The Books Interview: Jane McGonigal

The author of <i>Reality Is Broken</i> on making the world better through computer games.

Jane McGonigal is a computer-game designer and researcher at the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, California. She has just published a book, Reality Is Broken, which details how we can "power up" our real lives using the lessons learned from computer games. You can read my review of the book here.

Why do you think computer games are so important?

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

Then there is a staggering amount of research suggesting that the games we play can have a positive impact on our lives. We're not just escaping from life by playing but "powering up" our real lives.

Of all the ways that games make us happy, which is the most valuable?

Eustress -- positive stress, which is physiologically and biochemically the same as negative stress. The adrenalin gets going and the attention is focused, yet when we choose to be in that state, we think of it not as anxiety or pressure but as excitement and motivation. What is really great about this state is that, when you start to tap into those positive emotions, they can spill over into real life.

What is the biggest challenge facing those who want to make the world better through games?

There are people who are very dismissive of games and gamers, who feel that gamers are throwing their lives away. There is a lot of strong emotion around that, which can be hard to break through. And then the crucial thing is to motivate 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 dedicated to that.

Tell me about game-based learning and the Quest to Learn school in New York.

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

What about SuperBetter -- an alternate-reality game you designed to help you beat the concussion you'd suffered from a head injury?

There I was, writing about how games channel our positive emotions and build positive relationships better than anything else, and I was feeling more pessimistic and depressed than I had ever been. It was a good opportunity for me to say: "If I really believe this, then a game should help me through this." And seeing how effective that was definitely made me feel more like an evangelist for this kind of game -- because it literally saved my life.

Do you think the focus has moved from computer games to alternate-reality games?

I think there's a balance. More traditional games innovate because they are so focused. They are more engaging, create better cognitive emotion and more co-operation. For alternate-reality games, which have a second goal of improving lives or solving real-world problems, we need to be able to work with the innovation that is happening in the commercial gaming industry in order to achieve those goals.

In Reality Is Broken, you briefly mention those who want to ruin games -- "griefers". Are they a worry?

With every game we've designed [at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California], we have had people show up who are opposed to the idea. They disagree with the goals or they disagree with the idea that gamers can accomplish anything. In our games, you have maybe a dozen griefers at most, in a group of 20,000. The more wholehearted players you have, the harder it is for griefers to get any traction.

What would be a good game to try if you have never played before?

If you want to see a game that's important right now, which over a hundred million people are playing, Facebook's CityVille is a great one. It belongs to a totally new genre -- social games.

Jane McGonigal's Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99). You can follow Jane on Twitter here: @avantgame.

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.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon