How Video Games Can Make Us Heroes

Jane McGonigal explains how to harness gaming energy to do good.

I’ve known the joy of preparing to qualify, of leveling up with magic mushrooms, of speeding the flight of an angry bird. Yet video games often leave me feeling stale and restless. Shouldn’t I be outgrowing these electronic entanglements? When one of my sons catches me playing a game on my iPhone, I think of the old-school Princeton basketball coach, Pete Carril, who disliked seeing his players eat candy. Here’s the line from a Sports Illustrated profile: “He would wince when he saw a member of his team eating candy. Kids eat candy; he wanted his players to be men, and men drink beer.”

+10 Pole Position reference.
-5 Gratuitous mention of family.

The game theorist Jane McGonigal, in her new book, Reality Is Broken, advises me to eat candy and eat it without shame. My editor asked me to say a bit more about who McGonigal is, but I couldn’t really pin her down. She seems to be one of those lucky people who delivers keynote addresses at prestigious conferences and thinks about the future for a living—near Stanford. * Let’s call her a Keynotist. Anway, my desire to play games makes perfect sense, she argues, because games offer structured environments, clear goals, and instant feedback on success or failure. The real world is uninspiring and dull in contrast. We rarely have the chance to feel heroic when working at our jobs or going about our daily business. “We are starving, and our games are feeding us,” McGonigal writes.

+5 Decent quote.
-10 Lame word-coinage.

That statement zeroes in on the great paradox of video games: People who are motivated to do little else will show extraordinary focus and foresight when playing a game. This power was present in video games from the very beginning. McGonigal discusses the first video-game memoir, Pilgrim in the Microworld, published in 1983, by a 43-year-old college professor named David Sudnow. He was obsessed with Atari’s Breakout: “This was a whole different business, nothing like I’d ever known, like night and day … Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.” Again, this was while playing Breakout.

-5 Use of the word paradox.
+10 Acceptable alliteration.

McGonigal’s project is to explain why games have this tractor-beam-like hold on our attention, and to suggest how we might harness this energy for real-world good. In this way, her book represents a new wedge into the video game argument. Nongamers are too quick to write them off as addictive—on par with drugs—while gamers oversell games as some kind of new art form. McGonigal asks us to look objectively at the “genuine human needs” that games satisfy. To do this, she turns to the field of positive psychology. In her view, the best games are like portable mini-generators of happiness.

-20 Use of “addictive” in article about gaming.
-5 Dubious metaphor.

She marries the two fields nicely. We want “satisfying work,” and games give us plenty of shiny boxes to play within. We want to “crave the experience, or at least the hope, of being successful,” and games give us reasonable challenges and unlimited chances for victory. We want “social connection,” and multiplayer games like World of Warcraft have inspired the creation of tightly knit guilds that conduct missions together. And, least convincingly, we “crave meaning” or “something that has lasting significance beyond our own individual lives.” Her example is when players of Halo collectively reached 10 billion kills of the game’s enemy.

-30 World or Warcraft example.
-5 Halo example

It’s that number—10 billion kills—that forms a crux of McGonigal’s argument. She quotes from Halo message boards about how this mission imbued the game’s players with a strong sense of fellowship. She notes how Halo players have collaborated on careful and detailed guides to the game. It’s undeniable that Halo has organized and channeled a massive amount of human endeavor, but for what purpose? McGonigal’s take: “Joining any collective effort and embracing feelings of awe can help us unlock our potential to lead a meaningful life and leave a meaningful mark on the world.” Racking up virtual kills with our fellow virtual soldiers makes us more likely to pitch in when we step away from the screen.

+20 Avoidance of the word wiki.

Hmm … It’s not hard to think of “collective efforts” that didn’t work out so well for all involved. And the evidence that gaming fellowship carries over into soup-kitchen fellowship is slight. Another way of looking at those 10 billion kills is suggested by the book’s epilogue, an anti-virtual world sentiment that McGonigal sets out to challenge. It’s from Exodus to the Virtual Worldby the philosopher Edward Castronova: “Anyone who sees a hurricane coming should warn others … . You can’t pull millions of person-hours out of a society without creating an atmospheric-level event.” It’s a haunting idea. What small acts of human creativity and connection do we forfeit while enjoying our pixelated pleasures? It’s worth noting that McGonigal’s book grew out of an officially sanctioned “rant” she delivered at a gaming conference. On one level, she’s addressing the collective guilt of the gaming industry. What good are these elaborate creations besides the generation of distraction and profit?

-15 Rhetorical question overload.

McGonigal writes of the self-critical side of game designers. There’s a growing sense that it’s not enough to make just an addictive game. Instead, game designers should strive to make us into lifelong gamers, to build “sustainable attention.” That may sound like mere image-enhancing semantics, but there is a real industry interest at work in the effort to rescue their ingenious creations from the realm of obsession. David Sudnow burned out on Breakout; the game also wreaked havoc on his regular life. That pattern continues in the more sophisticated games of today. The challenge is how to make people integrate games into their lives in such a way that they still have a life.

-5 Semicolon.
+10 Buzz-phrase unpacking.

McGonigal takes this idea a big step further. Not only do games teach us how to structure our lives to be happy, the principles of gameplay can in turn be used to make our lives better. When McGonigal had trouble recovering from a freak head-injury, she invented a game called SuperBetter in which she was Jane the Concussion Slayer and all her friends and husband were enlisted in various roles. The game helped organize her social-support system and definitely sped her recovery. What isn’t really clear is whether the game motivated McGonigal’s close friends to do things they would have done in any event.

-10 Predictable quibble.

 McGonigal offers other examples of “positive impact” games or games that “leverage the play of the planet,” but her most convincing case isn’t technically a game, it’s Wikipedia. As Wikipedians themselves have pointed out, the user-generated encyclopedia has “good mechanics.” You see your edits instantly, you can set yourself the task of improving certain subfields or particular entries, and the gameworld of the encyclopedia has an engaged community that argues over the merits of various changes, patrols for vandalism, and expands the site into new territories of knowledge. In its shaggy, often imperfect way, Wikipedia has added to our common good. Especially if you care about Star Trek.

-15 Grating use of second person.
-20 Star Trek joke.

McGonigal is very smart about what makes a good game tick, both online and off, but she underemphasizes the importance of escapism. Part of the joy of playing tennis is that you are not trying to do good or save the world. You are trying to hit the ball as hard as you can. Likewise for Halo and its bretheren. Games are an escape hatch. If the game is getting better at your job, is that still really a game? Or think of all the people who turn a beloved hobby into a profession, only to watch as their enthusiasm fades. It’s fun to play golf; not as fun to be a golf pro.

-10 Restating the obvious.

But there’s also the possibility that we just don’t have the right games yet. I’m not the first to point out that video games are in the same cultural position that comic books were 60 years ago: A pop-cultural phenomenon preys upon the minds of the young and impressionable. Lo and behold, comic books have become graphic novels—both an esteemed member of the literary pantheon and a powerful new way of telling stories and changing minds. Video games have the chance to take a similar journey to mainstream respectability and artistic heights. McGonigal’s idea-stuffed book will be raided by game designers who are looking to create games that are perceived as “adult” and a good use of one’s time to improve one’s self and mind. (There is a glimmer of what’s to come in the craze for “brain training” games or sites like Lumosity.)

-5 False modesty.
-15 Genuflecting at graphic novels.

In just the United States, there are presently 183 million active gamers, and as the gaming industry grows it will continue to seek new niches. There will be more big-budget, massively multiplayer worlds like the recent LEGO Universe , just as there will be more games such as Epic Win (“Level-up your life”) that turn your to-do list into a challenge or the Nike+ system that turn your runs into a friendly rivalry. Most of us are only going to get more connected with and responsive to the Internet playing field. Like it or not, the game is on. As the “game layer” gets added to our lives, we should remember McGonigal’s key criteria for good games: They make us happy, not guilty. They take us deeper into life, not farther away.

 +10 No mention of person in China who died playing video games.
-500 Distracting meta-gimmick.

 Game Over. Play Again?

Correction, Feb. 3, 2011: The article originally and incorrectly suggested that the Institute for the Future is affiliated with Stanford University. Though the research institute is based in Palo Alto and is located across the street from Stanford, there are no formal ties. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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