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Jane McGonigal: How Games Can Change the World

by AMNH on

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On Wednesday, February 2, Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, will discuss why games are engineered to maximize human potential and how they can change and influence life in the real world. She recently answered a few questions about her research.

Photo courtesy of Jane McGonigal.

How popular is gaming? What’s behind this popularity?

Currently there are more than half a billion people worldwide playing online games at least an hour a day — and 183 million in the U.S. alone. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be a gamer: 97% of boys under 18 and 94% of girls under 18 report playing videogames regularly. And the average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21. That’s 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It’s really a remarkable amount of time we’re spending playing games. Five million gamer in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games — the equivalent of a full time job!

Why is this happening? According to my research, it’s because games do a better job of provoking our most powerful positive emotions, like curiosity, optimism, pride, and a desire to join forces with others to achieve something extraordinary. Games are also a particularly effective way to bond with our friends and family, strengthening our real-life and online social networks in ways that no other kind of social interaction can.

You see games as a powerful tool for doing good in the world. How so?

When we play a good game, especially multiplayer games, we become the best version of ourselves: the most optimistic, most creative, most focused, most collaborative, the most likely to set ambitious goals, the most resilient in the face of failure. What I’m interested in is bringing this gamer mindset to our real lives and to our efforts to tackle the world’s most urgent problems: everything from curing cancer to slowing climate change to ending global poverty and hunger. Partly, this means just teaching gamers how to translate their gamer skills into real life. It’s a way of thinking, acting and leading. We can also make new systems that combine game design with real-world collaboration and real social action.

What do you see as the biggest misconception about gaming?

That it’s escapist. Gaming is not escapist. Gaming is a productive part of our lives. It produces positive emotion, stronger social relationships, a sense of accomplishment, and for players who become a part of a bigger game community, a chance to build up a sense of meaning and purpose. Scientific research shows that all of these feelings and activities can trickle into our real lives and impact our real-life confidence, ambition, likability and willingness to help others.

Are there any risks, any downsides, to gaming?

Yes, of course. There can always be too much of a good thing. Research shows that playing games up to 21 hours a week can produce positive impacts on your health and happiness, especially if you’re playing games face-to-face with friends and family, or playing cooperative games rather than competitive games. But when you hit 28 hours a week of gaming or more, the time starts to distract you from real life goals and other kinds of social interaction that are essential to leading a good life. So we start to see some negative impacts at that point. Many studies have shown it’s the 21-hour mark that really makes the difference, which is good news, I think. It means we can still spend a lot of time playing our favorite games — and powering up our ability to engage whole-heartedly with difficult challenges — but also notice when it’s time to stop playing in virtual worlds and bring our gamer strengths back to real life.