Jane McGonigal on Harnessing the Power of Games for Change

Filed in: Civic Engagement, Games

Filed by Sarah Jackson


2.9.11 | In her new book “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” game designer Jane McGonigal argues that video games can help improve our lives and solve real world problems.

McGonigal says games offer meaningful social experiences that can translate into the real world. Playing games make us happy, she argues, because they fulfill important human desires to work with others and to have “epic wins” in our lives.

When we play games, McGonigal told Stephen Colbert in an appearance last week, “We are tapping into our best qualities, our ability to be motivated, to be optimistic, to collaborate with others, to be resilient in the face of failure.”

But it doesn’t stop when “game over” appears on the screen. The skills we learn playing games, McGonigal explains, need to be harnessed for the social good. And the book offers compelling evidence of how games are being used today to do so.

In an interview on The New York Times Bits blog, McGonigal describes her experience creating “World Without Oil,” a simulation game where demand outstrips supply of oil. Over a six-week period, 1,700 players came up with conservation strategies as part of the game.

“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,” McGonigal said. “We reached out to some of these people and found out that they had a strategy in place and coped better than their neighbors.”

And McGonigal wants to take those real-world applications even farther. She is currently the director of game research and design at the nonprofit Institute for the Future and leads a new gaming company, Social Chocolate.

In addition to “World Without Oil,” she’s also known for creating “Evoke”, a game developed for the World Bank to help people come up with solutions for social problems.  McGonigal also created a game last year to help herself recover from a brain injury. The game is currently in clinical trials.

One of her latest projects is a new social network called Gameful – a sort of “creative brainstorming space” for game developers to examine how to bring games to places like schools, museums, hospitals and airports.

Watch her below convince Stephen Colbert that gamers are not all “15-year-old boys in their underwear.”


“Reality is Broken” is garnering positive reviews from gamers and non-gamers alike.

In a book review at the Los Angeles Times, Janice Nimura notes McGonigal has convinced her to allow her 7-year-old more productive time online:

Her point in this provocative manifesto is that the energy and devotion that gamers pour into video games is a powerful force and that we are fools if we fail to harness it. Instead of dismissing games as frivolous entertainment or trying to unplug our children, we should take a close look at what games provide and figure out how to make reality as exciting and rewarding — as “gameful” — as the virtual world.

But while applauding McGonigal’s optimism and calling the book “one of the most influential books about video games ever published,” game designer Ian Bogost says he doesn’t agree with some of the book’s basic principals.

Bogost says we needn’t be placing so much value as McGonigal does on “happiness” and “epic wins,” but instead we need games to help us understand and embrace the complexity and ambiguity of the real world.

For me, the solutions we find through games do not lead us to more successful mastery of the world, but a more tranquil sense of the elusiveness of that mastery. The systems-thinking games embrace shatters the very ideas of world-changing with which we have become so accustomed. And we don’t occupy game worlds because the real world isn’t happy or fun enough, but because we need help embracing that real world through the properties of ambiguity and intricacy that make games like the world in the first place.

Plus: Andrew Revkin wrote a great summary in The New York Times of Will Wright’s talk at the National Academies’ Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education. Wright, who designed “The Sims” and “Spore,” discuses why games are such great learning tools and the importance of learning through failure. Watch it here.

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