Why girls love video games – and how to deal with “griefers”

The full transcript of my interview with Jane McGonigal, author of <i>Reality Is Broken</i>.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Jane McGonigal to coincide with the launch of her book "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World". An edited version of this interview appeared in the print magazine -- as did a review of the book -- but here's the full transcript, where we discuss "Farmville", griefers, women gamers and Clay Shirky . . .

H: Why do you think games are so important?

J: There are two issues. One is the sheer number of people playing games and the amount of time they're spending. There are half a billion people on the planet who are spending an hour a day playing games and they are reaching almost 100 per cent of people under 18.

Then, there's a staggering amount research that suggests that the games we play can have a real and positive impact on our real lives. I wanted to write a book that would help people see that. We're not just escaping our real lives by playing but "powering up" our real lives.

Why do you think the myth persists that all gamers are teenage boys?

I don't think we've done a good enough job at looking at the real statistics. The average gamer is 35 years old; one in four gamers is 50 years old or older; 40 per cent are women or girls. It's very much changed since the early 1990s, when games were more the domain of teenage boys and where first-person shooters were the most popular genre.

If you look at the top 20 bestselling games from this year, last year or the year before, only a handful is about graphic violence. The majority is puzzles, adventure games, sports and dance.

It's just taking a while for the media and general perception to catch up with reality. Look at the most popular game last year, which was Farmville. It was played by 90 million people and most were women.

What's a good game for people who've never played before to try?

If you want a game that's important right now, which over 100 million people are playing, the Facebook game Cityville is a good one. It's a totally new genre [that emerged] over the past year or two -- social games. But I also think that, if there's any kid in your life who plays games, you should sit down with them and get them to show you what they love.

What is the most important way in which games can make us happy?

Eustress -- positive stress, which is physiologically and biochemically the same as negative stress. The adrenalin gets going, the attention is focused but, when we choose to be in that state, we think of it not as anxiety or pressure but as excitement and motivation. It turns out that what gamers want to feel is motivated, challenged, ambitious and driven, which is what you feel when you're playing a game.

Even if it's a silly, casual game, you feel more motivated, more ambitious than if you were just hanging out, not doing anything. And what's great about that state is that when you start to tap into those positive emotions, they can spill over into real life.

Every psychologist or scientist of happiness agrees that it doesn't matter where you get these positive emotions from -- they become a force for real success, for real well-being. Games appear to be the easiest, most reliable, efficient way to provoke these feelings of positive stress. That's why we have so many hundreds of millions of people drawn to them every day.

H: Tell me a little bit more about game-based learning and the "Quest to Learn" school in New York.

This is a school that's been designed in collaboration with educational researchers and extremely experienced educators and game designers. They wanted to make a school that would tap into the same self-motivation and collaboration that games provoke in young people. It wasn't about putting tons of technology in the classrooms, but understanding the psychology and the social aspects of gaming.

One thing that I find fascinating about it [is the way that] they were questioning the way we do testing in schools. If you look at how we play games, [you see that] when you don't do well, you regroup, come up with a new strategy, try harder and try again. There's no penalty in the game for how many times you try that level. You can try a hundred times and it's the same as if you got there on the first try. So failure is not punished in games at all. It's more about the end result -- did you learn, did you become capable?

In school, we are incredibly punishing of failure and we don't value the end result, which is becoming capable and learning something. We value performance on a particular day and that is arbitrary. So Quest to Learn is looking at what [happens] if we allow students to take tests repeatedly until they master the content.

I just saw a study last week in Science that we learn better by taking tests than we do by studying. If I'd seen that study earlier, I would have put it in the book because it shows that this game way of learning of works. Challenging ourselves is more effective than holing up and trying to study in an abstract way.

I have a lot of optimism around these new gameful ways of thinking about education. We don't want young people to feel punished.

In the book, you briefly mention those who want to ruin games -- "griefers". Is that a worry?

With every game that we've done, we have had people show up who are opposed to the idea of the game. They disagree with the goals or they disagree with the idea that gamers can accomplish anything real.

Games have developed strong community-moderation skills and practices. You have to design the goals and the adventures of the game in such a way that it is hard to grief. What do people get points for? What do people get achievements for? Can you collaborate with anybody or only with people you know?

When I make these large-scale games, I try to make it a safe space for people to play but, if you want extreme scale collaboration, you need to have open walls. When you come into these games, there can be a lot of conflict and that is part of the game experience, I guess. The majority of people playing these games are playing them with sincere intent.

In our games, you have maybe a dozen [griefers] at most in a group of 20,000. It's a small percentage of players. The more wholehearted players you have, the harder it is for griefers to get any traction. So it is more important to build a community of players who care.

The other thing you talk about is "participation spam" -- how hard it is to get people to take on more projects than they have to.

There is that great book by Clay Shirky called Cognitive Surplus, which looks at how much spare time we have today as a whole in society, and we burn our cognitive surplus however we see fit.

People burn it reading, some people burn it watching TV, some people burn it working out a lot. As a planet, we are burning three billion hours a week of cognitive surplus on games, which is an extraordinary amount of time.

What I am trying to do is make more serious games, with goals such as curing cancer or resolving poverty. These sounds like they wouldn't be fun but a creative gamer can make fun out of anything. If you are spending between seven and 20 hours a week [playing] -- which a typical gamer does -- spend one of those hours on a game that could change the world.

It is a matter of looking at how we spend our time and making time within that cognitive surplus. Most people look to some form of media for that kind of escape on a daily basis. With these new games, we don't have to escape reality while we are recharging ourselves. We can play something that matters.

Of the large-scale games you've designed, which was the most fun?

I am doing one right now that is amazingly fun. It is for the New York Public Library, which is celebrating its centennial this year, and we are creating a game in which winning means writing a book.

The adventure is based in the library, where you go to find the 100 most intriguing objects there. Each object sparks a writing quest -- where you have to write a book called "100 ways to make history". It is a book about what you want to do with your personal skills and superpowers to make a difference.

We are launching the game with an all-night write-in at the library, 8pm to 6am. Five hundred gamers are going to be able to go everywhere in the library, including the Ford files, the stacks that are underneath New York City. By sunrise, they will have written a book that will go into the main collection of the library. So it is super fun to take a goal that a lot of young people have and give them a game that gives them the chance to achieve it.

For you, has the focus moved more from computer games to alternate reality games?

I think it is a balance. More traditional games innovate because they are so focused. [They are] more engaging to create better cognitive emotion, more co-operation.

For alternate reality games, which have a second goal of improving real lives or solving real problems, we need to be able to work with the innovations that are happening in the commercial gaming industry to achieve those goals.

The innovation can happen faster in an industry where they are there to make money. So I like to see them developing alongside each other.

One of the nice things about the book is that you "hijack" big commercial entities such as the Olympic Games or McDonald's to make games happen. But is there a danger that people will eventually feel they're playing an advert and reject it?

It depends. I talk to a lot of companies about the reasons they would make a game. I encourage them to have a real positive impact in mind and they want to take credit for that positive impact, as opposed to seeing a game as a traditional marketing vehicle.

What was great when working with McDonald's and the national Olympics committee was that we knew that this game -- if we made it the right way, on a big enough scale -- would give people a first-hand experience of the Olympics, of a sense of global collaboration, to become the best in the world at something. And that is a transformative experience.

If we can make games that are targeted to positive impact and not just exploiting the human desire to play, I think that is what needs to happen and I think gamers are smart enough and critical enough to reject games that are a cynical ploy.

What about creating SuperBetter -- your game to help you beat the concussion you suffered from a head injury?

SuperBetter happened in the middle of writing this book. I had already been making games for a number of years but SuperBetter definitely was, for me, an important moment to test the ideas in the book.

Here I was, writing a book about how games tap our positive emotions and build positive relationships better than anything else, and, at that time, I was feeling such a total absence of positive emotion. I was more pessimistic and depressed, more anxious, than I had ever been; I felt socially isolated because that's the way head injuries can make you feel. It was a good opportunity for me to say: "If I believe this, then a game should help me through this."

And seeing how effective that was made me feel more like an evangelist for this kind of game -- because it literally saved my life.

What's the biggest challenge for those who want to make the world better through games?

There are lots of challenges. There are people who are very dismissive of games and gamers. They feel that gamers are wantonly throwing their lives away, spending so much times playing games -- that gamers are doing something malicious by saying: "I reject reality by staying at home and playing games."

There is a lot of strong emotion around that, which it can be hard to break through: there is an empathy gap between gamers and non-gamers.

The crucial thing is to motivate some of the world's best game designers and developers to spend some of their time working on games that improve our lives and solve real world problems.

I would like to see 10 per cent of a major company's portfolio being dedicated to making games that improve lives and solve problems because we need that talent to work on these games.

That is a big leap of faith for the industry that is slowly starting to happen and we will just have to see if that happens on a big enough scale.

What is your favourite game?

My favourite game, which I write about, is [the cult dystopian puzzle game] Portal. What I like about it is that it's a perfect balance of challenge and total calm.

You can play it at your own pace; there aren't things trying to kill you all the time but it is an incredibly intense, challenging environment that provokes my curiosity and my sense of wonder better than most games that I have played.

I am excited about Dance Central; I love physical input games; that's just my computer geekiness . . . Historically, we are used to being able to tap into the great physical feelings we have by being physically active. So the more games we have like that, the better . . .

Jane McGonigal is a computer-game designer and researcher at the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, California. Her personal website is here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era