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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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The last condition is simply that it is indeed voluntary, that you can stop at any time, that you’re playing of your own free will. Your self-motivated engagement is key. That’s why we can’t make people play games. If you haven’t volunteered for it, you lose a powerful element of psychology, the positive stress that we get when we choose to tackle a challenge. If you’re playing against your will, you’re going to have all the same resentment that you have towards work or the same anxiety or stress you have about work.

TM: The conditions that promote flow are clear goals, readily available and consistent feedback, and the right stretch between skill and challenge. It seems to me, that’s very much what we’re talking about here as well. 

JM: One of the big benefits of games is that they increase your resilience in the face of challenge. Because games push you to the edge of your ability, you’re always working hard, always trying to get peak effort out of yourself. That seems to increase your ability to stay engaged longer with difficult challenges in your real life. You develop resilience in the face of failure or an ability to stay at a high level of concentration and motivation for longer periods of time. Computer and video games in particular excel at keeping you at the edge of your ability, because they constantly adjust and modulate to be just hard enough for you to barely keep going.

TM: When you say that resilience in games helps us to be resilient in other aspects of our lives, you’re not just saying it seems that way. Almost every assertion you make is based on a lot of scientific research....

JM: I think we’re all very fortunate that there are hundreds of laboratories and scientific departments around the world pouring a lot of time and energy into trying to understand exactly how games affect us. You can go everywhere from Stanford to Berkeley to Harvard to NYU and find these research studies looking at long-term impacts of gaming. I’ve had fun over the last two years collecting all this data, doing meta-analysis and looking for patterns. And psychological resilience is one of the things that shows up in study after study.

TM: As far as I know, your book is the first that pulls all this together. This world has grown a great deal in the time you’ve been studying it. When you first started looking at this 10 years ago, were you pretty much alone?


I think it’s fair to say that I was out on a limb. I wasn’t entirely by myself, but there were so few others that I didn’t see any of them. In graduate school at Berkeley, I started submitting scientific and academic papers, got accepted at conferences, and gave talks. Everybody’s reaction was sufficiently curious that it motivated me to keep going. Of course, there was also skepticism. Not to say there isn’t skepticism now, but early on there was a lot of it.


In the science fiction novel, Ender's Game, all these poor gamers are used and abused by the government to wage war, because they can’t tell the difference between games and reality. Everywhere I went, I heard, “So are you talking about building an Ender's Game that’s going to destroy the world? Are we all going to be puppets for the military?”

Now I think people understand a little bit better that the games we play are tools -- not for other agents to use and abuse us -- but for us to develop skills and abilities that really matter to us. Tools for us to build the best versions of ourselves.

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