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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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It worked so well for me that I posted the rules online. I started to hear from people all over the world: “I’m playing this because I’m having knee surgery.” “I’m playing this because I’m taking chemotherapy.” “I’m playing this because I want to quit smoking.” You can actually go online and see people playing it on their blogs and on Facebook. I was taken with how much help it seemed to be, and I decided that we should do it for real -- actually make a real online game that would structure this. We help people who might not be creative enough to roll their own version. We make it possible for them to play. We’re going to launch the game the first week of March.

We’ve been doing clinical trials with Ohio State University Medical Research Center. We’ve been doing the closed beta for the last six months, and it’s pretty exciting for me personally. Something that represented maybe the worst thing that ever happened to me, to get to somewhere where it can be one of the best things I’ve ever done.

TM: That’s really a case of 'gamer heal thyself,' isn’t it?

JM: I do think that it is the resilient thinking of a gamer: When all is lost, there must be something, there is some key I haven’t found, some secret door that I just have to keep looking for. That is a very gamer kind of resilience.

TM: As you point out, gamers who play intensely for hours and hours, fail most of the time. And yet something in the nature of gaming keeps them coming back to it.

Years ago, I imagined that in a future of decreasing resources and places to dispose of waste coupled with a rising population, one path that might save us would be to depend more on experiences than stuff. In the book, you ask, “Why not fix reality?” and you lay out 14 ways that reality could stand to be fixed. One is that games are sustainable, reality isn’t. Talk a bit about this future.

JM: You’re speaking to my heart here, because I think this is one of the most underappreciated aspects... I should probably write a whole book about this. Gamers are not by and large acquiring stuff. They have opted out of this materialistic culture because there is no material there. It’s all about skill acquisition, social action, first hand experience, live experience, that does not by-and-large require a great amount of production or resources. And that is pretty interesting.

People look at gamers and say, “They’re wasting their time. Why aren’t they doing something real? That’s not going to help them get a better job or get ahead in life.”

 

It’s pretty provocative to realize that we can get so many things that we crave: better social relationships, the ability to learn new things and get good at new things, and to experience that state of flow that we crave more than anything else. If we can get that out of games, then maybe we don’t need to get on the hedonic treadmill where we work 60 hour weeks to earn a ton of money to spend on status objects to convince ourselves that we’re happy and successful.

 

If in games we experience success and happiness and community and meaning in a way that’s so much more sustainable, and that bypasses all the BS we’ve told ourselves is necessary to be happy in America…That’s pretty subversive, and I think that’s what’s happening.

 
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