no metaphor masking the reality behind it, or close to none. I'm glad people are funding her efforts however, it doesn't matter to me who is doing it, just that it doesn't become an effort to endorse something else.

nicholasofcusa:
This is exactly my point: why raise an issue only to summarily dismiss it? Whether or not it's a substantive critique of McGonigal's work, you raise the matter at the end of a highly sympathetic bio piece and characterise it as 'arch' and 'niggling'. This is doesn't count as a demonstration of anything in my book.

I think we're just going over the same ground here. If my previous response doesn't satisfy you, so be it.

nicholasofcusa:
Even if you're primarily concerned with evaluating McGonigal's ideas about social productivity, they're easily obviated. You mention social pathological games... don't they disprove her whole thesis? You might have pressed her how much business productivity has been lost to Facebook and Zynga.

This objection, by contrast, is new and pertinent. The sociopathic Zynga games exploit the same psychology McGonigal is discussing, but for unproductive ends (if not actual evil). They don't disprove her thesis; they demonstrate the power of this psychology. She believes this psychology can be channeled to productive ends. That thesis remains unproven, but she's still experimenting with it in interesting ways.

That girl sounds like a genius. Next time I have a headache I'll try to design a game to make me feel better about it.

After commenting on three different articles on how I think the idea that gaming is still on its infancy is merely an excuse for its shortcomings, I found one to which it does apply. Her ideas are obviously interesting, and the amount of effort so many people waste on something like WoW (or Farmville) could very well be directed into something constructuve. But I think she's still struggling with form. WoW is so popular because at the same time that it empowers the player it gives them simple, direct goals with plentiful short-term victories. Trying to tackle real life issues is nothing like that. I think she may have an optimistic view of players - surely there are plenty of people who are creative and love nothing more than being presented with a seemingly unsurmountable challenge, but there's also scores of people who are satisfied with an illusion of that.

Still, it's definitively a good idea... but still in its metaphorical womb, waiting to be born into something that can be fun for the average joe and yet important for the world at large. At least I hope so.

As for the sponsorship imbroglio, I've come to accept that ARGs always have the weirdest sponsors behind them, whose interests in the whole thing might as well be described as 'nefarious'. I believe that it's in the sponsors' interests as well to just let the ARG designers do their thing. If we live in a cutthroat capitalistic society we'll need to brave it to better it.

APVarney:
I think we're just going over the same ground here. If my previous response doesn't satisfy you, so be it.

Agreed, although maybe I'll write a bio piece on the Invoke people ending with a dismissive assessment of McGonigal (if I could bring myself to type a smiley it'd go here).

APVarney:
This objection, by contrast, is new and pertinent. The sociopathic Zynga games exploit the same psychology McGonigal is discussing, but for unproductive ends (if not actual evil). They don't disprove her thesis; they demonstrate the power of this psychology. She believes this psychology can be channeled to productive ends. That thesis remains unproven, but she's still experimenting with it in interesting ways.

Agreed again - the psychology is extremely powerful. I don't see it as unproven, millions and millions of gamers prove it. As is no doubt totally obvious by this stage I'm not interested in what someone who's bankrolled by Robert McNamara's old outfit has to say about 'productive ends'.

Speaking of productivity, I'm off, but cheers for the responses Allen.

Hi Allen and nicholasofcusa. I'm one of the people behind Invoke, and
as it happens, a former writer for The Escapist some years ago.
If you need a follow up piece, we are more than happy to help out.
The World Bank is not merely the sponsor of this game - they have been
involved in its development, and the World Bank's current agenda is
clearly reflected in the content of the game itself. Evoke is not a
neutral game about social productivity or activism - it is a highly
ideological game/webforum that specifically advocates social
entrepreneurship as the solution to the world's problems. As the site
itself says, "Play your way through EVOKE's quests to learn all about
social entrepreneurship."

That isn't changing the world, or even improving it in any material way.
Or if you want to say it is, that's an ideological position, not a logical one.

First time poster. Thank You, Allen, for this awesome article! I am glad I got to know who Jane McGonigal is. I tried SuperStruct, but I feel whole lot more inspired after looking at Jane's TED talk.

The Random One:
That girl sounds like a genius. Next time I have a headache I'll try to design a game to make me feel better about it.

I copy that, The Random One!

The Random One:
But I think she's still struggling with form. WoW is so popular because at the same time that it empowers the player it gives them simple, direct goals with plentiful short-term victories.

But this is exactly what EVOKE is. You do something little, and You get to "level up" and at the same time You get feedback from other users to Your ideas. And sometimes the crazy ideas might be the most world-altering ones :)

I mean, look at the Room2Read project. It started like one man's crazy idea, and now over the years has given many children in Asia and Africa children's books in their native language, not to mention schools and libraries they have built from donations. I think it is fantastic project!

And all those ideas need to start from someone's head! :)

beefpelican:

DarkSpectre:
I see it as an interesting idea, but the flaw I see is the inability to convert the ideas generated to action. It is easy coming up with ideas it is much harder making them happen. The virtual world doesn't have to face the reality of accomplishing tasks. You can come up with great ideas that would solve problems but you still have to convince people to go along with you.

I agree with a good deal of this post, but there are a couple of particulars that I'm not sure about. I agree that it is hard to motivate large groups of people to follow your ideas. Even if the games managed to come up with a perfect solution to all our problems, that idea would still be completely untested, so it would be hard to actually implement. On the other hand, the ARGs never claim to be perfect solutions to all the world's problems. They just try to help. They accomplish this in two ways. First, by getting people to think about important issues, like a worldwide oil shortage, before they become problems. Thus, if or when an actual shortage occurs, these people will be a little more prepared. Second, it encourages people to apply their solutions personally and locally. This may not be a huge change for the better, but it is certainly a change for the better. With enough little changes, a large change is possible.

DarkSpectre:
Games teach us that the only way to deal with that is kill or be killed.

I agree with this in reference to most games. However, McGonigal is not trying to change the world with Gears of War. Her games encourage alternate, nonviolent solutions.

DarkSpectre:
Idealists need to recognize they will never achieve their goals because they can't change the hearts of all humans.

I'm not sure how an ARG would deal with the war scenario you raised. Maybe there is no good solution, but this is not the fault of the games. It is, like you said, because humans are generally terrible to each other. Idealists may never fully accomplish their goals, but this is no reason not to try. McGonigal's games are not perfect, but I think they are an innovative step in the right direction.

On a sorta related note, I recommend watching the TED talk McGonigal did. It's only about half an hour long and it's really interesting, and goes over all the stuff I just said, but better, and with powerpoint slides!

I've watched the talk before. I've been following her work for a while now and am excited by her vision and desire. It has really exciting potential to bring together a lot of people and come up with potential solutions. What I am worried will happen is that it won't go anywhere. Everybody will get so excited that they figured out a potential solution that they won't actually enact it. Think up solutions hasn't been our problem, making them happen has. We need people to do the sweaty work of getting things done. Throughout history over and over people have tried to fix humanities problems and it boils down to we all need to work together and be nice. All fine and dandy until there is that one guy that won't play nice. One asshole that just wants to dick on other people. I'd like to see her start to include that aspect of life into her games. An active opposition so to speak.

Life is a PvP server without any admins.

DarkSpectre:
I've watched the talk before. I've been following her work for a while now and am excited by her vision and desire. It has really exciting potential to bring together a lot of people and come up with potential solutions. What I am worried will happen is that it won't go anywhere. Everybody will get so excited that they figured out a potential solution that they won't actually enact it. Think up solutions hasn't been our problem, making them happen has. We need people to do the sweaty work of getting things done. Throughout history over and over people have tried to fix humanities problems and it boils down to we all need to work together and be nice. All fine and dandy until there is that one guy that won't play nice. One asshole that just wants to dick on other people. I'd like to see her start to include that aspect of life into her games. An active opposition so to speak.

I'd imagine that element of opposition is already included in the scenarios presented in the games. The bigger issue is, like you said, getting people to go out and try their ideas. The games did provide some incentive, like allowing people to blog about what they were doing, but that probably wouldn't be enough to get a lot of people playing and acting on their ideas. I'm not really sure what would.

DarkSpectre:
Life is a PvP server without any admins.

I like this line.

I know their is scripted opposition. I am talking an inventive opponent. An Op-For so to speak. Somebody to just play that one guy that is just an asshole without reason. Watch how the other players react to that. How do they adjust?

Yeah, I doubt that's gonna happen. Would be cool though.

ilovebees was nothing short of amazing. This, coming from a guy who absolutely loathes Halo, so that alone should tell you just how awesome it really is. Even though the game is long over, you can still log into the site and listen to the whole story, "radio drama" style.

I don't know, I just can't get behind games as saving the world. Sure, they might influence some people. They might inspire others to do good. But at their heart, they're escapist. You don't usually play a game to realize the harshness of the world, but to get away from whatever boring or unfair situation that exists in your own life.

While a video game might keep people from doing bad things, it wont replace the need to actually do good things for others.

And that's why they shouldn't get a Nobel Peace prize.

This is, quite frankly, one of the most interesting ideas I've seen. It isn't the first time I've seen it, but it is, perhaps, the best I've seen it carried out. I'm not quite seeing the world as being based around a video game in the future where things we do nets us 'points' rather than money, but certainly large-scale projects based around a game to serve the Greater Good would be something to look forward to.

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