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.

MARK GERSON
Show Hide image

It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain