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

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times