Jane McGonigal Lives the Game

In her San Francisco apartment in July 2009, Dr. Jane McGonigal, who wants to see a game developer nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by 2032 – and who, if she proves right, is certain to be that nominee – hit her head on a cabinet door and suffered a concussion. For five miserable weeks, the noted designer of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) like World Without Oil, The Lost Ring and Superstruct lived trapped in a mental fog; depressed and anxious at her slow improvement. Desperate to recover, she conceived a scheme.


Because writing hurt too much, McGonigal commenced the project in a couple of grainy webcam videos. In them, she lacks the focused composure she showed in, for instance, her 2007-08 keynote speeches at O’Reilly ETech, the Serious Games Summit and South by Southwest Interactive. In the videos she looks completely unfocused and wild-haired, like a poleaxed barmaid. Focus, she explains, is the goal: “I’m one of those people who feels she should be working all the time, getting lots of things done – it’s like part of my self-identity – so this has been really hard.” The injury has restricted her workday to only two hours, she says, instead of her usual twelve to fourteen.

Through twelve-hour workdays on many ARGs, Jane McGonigal had undertaken the task to erase the boundaries between games and reality. She advocated “fixing reality” by incorporating game-like structures into everyday life. Before the accident, she was preparing her most spectacular demonstration yet. With these in peril, and perhaps her career as well, she took control of her own recovery the only way that she knew – by making her recovery a game.

McGonigal started designing games as a child in Moorestown, New Jersey, coding in Basic+ on a Commodore 64. In 1999, fresh out of Manhattan’s Fordham University with a B.A. in English Literature and Media Studies, she worked at the dot-com StudentAdvantage, writing articles like “The Ice Cream Dating Method.” Even then, 22-year-old McGonigal was praising the TV reality show Survivor for its emergent player-driven drama, meaningful play and satisfying outcomes. (She considers Survivor “still by far the most important show for game designers, and probably other kinds of social experience designers, to watch.”) Later, she “puppet-mastered” The Go Game, a team-building “big game” scavenger hunt. She also organized some of San Francisco’s earliest flashmobs, spontaneous gatherings for stunts, performances and massive games of tag and duck, duck, goose. These beginnings – Survivor-type challenges and large-scale gatherings – marked the themes of her career.

Entering grad school in Performance Studies at the University of California Berkeley, McGonigal took part in engineering professor Ken Goldberg’s 2003 Tele-Twister project – Twister played with moves dictated by online viewers. She lectured on “pervasive games” and “immersive aesthetics,” analyzed gameplay as performance, and wrote design manifestos like “The Curious Interface” (.PDF):

We are concerned that as ubiquitous computers become more responsive to their users and environments, users are becoming less responsive to the environments in which our technologies are distributed or embedded. We support ambiguity, multiplicity and open-endedness in design, so that we perceive, rather than receive, our technologies. We believe that designers have a responsibility to encourage exploratory play.

This led naturally to ARGs. As 42 Entertainment’s community director on ilovebees (2004), then as lead designer on Last Call Poker and Hex168 (both 2005), McGonigal led hundreds of thousands of players to explore ambiguous narratives, both online and through physical gatherings. Her 2003 paper “This Is Not a Game” (.PDF) and 2006 dissertation This Might Be a Game argue that games can promote community, revitalize public spaces and improve quality of life. She called it “Happiness Hacking.”

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Year by year, her ambitions grew. Games could not only increase happiness, they could become collaborative problem-solving tools. Abandoning the defined narrative of her earlier ARGs, McGonigal tried in 2007, with modest success, to empower ARG players to create the narrative collectively. As “Participation Architect” in Ken Eklund’s World Without Oil – blogging as mpathytest – she led what amounted to a 1,700-person Peak Oil brainstorming session. Superstruct, her 2008 forecasting ARG, presented real-world data and asked 8,000 players to solve future crises like plagues, shortages and refugee swarms.


Given their small turnouts, both these experiments held interest primarily as publicity exercises – and, theoretically, as “experience grenades,” McGonigal’s term for games that benefit players through later reflection. But 2008’s The Lost Ring, her Olympics tie-in about a forgotten sport, revived her early Go-Game/flashmob theme of physical participation in performance art. The six-month project drew hundreds of thousands of players on six continents.

Meanwhile, McGonigal’s SXSW Interactive keynote (slides, liveblog) marked her most audacious performance yet. She started with a question: “Why aren’t we making games that alleviate suffering?” Games, she said, “give us responsibility and powers. Skills and ideas you develop in game worlds can solve real-world problems.” Games provide a ready-made “engagement economy:”

1. Satisfying work to do
2. The experience of being good at something
3. Time spent with people we like
4. The chance to be part of something bigger

This engagement economy would make massively multiplayer collaboration “the most important human ability.” And “the great work of game designers” – as she told a breathless audience of them at the March 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Jose – is “to re-invent real life as we know it.”

Jane McGonigal had arrived at her reasoning’s logical culmination: If gameplay teaches real-world empowerment, then, consequently, gamers can exert power. Reality is broken. It falls to gamers to fix it. With her growing fame and authority, increasing technical skill and powerful allies, she seemed poised to help change the world.

Then she hit her head.

McGonigal called her recovery game, SuperBetter, an ARG: “An alternate reality game can be as simple as a good idea, a fresh way of looking at a problem.”

Taking a heroic identity, Jane the Concussion Slayer, she embarked on a “superhero to-do list” of goals, “trying to level up in things that are going to help me recover” (1. Satisfying work to do). She identified bad-guy symptom triggers, power-ups and productive tasks that didn’t strain her, like baking cookies (2. The experience of being good at something). She recruited her husband and twin sister as allies who bestowed “achievements” for her SuperBetter accomplishments (3. Time spent with people we like).

Within days, her mood lightened and her motivation improved. In five weeks, she recovered completely.

Does this confirm McGonigal’s belief in the empowering “engagement economy” of gameplay? “I can’t say for sure that I got better any faster than I would have without playing the game – although I suspect it helped a great deal,” she wrote on her blog, Avant Game. “But I can say for sure that I suffered a great deal less during the recovery as a direct result […] [W]hen the tough reality we have to face is that getting better won’t be easy, a good game can better prepare ourselves to deal with that reality.”

As for (4. The chance to be part of something bigger) – that lay ahead.

After her SuperBetter recovery, McGonigal had an October medical emergency. (Her nerve-wracked tweets read like dying words – “At emergency room being treated for suspected allergic reaction don’t know 2 what may get epinephrine iv in a minute love you everyone.”) Following six weeks of bed rest, she received a crosswalk bruising from a careless bicyclist.


But in February 2010, the unlucky streak finally broke. “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” McGonigal’s talk at the prestigious TED conference in Long Beach, California, commenced by stunning the audience. The three billion hours we spend weekly playing MMOGs, she said, is “not nearly enough gameplay to solve the world’s most urgent problems.” (She recommends 21 billion hours.) People laughed. But then she outlined gamer virtues like urgent optimism, blissful productivity and the desire for epic meaning. “We can make any future we can imagine, and we can play any games we want,” she concluded. “So, I say let the world-changing games begin.” They applauded. They stood up and applauded. The media coverage was lavish. The following week she got interviewed on CNN to promote her newest project, Urgent EVOKE.

The escalating scale of McGonigal’s ambitions has made her recent games increasingly hard to categorize. The Lost Ring merged ARG and “big game.” Urgent EVOKE is – well – first, try to picture 18,000 African schoolkids as World of Warcraft paladins, then imagine Jane McGonigal standing under a big exclamation point.

The EVOKE team assigns general missions (“Help invent the future of money,” “Help empower women,” “Develop your resilience superpowers – and prepare for the volatile future of urban life”). Players research the topic, then ideally “do something small to help solve a real problem” and (in a blog post or image) “tell a story about the future you want to make.” They earn in-game honors and can win a trip to the Evoke Summit in Washington DC. Ten players receive online mentoring from “an experienced social innovator.” EVOKE aims to foster what Superstruct scenario designer Jamais Cascio calls “Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals.”

You might call EVOKE an “activist game” – but its sponsor, the World Bank, is no one’s idea of an activist. The Bank’s shadowy pall prompted an arch parody, Urgent Invoke: “To play, post a comment explaining your Nobel-Prize-winning idea for how the World Bank can successfully whitewash its international public image.” This highlights the criticism occasionally leveled at McGonigal: her sometimes dodgy sponsors. The Lost Ring, which promoted physical fitness, was “discreetly” co-sponsored by McDonald’s, a fact buried in the site’s Terms of Service. (The other sponsor, marketing agency AKQA, said The Lost Ring “engaged younger audiences who dislike overt marketing.”) It probably doesn’t help that for three years McGonigal has been a research director at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto think tank spun off from a featured player in every conspiracy theory since the 1960s, the RAND Corporation.

This is niggling stuff, though, and McGonigal doesn’t appear concerned. It’s likely she could soon fund her projects herself, if she likes – whether through a MacArthur fellowship “genius grant” or from the sales of her forthcoming Penguin Books title, Reality is Broken.

By finding (1) satisfying work that (2) she is good at while simultaneously enjoying (3) amiable company and (4) working toward a larger goal, Jane McGonigal first healed herself of her concussion, and is now helping to heal gaming’s damaged public image. Amid dialogues dominated by game addiction and “sociopathic games” like FarmVille, McGonigal champions the polar opposite of addiction and exploitation: the epic win. She is rapidly becoming gaming’s most prominent and respected advocate. For CNN and TED, and maybe even the Nobel Prize committee, our field could not hope for a better face.

Writer and game designer Allen Varney has written over 70 articles for The Escapist.

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