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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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What’s interesting on top of that, is that cooperative game play is now outperforming competitive on a rate of three to one. People are preferring to play games where they’re on the same side as the other player. If you were imagining people playing together, but trying to beat each other and trying to kill each other’s avatars -- what you have now more often than not is, “Let’s work together,” “Let’s achieve this together.” It’s a totally different social interaction than trying to compete with somebody.

That evolution has dramatically changed what’s going on in terms of the social engagement, which helps make it possible now for us to really get more trust when we play with each other, more respect for each other, more bonding. We’re more likely to help each other in real life after we play these games together.

That’s another area of the research that has been fascinating to follow. Playing these cooperative games with friends and family makes us more cooperative in real life.


TM: If I go back to my sports experience, sports are at the same moment about intense competition and intense cooperation. And I think a player who’s at all aware knows that there’s even cooperation between the competing teams. It takes a great opponent to bring out your best.

JM: And you have to agree to trust that the other team is going to stay in it. You have to trust that everybody is going to value and honor the outcome. Even with competitive games, you are building trust if you get to the end of the game successfully together.


TM: I keep thinking of Robert Wright’s book, Non Zero.


Huge influence on me. Big ideas. I read that years before I started graduate school.

TM: In that book, he says, we think that we grow more and more warlike, when in fact, we grow more and more cooperative.

Another one of my old musings: A question I raised myself 40 years ago: Could the creative among us actually save us from our worst impulses? What if we could create a technology or a media or an artistic expression -- or some combination -- that carries a sense of quality no matter the content? That it would be on some level so essentially true and have an essential integrity that you couldn’t commodify or destroy.


And it seems there’s something to that in here. Here the content is the stretch, it’s pursuing goals, it’s finding your best, it’s cooperating. Are we actually, through this process, able to get around the commodification of everything we do?


I love that idea. As with every other art form and medium and given what a big industry gaming is, it would certainly be a challenge to have that pure of an expression. But look at festivals, things like Burning Man, and the new forms of theater in New York City that are heavily influenced by game design. In Punch Drunk’s production of Sweet No More (in New York now) they take over a whole building, every scene is in a different room, and you have to piece together the play by wandering around.

There are lots of interesting ways that games are leaking into festivals and theater that provides a lot of hope. The famous game designer Will Wright said recently that games are undergoing a Cambrian explosion, referencing the time in evolution where suddenly we went from however many strands of life to massively many more species. Huge experimentation, everything evolving so much more quickly. That’s where it feels like we are with games now. Massive experimentation, massively many more forms and genres, and maybe one of those species will come to be what you are describing, if we get lucky.

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