Jane McGonigal: The Untapped Resource of Gamers

Jane McGonigal is a game designer and the Director of Games Research & Development at the “Institute for the Future,” a non-profit research group who’s headquartered in Palo Alto, California. Her passion is not just creating meaningful games but using those games to solve problems in the real world.

Which is exactly what this video is all about.

At the time of the recording, Jane states a statistic that gamers have played over 5.93 million years worth of World of Warcraft. She argues that this is not pathetic but rather powerful. Why? Because this play goes into solving problems in the virtual world. And not only that… 5.93 million years ago, our ancestors first stood up. Think about that.

The next stepThat was fast.

Another statistic: By age 21, people have spent an average of 10,000 hours playing games. Jane notes something interesting here… if a child had perfect attendance, it would take him 10,080 hours to get from fifth grade to graduation.

What does this mean? It means that people aren’t just learning in schools but learning how to play games with about the same amount of hours! In fact, Jane estimates that if we were spending 21 billion hours a week on solving problems, we could actually do it.

Leet Skillz

But how does that help us? Well, it turns out that games are teaching us skills and giving us the ability to MASTER those skills. Jane outlines four skills that all games teach:

Urgent Optimism
Social Fabric
Blissful Productivity
Epic Meaning

Before I get into what each skill means, I need to clarify that games only teach players to learn these skills in relation to the virtual world they’re involved in. But we’ll get into that a little later.

Urgent Optimism

To have urgent optimism, a person must have two abilities: the desire to solve those problems immediately and the belief that they have a “reasonable hope of success.”

In World of Warcraft and other massively-multiplayer online role-playing games that have leveling systems, players start out in what is known as a “newbie zone.” There they are given quests and missions designed to be challenging but not impossible. What’s more, if the quest is too hard, players are either warned that the task is too hard or simply not allowed to take on the mission until they reach the required level. This builds an expectation in players that in the virtual world they play in, they will always have a reasonable hope of success in completing the challenges they face.

Learning curve of popular MMORPG'sThe learning curve of popular massively-multiplayer online role-playing games. Not shown: life, which is a box with a question mark in it.

Really, any good game has an idea of how hard to make their game so that players struggle but enjoy it. And because all good games use this, when players are exposed to these virtual worlds they are being urgently optimistic, even without realizing it.

Social Fabric

I expected a few more laughs from the crowd at this skill until I realized Jane was talking about weaving a social network in the virtual world and not the real one.

And if you think about it, that’s what games do. Through clans, guilds or teams, we learn how to quickly and effectively communicate ideas and solutions to one another whether it be voice, text or in-game emotes. We figure out how each person plays a role in the group. We understand how small, medium and large groups all fit together when they are presented a variety of different goals.

Some of us even manage these clans or guilds and gain a deep understanding of human relations, diplomacy and scheduling. A woven social fabric that we become adept in. And it’s not just that… studies have shown that people actually like other people better after they’ve played a game. Oh, sure, there will be those few people nobody enjoys playing with, but through playing together we form bonds stronger than if we had just met.

Blissful Productivity

Gamers don’t like to sit around in games. They like to keep active instead of relaxed, focused instead of distracted… engaged instead of disengaged. Wait times in a game are often dreaded whereas we call those times during real-world work “breaks.” With games, we feel like we are at our most powerful, our most optimized potential.

Maximizing potential“Look, I’m just trying to feel like I’m maximizing my potential. I’ll get you that report after I get to level 10!”

And we’re willing to go long hours playing games, much longer than we’d even consider for work or school hours. Because of that fully-realized potential, we almost always have something to do that we can see the results of.

Epic Meaning

Most games at least attempt to create a story that players can immerse themselves into. Games like World of Warcraft have players diving into huge, epic storylines that take them across continents and into hazards galore. With a story, gamers suddenly have meaning to everything they’re accomplishing.

And meaning is pretty important. Without it, people can find themselves completing tasks that no longer have any relevance which not only isn’t fun but also isn’t engaging.

Imagine a quest or objective that tells the player to travel to a certain spot. They arrive at the spot and the quest or objective is completed. But nothing else happens. Think about whether that would be more or less satisfying than an event which unveils a story that the player is now involved in.

The Real World

Alright, so we covered those. Whew. So why do some gamers only apply these skills to virtual worlds? Why doesn’t it carry over into real life?

In the virtual world, players have Urgent Optimism because the tasks they are given are usually able to be completed. They have a Social Fabric because some games require them to work together with others, an action which forms bonds between gamers. Gamers have Blissful Productivity not only because they’re rewarded for their efforts but also because they’re given Epic Meaning.

In the real world, people are given confusing and seemingly impossible tasks. They sometimes try to find solutions when they should be sharing their problems with others. They aren’t given achievements or a special *BING!* noise when they complete something and it’s a lot harder for people to find meaning in their own life rather than if they’re given it.

OlmecIf only we had Olmec.

Indeed, an economist named Edward Castronova says:

“We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”

That’s right. People are actually forsaking the real world for virtual ones, ones in which they are actually able to solve things, bond with others, be rewarded and feel like they’re making a difference.

Is this permanent? Absolutely not.

The First Meaningful Game

An Ancient Greek historian named Herodotus tells the story of a country called Lydia that reputedly were the first to invent games, particularly dice games.

At one point in Lydia’s history, the citizens suffered a famine. To keep the suffering to a minimum, the king decreed that on the first day, everyone would eat… but on the second day, everyone would play. People would have food on the first of two days but on the second of those two days, they would play games with each other in order to “not feel the want of food.”

So they did… for EIGHTEEN YEARS, cycling between a day of food and a day of games. Yet they still suffered a famine now made worse than ever by diminishing food supplies. So they came up with an idea:

The king issued a call for one final game. The winners would go on an adventure to find a new home for all Lydians while the losers had to stay home. And so it was that half the population found roots in Greece, Rome and other places of the world and saved the Lydians from starvation.

It was the first meaningful game.

Grand prize“Show ’em what they’ve won, Jimmy!” “You’ve won a magical adventure that’s got it all! Danger! Excitement! The remote possibility that the rest of this world is not as dead as the place you live now!”

Making the Future

So what now? Where do we go from here?

Remember that odd bit about “21 billion hours a week?” If half of us start playing a game for an hour a day, our combined total will be 21 billion hours every week. What’s more, if we’re playing games based on solving real-world problems, our efforts can be put to good use.

Jane leaves us with a few games she’s developed to do this. I’ve already thought of a few ways I could make real-world challenges more like the virtual-world challenges we gamers face every time we get ready to play.

Have you?


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