Jane Mcgonigal Games Can Change The World

how-games-can-change-the-worldIn this post, guest blogger Charles El-Zheid looks at the defining characteristics of video games which may hold the key to unlocking a better and more sustainable world.

The article builds on research from Jane McGonigal’s study of computer games. McGonigal studied the unique characteristics of games and how they can be applied to the real world.

A interesting read. So without further adieu, enter Charles El-Zheid.

A book came to my notice a few months back. Written by Jane McGonigal, the book’s title is Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. In the book, McGonigal tries to explain why so many people spend so much time playing video games. She analyses the qualities and characteristics of video games, and suggests that these unique characteristics can be applied in ‘real’ life.

Her idea is that, if the ‘real’ world had some of the perks video games have, people would be more willing to perform their duties, emotionally activated, and be able to collaborate with each other more effectively. According to McGonigal, the four basic traits of a game are:

  • The Goal: The goal of a video game is the ultimate achievement for players. Players are charged with focusing their attention on the goal, while the idea of it constantly guides players through the game. In effect, the goal provides players with a sense of purpose
  • The Rules: The rules of the game create limitations as to what players can do to achieve the game’s goal. Players are challenged to use creativity and strategic thinking to reach their desired outcome within the confines of the rules
  • The feedback system: Through the feedback system players are informed of how close they are to achieving the game’s goal. Feedback generates a promise to players that the goal is achievable, which ultimately gives them the motivation to carry on
  • Voluntary participation: Every player is fully knowledgeable of the goal, rules, and the feedback they will get from the game. Transparency creates a common ground for players. At the same time, the freedom to enter or leave the game at any point, guarantees its safety and pleasure as an activity

McGonigal goes on to argue that these traits can lead to beneficial outcomes if replicated in the real world. For example:

  • Emotional Activation: For many people the real world compared with a virtual game is not as fun. Games are specifically designed to makes us happy and focus our energy on something we are good at; thus optimism is generated. McGonigal suggests that the key traits of video games hold the key to unlocking the fun in real life and creating a sense of positivity
  • More satisfying work: Comparing different games, McGonigal shows that games that require less time to reach the highest level, receive bad reviews. The reason of course is that players seem to enjoy a difficult challenge of levelling up in order to reach their desired goal. This is explained by the two principles of satisfying work: a clear goal and actionable next steps. Although trying to solve a problem can be engaging, it might not be satisfying. At the same time, many people can lose their motivation if a task misses these actionable steps. Progress is guaranteed for a task with a clear goal and executable steps
  • Better hope for success: Through games, the fear of failure is eliminated – players can always try again and learn from their mistakes. This is a very important aspect of a game and one that would do good to replicate in the ‘real’ world. If people view failure as a way to become better, instead of being a complete loss, it is quite possible that society would be happier, more productive and better equipped to try and try again
  • Stronger social connectivity: Through many online games, we are given the opportunity to collaborate with strangers so as to fulfil our missions. Many games have tasks bound together to create a social connection with other members. A key learning here is that players need to consider their goal within the context of the collective – a philosophy that would be beneficial if applied in the real world

The Healing Power of Video Games

In recent years, the therapeutic potential of video games has gained significant attention in game research and psychology. A compelling example of this is the work of Jane McGonigal, a renowned game designer and York Times bestselling author, who has extensively explored how playing games can positively impact real lives, especially in the context of recovery from traumatic brain injuries and chronic pain.

Jane McGonigal’s Personal Journey with Video Games

Jane McGonigal’s journey into the healing aspect of video games began with a personal crisis. After suffering a traumatic brain injury, McGonigal found herself battling severe symptoms including depression, anxiety, and cognitive difficulties. It was during this challenging period that she turned to what she knew best: game design. Drawing from her experience as a game developer and her research at the San Francisco Art Institute, McGonigal created “Jane The Concussion Slayer,” an alternate reality game designed to help her cope with her condition.

This game was a turning point in her recovery. By incorporating elements of play and challenge, McGonigal was able to mitigate the mental and emotional toll of her injury. This experience led to the development of “SuperBetter,” a game aimed at helping others overcome their health challenges, whether they be physical, like chronic pain, or psychological.

Video Games as a Therapeutic Tool

The concept of using video games as a therapeutic tool is grounded in the idea that the engaging and immersive nature of games can have positive effects on the brain. When individuals play video games, they are not just passing time; they are actively engaging in a process that can stimulate cognitive and emotional healing. This is particularly relevant in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries, where the brain requires both rest and gentle stimulation to recover.

Expanding the Scope of Game Research

McGonigal’s work has expanded the scope of game research, highlighting the potential of video games to go beyond entertainment. Her efforts have opened doors for further exploration into how games can be designed specifically to address real-world problems like health issues. Institutions like the New York Public Library and the International Olympics Committee have recognized the value of this research, indicating a growing acceptance of the therapeutic benefits of gaming.

Jane McGonigal’s experience and subsequent game research provide a compelling argument for the role of video games in therapeutic contexts. Her work demonstrates that when we play games, especially those designed with a purpose, we are not just escaping reality; we are potentially healing and enhancing our real lives. This innovative approach to recovery and well-being marks a significant shift in how we perceive the act of playing games, positioning it as a valuable tool in our quest for better health and resilience.

A different theory which has similar learnings to McGonigal is discussed in an RSA video. In this video, which is based on Dan Pink’s TED talk, three factors are identified that lead to ‘better performance and personal satisfaction’:

  • Autonomy: This is described as the desire to be self directed. When autonomy is applied within businesses it can create engagement and might lead to new innovative ideas
  • Mastery: This is the urge to be better at what we are doing. For example, trying to become better at playing some kind of sport, or musical instrument. Mastery of that skill is both fun and satisfying
  • Purpose: By creating a ‘transcendent purpose’ companies have realised that they can be much more appealing to people. People enjoy working in companies that allow them to be autonomous, become masters of their skills, while the ultimate purpose is to ‘make the world a little bit better’.

Video Games and Future Skills

The evolving landscape of video games, spearheaded by visionaries like Jane McGonigal, a director of game research and a celebrated author, is not just reshaping entertainment but also equipping players with critical skills for the future. McGonigal’s work, including her influential book “Reality is Broken” published by Penguin Press, underscores the profound impact of video games on skill development, particularly in areas crucial for navigating the challenges of the 21st century.

Bridging Virtual and Real Worlds

One of the key areas where video games are making a significant impact is in the realm of virtual environments. Games, especially alternate reality games, challenge players to navigate complex scenarios that mirror real-world problems. This is not just about escapism; it’s about engaging with issues like climate change or planetary scale collaboration in a simulated, controlled environment. Such games encourage players to think critically and creatively, skills that are increasingly valuable in a world where the lines between virtual and physical realities are blurring.

Developing Psychological Strengths

McGonigal’s research, much of which was conducted at the San Francisco Art Institute, highlights how video games can foster psychological strengths. Playing games can lead to post-traumatic growth, helping individuals recover from personal challenges by building resilience and social support networks. Games like “Lost Ring,” co-developed by McGonigal, demonstrate how gaming experiences can translate into personal empowerment and improved everyday life.

Enhancing Creativity and Collaboration

The future demands more creativity and the ability to solve real problems collaboratively. Video games offer a unique platform for players to develop these skills. Through games, individuals learn to approach seemingly impossible tasks with a ‘power up’ mindset, turning challenges into opportunities for growth. This is particularly evident in scientific research and performance studies, where gaming principles are applied to encourage innovative thinking and teamwork.

Preparing for Future Challenges

As we look towards a future coming with uncertainties and unprecedented challenges, the role of video games in preparing individuals cannot be overstated. McGonigal’s TED Talks and features in publications like Oprah Magazine have brought to light the potential of gaming to equip a new generation with the skills needed to address global issues. Whether it’s through fostering planetary scale collaboration or enhancing individual capabilities to tackle climate change, video games are proving to be a valuable tool in our collective toolkit.

The intersection of gaming and skill development is a testament to the visionary work of individuals like Jane McGonigal. As we continue to explore the potential of video games, it becomes increasingly clear that they are not just a form of entertainment but a means to empower individuals with the skills necessary for a rapidly changing world. From the halls of the San Francisco Art Institute to the global stage, the impact of video games on future skills is a narrative that continues to evolve, promising a more creative, collaborative, and resilient society.

To conclude

Both theories seem to have some common ground and lessons for society. Each suggests that people desire to be creative, masters of their skills, and free to act on their creativity. I believe we can apply these theories not only to the workplace but society at large to create better, more sustainable future.

Read the Book

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

About the Author Charles El-Zeind

Charles El-Zeind is passionate about communicating environmental issues such as climate change and sustainability. Charles is currently involved in a grassroots community project with the Fiveways and Hollingdean Transition Network and writes regularly for the Sustainable Business Toolkit. He holds a bachelor degree from the University of Brighton in Environment and Media Studies.

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