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

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era