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Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills

Tech futurist and game designer Jane McGonigle on how computer games can help the fight against AIDS, heal disabilities, increase optimism, and make us better people.

There are 183 million active computer game players in the United States. The average young person will spend 10,000 hours gaming by the age of 21. More than 5 million "extreme" gamers in the U.S. play an average of 45 hours a week. Videogames took in about $15.5 billion last year.

Most of what you hear about this phenomenon is doom and gloom – people becoming addicted, isolated and socially inept. Some worry that gaming is pulling people away from productive work, fulfilling relationships and real life. But game designer Jane McGonigal says the reason for the mass exodus to virtual worlds is that videogames are increasingly fulfilling genuine human needs. In a very popular TED talk -- and in her first book,  Reality Is Broken, just out in paperback – she suggests we can use the lessons of game design to fix what is wrong with the real world.

Jane McGonigal is the director of Game R&D at the Institute for the Future and creative director of  Social Chocolate. BusinessWeek called her "one of the ten most important innovators to watch." Oprah magazine thinks she's "one of the twenty most inspiring women in the world." And MIT Technology Review named her "one of top 35 innovators changing the world through technology."

Terrence McNally interviewed McGonigal for AlterNet by phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Terrence McNally: I see four strands in what I’ve read about you and your work: Buddhism, games, positive psychology, and entrepreneurism. How do you describe your path?

Jane McGonigal:

That’s a pretty good breakdown, I like it. I think, first and foremost, I try to help people unleash their real-life superpowers to bring out the best in them so they achieve epic wins lead extraordinary lives, and be of extraordinary service to other people.

I have a background in theater and recreation. I used to work with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Theater is play, and recreation -- where we come together and play in real spaces -- is part of building community in the city. That background has been a big part of why I think that play can serve to bring people together in the real world


You begin the book by defining what a game is. And you weren’t just describing video games, but all kinds of games.


Absolutely. It’s important that we put video games in the context of human history. We’ve been playing games for literally as long as we’ve been human. There’s no civilization we have a record of that doesn’t have games. For folks who feel alienated from the world of video games or from the gamers in their lives, it may help to understand that gaming is fundamentally a part of being human.

This ability to come together and play by artificial rules is something that no other species does. The great philosopher, Johan Huizinger, said we are never more human than when we play. I think it’s important to keep in perspective that video games are part of that tradition and that legacy.

TM: I imagine when a lot of people think of a video game or a computer game or a virtual game, their accent is on the video, the virtual or the computer. You’re saying that, at its root – whatever the medium – there is something common to people playing games.

JM: The medium of computer and video games has taken the fundamental psychology that underlies gaming to a new level, and made possible the network effect of people playing actively multi-player games. For the first time in human history, we can have millions of people playing the same game at the same time.

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