In her new book, Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonigal argues that the rules, rewards and feedback offered by modern videogames can be used to make the world a happier and more productive place. We sit down with her to learn more.
You’ve suggested that both play and happiness come down to work – that humans ultimately need toil in order to enjoy themselves. Isn’t that a fairly depressing notion?
I think there’s another way to look at that, which is fascinating and awesome. Our natural inclination is not to be lazy or chilled-out – our natural inclination is to be activated and engaged. We’re drawn to motivation and curiosity. I think this is great news.
You begin the book by explaining that there’s currently a mass exodus from reality going on, as people steadily escape into game worlds – is this different from the escape into daytime TV that’s been going on for over 60 years?
There’s a lot of anxiety about how much time people are spending escaping into games. I think there’s something interesting about the fact that nobody cared when people were spending five hours a day watching soap operas. It comes down to the fact that suddenly we’ve got a much more diverse demographic with games – we have men with full-time jobs, young people. It’s apparently OK for people who don’t have jobs to watch TV, but suddenly we have people who are gainfully employed seeking engagement in the game world. There’s also the intensity of it. For people who don’t play games, there’s such a gap in their understanding. They don’t understand how it’s possible to be so motivated by something with no real-world consequences. You don’t get that intense emotional state that games deliver from reading a book or watching TV, so I think people are confused.
So, if we’re all escaping the real world, how can games fix reality?
The first thing for people who already spend time playing games to do is recognise that the skills they’re tapping into – to be resilient and cooperative – are real powers that they have even when they’re not playing. The most dangerous idea we have about games is that they’re escapist and have no bearing on who we are. Partly, this book is written to say to gamers: you can use these skills in your real life. We shouldn’t be telling gamers that there’s something wrong with them. We should be saying that there’s something awesome about them. That’s why there’s science in the book that shows, for example, that people who play music games are more likely to pick up an instrument.
Also, we can play games that connect to real-world problems. I’m encouraging gamers to spend one out of every ten game hours playing a game that solves a real-world problem, like FoldIt, the protein-folding game. I think FoldIt is the best example of what I’m talking about. Firstly, it’s clearly playable as a videogame. You play it online in a 3D environment, and it’s about things gamers are already good at: seeing a problem from a number of points of view, and not giving up when stumped. It’s a game, but at the end you’re hopefully helping to make breakthroughs in medicine for cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops
Critics of this kind of gamification argue that it focuses on extrinsic rewards – levels, points, achievements – while ignoring what’s genuinely great about games, and that it’s ultimately manipulative. Are you worried that the kind of things you’re promoting can become tools to weaponise drudgery?
But only for so long. The good news is that we know that gamers aren’t extrinsically motivated by points. They’re intrinsically motivated by an engaging activity: story, art, missions. If you look at reviews, people aren’t saying Call Of Duty is the best game ever because of the points they earn – they like the gameplay. Gamification isn’t going to work if it doesn’t focus on the gameplay.
It’s interesting you mention COD, because it seems to use extrinsic motivations very manipulatively. In your book, you briefly touch on the possible dangers of game designers knowing so much about the psychology of positive thought, and say developers of WOW and other online titles seem very worried about this. Rest rewards aside, are they really doing much about it?
I think the question is: are you wrapping the system around something that matters? Warcraft is an interesting example, as it wraps that around social relationships, or cooperation skills, planning skills. Wrapping metrics around a game like that is less scary to me than a singleplayer game that’s just busywork. COD is a tougher one, but it’s still about stress relief, being able to deal with your own anger and anxiety. The US army had this great study saying that soldiers who play a few hours of COD or Halo daily have the lowest levels of depression and fewer suicide attempts. As long as we’re focusing on that, I’m not scared about the use of these metrics to keep people engaged.
When it’s empty and vacuous, it can be a trick. It’s also worth remembering that studies show when you’re playing more than 28 hours a week, it can have negative impacts on your real-life goals and social relationships: game designers should encourage fewer than 28 hours a week of play. As games get more related to real life, maybe that number will budge.