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Jane McGonigal, 33, creates "alternative reality games," which take place in virtual environments yet encourage players to take real actions. (Martin Klimek)

Jane McGonigal on How Computer Games Make You Smarter

The "alternate reality game" designer looks to develop ways in which people can combine play with problem-solving

Far from rotting your brain, computer games can make people smarter and help humanity, says Jane McGonigal, 33, who creates “alternate reality games,” which take place in virtual environments yet encourage players to take real actions. She makes her unconventional case in a new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press). She spoke with assistant editor Amanda Bensen.

How do you describe what you do?
I make games that try to improve people’s lives or solve real problems. I take play very seriously.

You recently created a social network called Gameful. What’s that?
It’s a network for game developers. “Gameful” is a word I coined to describe what it feels like to have the heart of a gamer, as opposed to just “playful,” which sounds like you’re not taking something seriously. When you’re gameful, your creativity is sparked, your curiosity is sparked and you’re more likely to collaborate with others. You’re more likely to stick with a tough problem, even if you fail at first. The network has about 1,100 game developers looking at questions like: How could you make education, museums, hospitals, airports or even caregiving more gameful?

How could education be more gameful?
With the World Bank Institute last year, we created a ten-week crash course in changing the world, called Evoke. It was an online game that taught people social entrepreneurship. It used an interactive graphic novel instead of a textbook, and instead of assignments, there were missions and quests. We enrolled just under 20,000 students from 130 countries. We had about 50 new businesses started directly by the gamers to address poverty, hunger and access to clean water and clean energy, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa but also in India, the Philippines, China. It’s still online—we’re getting ready to play again in the spring.

When many of us think of gaming, we think of someone alone in a room, staring at a screen. That doesn’t always seem socially healthy.
The idea of the “lone gamer” is really not true anymore. Up to 65 percent of gaming now is social, played either online or in the same room with people we know in real life. There’s a ton of research that shows playing games with people actually improves relationships with them. You feel more positive about them, you trust them more, and you have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses, so you’re better able to work and collaborate with them in the future.

How has gaming had a positive effect on the world?
There are newspapers that have used games to get readers to help analyze government documents. There was a [British] game called “Investigate your MP’s expenses,” where readers were able to uncover so much stuff that people actually resigned from Parliament and new laws were passed as a result of this game.

As games blend our real and virtual environments, should there be concern that some people will be less able to distinguish between the two?
There are two potential dangers. One is when gamers can’t tell the difference between a game and reality, and spend too much time gaming. Games are good for you in moderation, up to 20 hours a week. More than that and you start to get quite negative impacts. The other danger involves people who make games. You can pretty much ask a gamer to do anything and they’ll do it for the sake of the game. I worry a lot about people using games just for marketing, to get people to buy more stuff, which I think would be the worst possible use.

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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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