One on One: Jane McGonigal, Game Designer

February 8, 2011, 12:22 pm
One on One: Jane McGonigal, Game Designer
By NICK BILTON

Jane McGonigal is a game designer and author of the new book “Reality Is Broken,” in which she argues that by playing games, people can improve their lives and solve real-world problems. Here is an edited version of our talk:

Photo via janemcgonigal.com
Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of “Reality Is Broken.”

Nick Bilton: How did you end up as a game designer?
Jane McGonigal: I was in graduate school and I was looking for a job on the side that would be fun, sort of a hobby, and I found a job working with a game designer on Craigslist.

Did you study game design in college?
At first I was studying physics. I ended up getting my Ph.D in performance studies.

What was your first job involving games?
It was designing missions for an urban superhero game called Go Game. It was kind of like an urban adventure. You would get a text message on your cellphone telling you to go to a specific location. When you got there, you would find a lockbox with more clues and continue along the game. It was inspired by the movie “The Game.”

As someone who builds games, what draws you to them?
Gamers want real opportunities to do extraordinary things. They want to solve problems. Seeing this led me to work at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., to explore a new type of game that involved the real world.

What do you mean by the real world?
There weren’t really any games that offered a bridge between gaming and reality — games that could bridge the gap between being a hero in a game and doing something heroic in the real world. So I started investigating how to create that bridge.

Were you able to build such a game?
Yes. I created World Without Oil, which was a six-week simulation of a peak-oil scenario, where demand outstrips supply of oil. Players signed up for six weeks and were asked to imagine living in a world without oil and document the experience. We were able to convince 1,700 people to do that, and they created thousands of videos and blog posts explaining how they were playing the game and coming up with creative solutions to the problem.

How did that move into the real world?
When we had the real gas crisis in the United States a year later, the people who had played the game were able to implement their oil-saving techniques that they had learned from the game. We reached out to some of these people and found out that they had a strategy in place and coped better than their neighbors.

When you tell people games are good for us, are they skeptical?
Absolutely. Some people look at me like I’m nuts — usually people who don’t play games very much and don’t understand gaming. These people are this way because their only idea of a game is a negative one; they see it as a waste of time. And some people think gaming is lazy, mindless and antisocial.

Well, aren’t games “lazy, mindless and antisocial?”
No. Look at Rock Band and Facebook games; they offer meaningful, social experiences. Even Halo, a popular first-person shooter, is designed to inspire with social interaction and an in-depth narrative. The game has so many levels and narratives it’s analogous to a tour through a magnificent cathedral.

Can games help people in business?
The Gamifaction Movement is trying to help companies engage their audience and community by using game mechanics and wrapping them around shopping or achievements, so you get achievements for coming to a store or purchasing things, like rewarding activities.

How could a teacher in school integrate this thinking into a classroom?
Good question. My mom is a public school teacher and works with third grade students. In class they made a little avatar online and they got to give it three “strengths” that they want the class to know they are good at. The goal of the game is to help other students with your three strengths, and then they get points for helping their classmates with the strengths. It’s very meaningful for them.

So can the world’s problems be solved through gaming?
We know games are very challenging; they tap into our natural abilities, they help us set ambitious goals and they make us more collaborative. The last chapter in my book is called “Reality Is Better,” and basically says that it’s about figuring out how to take those gamer powers and put them in the real world to help solve problems.

What is your favorite game?
This is a hard question. When my life is stressful, my favorite game is called Pop It, where you pop balloons and prizes fall out. It’s a five-minute game that focuses my mind and gives me extra attention when I’m stressed. I also like to play multiplayer games with my husband. We shoot zombies together.

As a gamer, what’s your dream superpower?
The power to heal others. But, hopefully, it wouldn’t be one of those trick powers where every person you heal you lose a year of your life — that would be fraught with too many moral problems.

What are you doing next in game development?
I’m the creative director for Social Chocolate, which is a new game company where we are using the power of science and positive emotion and adding social connection to create games that can improve people’s real lives and strengthen their real-life relationships.

Has Social Chocolate produced any new games?
The first game that will be available is called SuperBetter, which was inspired after I suffered a concussion last year. I was ill for a month and I made a game to help my brain injury heal faster. We’re currently doing clinical trials and it will be available later this summer.

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