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

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism