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Quick Q&A: Why She Thinks Gamers Can Improve The World

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Few people have made more effort to speak positively about video games in public than game designer, author, and researcher Jane McGonigal. She's the opposite of all those people who trash games in the media and, in this week's Quick Q&A, she's got four answers for us and one big question for all of you.

McGonigal has written that "my #1 goal in life is to see a game designer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize." She's been doing her best to achieve that by designing games big and small that consistently are about trying to unleash creativity and/or improve one's self or society. She wrote the New York Times best-seller Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and has talked about the positive impacts of gaming everywhere from the TED conference to the Colbert Report. She talks more about her work and why she's such a big believer in gaming in the Q&A below...

1. You strike me as an optimist, someone who maintains a faith that games and gamers can and will do good. Where does that come from and why isn’t it shaken by, oh—I don’t know—everything from the banality of so many video games to the hostility that emerges in many a multiplayer deathmatch on Xbox Live?

McGonigal: My optimism about games and gamers isn't blind or irrational. It's based on the research that I and hundreds of other scientists and academics have done over the past decade to figure out: How do games change how we think and act in real life? I've been researching this for over a decade. It's what I earned my PhD in at UC Berkeley, and so I don't come to this opinion lightly: People who spend a lot of time playing videogames, for the most part, develop some powerful mental and emotional strengths that can help them solve problems in the real world, or in their own lives. I'm talking about resilience in the face of failure, and the ability to view obstacles as challenges rather than threats. I'm talking about the power to change our emotional state from boredom, anxiety or depression to interest, optimism and awe.


These skills and abilities don't turn gamers into saints. I'm just pointing them out because they could be of benefit to you, especially if you're tackling a tough real-life challenge. Of course, there are some aspects to gaming culture today—the fact that beating a stranger online in a videogame raises your testosterone, so that you're more likely to be a jerk to others and feel less empathy for people you perceive as weak—that lead to some game communities being more hostile and sometimes unpleasant than others. I think it's good for gamers to be aware of these things—because, on the whole, you'll be happier and more successful in life if you can feel driven and competitive without needing to make other people feel bad about themselves. Games are a window into that.


Meanwhile, the same research shows that if you beat someone you know well in the same game—say, a good friend or family member—your testosterone goes down, because we're evolutionarily primed to try to smooth over relationships with people who are important to us. So you actually become a nicer person to be around when you beat friends and family at a game. So, you know, either spend more time trying to beat your friends and family, or when you win against a stranger, know that the surge of testosterone you're feeling will last a little while after you've stopped playing and try not to be a jerk to the people around you just because your hormones are telling you you're now better than everyone else. I know, it feels good, but life is long and you're better off understanding how your mind and body work together and how games are a part of that.

I guess I'd say my optimism about games is not that all games make us beautiful, happy saints. It's that all games give us power and help us develop skills, and I believe that most people who love games can use these powers and skills to enjoy their lives more and accomplish more in the real-world, if they want.


2. You noted on Twitter recently that you regularly get piles of e-mails from people who are horrified by games and think your advocacy for them is a problem. Can you share any examples? Do you write these people back?

McGonigal: I never write back anyone who sends me cranky emails. I delete them right away, so I don't even have a treasure trove to quote you from. This is the one I was tweeting about, which is completely typical and ridiculous:

"You quote 'scientific studies' that show spending time 'gaming' can possibly be beneficial. We are not so sure. Recent studies show that ~90% of ALL games available (lets face it, Jane...) contain moderate to severe violence..... How about you suggesting that these same 'gamers' READ A BOOK. Use your platform to push REAL activity, sports, hiking, etc...not playing X-box with dad. Why did the police find a disturbing trend among the possessions of 95% of the men who performed all the past and current mass murders and shootings. Wanna guess what they found at home in the dresser drawers or closets...?"


I don't write back to these people because it's not my job to change anyone's minds about games, although I know my book and my TED talks have done that. I also put together all the research I can collect for people willing to consider that what they think they know about games might be wrong. But I don't waste time defending games to people who have strong opinions against them. I think gamers change more minds by leading by example—by being smart, happy, healthy, successful. Yeah, we're not all of those things all the time. But most gamers are determined as hell, and when we put our minds to it, we have a pretty good chance to become more of those things.

By the way, Kotaku friends, don't waste YOUR time in the comments arguing with this random dude who emailed me, okay? I know it's tempting, especially when he gets talking about all the secret videogames hidden in mass murderer's sock drawers (um, WHAT?!) But the reality is: We're going to change the conversation about games by talking about the awesome potential and the lifechanging stuff, not by arguing with people who have no idea what they're talking about.


It's easy to get baited into debates, but it's more important for the future of games to take the time to discuss, with each other, the upside of games and how we want to harness their incredible power.

3. You collaborated with U Penn to test whether your self-improvement game, SuperBetter, can help people fight depression. The results were promising. What did you learn from that study about how and why the game works?

McGonigal: I invented SuperBetter when I was recovering from a really tough concussion. It took me a full year to recover, and there was a lot of depression and anxiety that went along with the physical pain and cognitive symptoms. At first, because it really worked for me, I thought SuperBetter would be the perfect game for anyone recovering from a traumatic brain injury—in fact a lot of doctors agreed, and Ohio State University Medical Research Center just received an NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant to investigate the use of SuperBetter for TBIs [traumatic brain injuries]. But over the past two years, as more than 250,000 players have used SuperBetter to tackle everything from weight loss to finding a job to post-traumatic stress disorder, it seems like what I accidentally actually designed the game to do was to help with my own depression and anxiety. It wasn't really about the TBI! It was about the mental and emotional challenges of having a TBI.


McGonigal: 'People who spend a lot of time playing videogames, for the most part, develop some powerful mental and emotional strengths that can help them solve problems in the real world, or in their own lives.'


Everything in the game, it turns out, was really more about finding agency in a tough situation, turning a threat into a challenge, helping friends and family understand the challenge better, and developing a realistic basis for optimism and hope. So when we started to look at the data of our 250,000 players, we realized that SuperBetter was actually having the biggest positive impact on players who were struggling with depression and anxiety, and to some degree, other tough mental challenges like chronic pain and PTSD.


That's why Penn stepped in to conduct a randomized controlled study of the game for depression. The study had just under 250 participants. The main finding was that, for a typical player with depression, they were able to eliminate six symptoms of depression from their daily lives by playing the game for six weeks. That really floored me. To take someone who has been dealing with depression for a long time, and to help them conquer six problems—like feeling pessimistic about their future, or having no energy to do things they usually enjoy—just with a game, I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

The main take-away from this study, and all the research on games and health really, is that games are incredibly powerful tools, because of the positive emotions they provoke, the social connections they build, and the mental resilience they help us develop in the face of tough obstacles. This is a really exciting time for gamers and game developers. We are just learning how to use games to improve our real lives.


4. I understand that you’ve got an identical twin sister, Kelly (as featured on OUR not-so-identical sister site, Lifehacker). So… how similar are your gaming tastes? Any idea if that twin intuition stuff is useful in multiplayer games?

McGonigal: Kelly and I might be proof that there is no gaming gene! We share identical DNA, but Kelly has never been as drawn to videogames the way I am. Growing up, I think she played maybe one hour for every 30-40 hours that I would put in. I do think Kelly has a lot of gamer traits that would make her a great player if she ever wanted to be one. We're both very goal-oriented, very determined, and we love to learn new things and master new skills. If there is a gamer gene, I think those three personality traits are definitely a part of it—but maybe they don't always lead to a lifetime of videogames!

... and, as we always do with these Quick Q&A's, we're inviting our interviewees to turn things around. Here is Jane McGonigal's question for Kotaku:


1. I always love to hear how or if gamers feel like they've brought a certain skill or knowledge from games into their real lives. For example, when my husband and I played Portal 2 co-op, my husband and I got a lot better at communicating to each other during runs and races, where you have to do a lot of gesturing and coordinating to stay together in a pack of 30,000 or more runners. Has your favorite game made you better at anything, and if so, what?

To contact the author of this post, write to or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.