TED Conversations

Jane McGonigal

Game Designer + Inventor, Institute for the Future


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We spend 3 billion hours a week as a planet playing videogames. Is it worth it? How could it be MORE worth it?

Currently there are more than half a billion people worldwide playing computer and videogames at least an hour a day -- and 183 million in the U.S. alone. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be a gamer -- 99% of boys under 18 and 94% of girls under 18 report playing videogames regularly. The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 -- or 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It's a remarkable amount of time we're investing in games. 5 million gamers in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games -- the equivalent of a full time job!

What accounts for the lure of games – and are we getting as much from our games as we’re giving them?

I explore these questions in my new book Reality is Broken – and I believe that, for most gamers, playing games is, surprisingly not a waste of time -- but rather quite productive. Gameplay may not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product… but scientific research shows that gameplay does contribute to our quality of life, by producing positive emotions (such as optimism, curiosity and determination) and stronger social relationships (when we play with real-life friends and family – especially if the game is co-operative). And for gamers who prefer tough, challenging games, they can build up our problem-solving resilience -- so we learn faster from our mistakes, and become resilient in the face of failure.

However... not all games power-up our real lives. Some games, at the end of the day, make us feel stupid for having wasted so much time on them.

So: How do we know when we're playing a good game -- and when would we be better off doing something "real"?

GAMERS: What's one thing you wish non-gamers would understand about your favorite games, and what you get out of playing them?

NON-GAMERS: What's one thing you wish a gamer would explain about games today, and why they play?


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    Feb 15 2011: What a provocative debate...I used to be a video-gamer maxing out in World of Warcraft. I still thoroughly enjoy board games, particularly Go, and do use on-line venues to play. Through experience, I understand what others have said and your research finds, and agree that gaming can have a place in our lives.

    I am a holistic thinker, thus refuse to isolate things from the context of a larger whole. For gaming this means, while we may be experiencing positive emotions, strengthening social ties (typically dependent on the context of the game, yes?), and perhaps even learning some leadership skills, how is this all fitting within the larger context of our life? How dependent are we on the virtual environments to experience these pluses? Is this transferring to or enhancing our real world contexts? Are our off-line lives suffering because of interference of the gaming experience? How does gaming enhance our ability to enact qualities of human beauty in the world? Create conditions for peace and resilience?

    Another issue to consider is timeliness. Humans have now entered an unprecedented episode in the planet's history, largely because of our use of fossil fuels. How much energy is being used to power 3 billion hours of gaming a week? How is that energy being produced? Are there ways to use that energy towards more creative goals that contribute to the well-being for a larger portion of the human population?

    Again, I think games are a vital part of the human experience, but they are just one part of it.
    • Feb 15 2011: I think that if we didn't have gaming, people would watch TV or movies instead in order to escape reality. I think playing games is more intellectual than passively watching TV.

      Actually gaming can transfer or enhance our real world. Because gaming is such a huge business, companies are spending big money to improve graphics cards (helping designers, artists, medicine industries), improves rendering techniques (good for movies, architecture etc) and so on.

      I am not saying that there are cases where people neglect their families which is sad. But I also see many benefits.
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      Feb 15 2011: Adam, I liked what you had to say on this topic.

      Personally, I have had friends that played video games all through high school (WoW), and they developed their own language for speaking with each other. Two games I would really like to highlight are World of Warcraft and EVE Online.

      Both of these games are MMORPGs that require a massive amount of team coordination, teamwork, leadership development, and organizational management. To run a "guild" for instance requires that you have some understanding of business, leadership, time management, and many other skill sets. My best friend is a huge video gamer, and when his parents thought he wasn't going to go anywhere int he world he ended up becoming top of his class in the computer science department at his college. He is doing very well, and loves what he studies.

      Further, when I heard my little cousin was getting into computers, I urged his parents to help subsidize him with more technology, software, and books. Get him into computer science, game design and development, web design and development, and coding in general. I told them that he will learn incredibly useful skills and be heavily recruited not only by a college but also by a company out of school.

      Furthermore, the best video games are the ones that often tell a great story: a beginning, middle, and end. Complex plots, excellent character development, and imaginative.

      I say if my kid (if I had a kid) isn't reading, doing homework, or outside with his, let him play a video game because he is not only being enriched (if you get the right game, that is), but also is using his imagination, problem solving skills, and having fun while doing it. Further, if it is an MMORPG, he is making friends and socializing with people online--not only listening and being a part of some bigger organization, but maybe even leading.

      I recommend reading this great article: http://personalmba.com/everything-i-know-about-business-i-learned-from-world-of-warcraft/
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        Feb 16 2011: I acknowledge your anecdotes as real and applicable to the argument, but can we really say that these MMORPGs enrich the lives for all of those who play? I would imagine you could find anecdotes of MMORPGs ruining a person's life - what do we say about those stories? We really need a lot more data to describe the impact on a larger scale. And then, as Adam points out, we need to analyze these data as a piece of a larger whole.
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          Feb 19 2011: Excellent point Michael.
        • Feb 19 2011: There needs to be more outlets than simply the video game. Anything, if it is your only thing, stands a decent chance of ruining your life by taking you away from living. Video games can be an enhancer and a tool when you have the opportunity to apply the experiences gained from them to something else. I feel that is part of the OP's original premise, that reality is broken because it does not provide us those outlets. That may or may not be true.
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          Feb 20 2011: I believe games are most valuable when they fit within a valuable life context. For example, Dustin's friend and cousin are interested in computers. If you love computers and envision a career in computers, video games can be of great value. I learned the computer skills that ultimately led me to a computer science degree at MIT because of videogames. How's that? Well, getting games to run used to require a lot of hardware and software hacking back in the day... and many games came without instructions and were in other languages (particularly the ones obtained via BBS systems in Europe :) ) so figuring out the game was half the fun. Today's equivalent would be building a custom PC, downloading mods for games like World of Warcraft to optimize the play experience, etc.

          There are other valuable contexts in which games can fit. The Guitar Hero/Rock Band games can be a great way to get interested in music - and the most recent iterations are potentially a superior way to learn instruments like drums, keyboard, vocals and guitar - particularly for people who live in remote areas where there are no strong music programs. Similarly, the dancing games can be equally great for people who want to learn to dance - especially with the advent of the Kinect device.

          Of course, it's also possible (and one might even say predominant) to game without a valuable context. There are people who waste time with games the same way they waste time watching TV. It's fine using games or TV to relax, but then there's a point where it's no longer just relaxing and it becomes laziness.

          It's a choice. You can game valuably, or you can game to waste time. Games are not the issue - a person who chooses to waste time will do so with our without games, as Zdenek says. A person who wants to do valuable things in the world will do so, regardless of how many games they play, and maybe because of it.
        • Feb 20 2011: Wes, you bring up an interesting question for me. Is it or should it be society's role to change gaming in order to curtail "time wasting" and instead promote "valuable things in the world"?

          I find debating the value of video games interesting, but what is the endgame the all this discussion?

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