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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.

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In the same way that agriculture or the design of roads connecting cities took humanity to newer levels of cooperation, I see networked games as one of those technologies that brings us together in a way that hasn’t happened before.


How do you compare what you’re talking about with what happens in sports, for instance?

JM: In many ways it’s very similar. I think the reason we play sports is to find out what we’re capable of and how we shake out against other people’s best efforts. We go out for a game or a competition to really see what we’re made of that day. Computer and video games tap into that same drive to challenge ourselves, that desire to be engaged in something that’s difficult for us, or that pleasure of mastering a new skill.

TM: I’ve done my little bit of Rock Band and Wii…I’m basically someone who doesn’t play video games. But sports for me were always a source of connection, flow, of being in the moment. As I read your positive descriptions of multi-player games, I recognized many of those experiences from showing up at a basketball court, perhaps in a city I’d never visited before, and within five minutes we’ve all accepted the voluntary goals, rules and teammates -- and may the best players win. In that moment, I’m as alive as I am doing anything.

JM: One of the early bits of research that really inspired my thinking was Csíkszentmihályi’s original work on the theory of flow or peak experience, where you’re engaged with something that’s challenging for yourself. In his first academic study, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, he identified a few activities that seemed to provide it regularly: one was sports; one was dancing; and the other was game play. They all provide a structure for people to come together and immerse themselves in a challenge.

TM: Can you lay out a few principles that define a game?

JM: For me, the basic definition of a game is that it’s a voluntary obstacle, an unnecessary challenge that you are volunteering to engage with. That’s the basic premise, that you’re going to agree to try something that’s hard for you, that you’re not sure if it can be done or how it can be done or how you’re going to try to do it, but you agree to give it your best effort and see what happens as a result.

Let’s break that down: first, you have a goal; the game has to give you a sort of arbitrary thing that you’re going to try to achieve, whether it’s to get the ball in the basket or to make words out of tiles on a Scrabble screen. Then it gives you restrictions on how you can achieve that goal. You can’t run while you’re holding the basketball; you can only have seven letters at a time. By making it harder to achieve this goal than if you were just doing it the most efficient way possible, they unlock creativity or call forth strategy.

TM: Voluntary goals and voluntary obstacles.

JM: Then you have a feedback system. It’s really important that you have an idea whether you’re getting close to achieving your goal or not, whether the strategy you’re trying is better or worse than the last one you tried. That can be a point system in sports, or in the way a digital game synchronously provides feedback for every action you take. 

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