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.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.