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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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.