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 16 2011: I want to know why gamers don't see life as the ultimate game?

    As a side note, years ago, a friend of mine suggested a suite of games should be written where all the game play was based on physics near the speed of light or three dimensional representations of four dimensional space..

    He proposed that regardless of the game narrative, players would over time develop a intuitive understanding of physics beyond classical mechanics. Has a game like that been written?
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      Feb 17 2011: To address your second question there is a puzzle-game called Miegakure, currently in development that explores a 3D representation of a 4D space. marctenbosch.com/miegakure/ It may not be entirely theoretically sound but is interesting none-the-less.

      To attempt to answer your first question, I would say there are times when I will consider life the ultimate game, but there is also an awareness that what is happening in a game is an abstraction of reality. I am certainly more willing to do things in games that I would never consider in real life by the sheer fact that my life is not in danger in a digital world. I would speculate, however, that I use similar mechanisms when weighing decisions in the real world as I do in digital worlds but the consequences are more salient and severe.
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        Feb 18 2011: It's curious that Jane's work is to re-funnel Gamers attention back into the real world through the very mechanism they use to escape the world. It's almost like skinning reality.

        I think maybe games are a symptom of a larger problem. People seek to escape because they lack the opportunity to experience 'epic wins' in the real world. Things may change when we develop institutions that are focused on helping people thrive and apply their genius to collective wellbeing.
        • Feb 18 2011: In my 20 years of researching engagement from watching emotions on the faces of people while they play games, the opportunity to explore new worlds and experience accomplishment are just two of the four reasons why we play games. They also play to change the way they think feel and behave and to socialize with their friends.

          What I found researching best selling games from Tetris to Call of Duty is that first the hook is a novel experience. Games offer a simplified world to explore where they experience curiosity, wonder, and surprise. I call this Easy Fun. Next, while players are exploring the new physics of this world whether it's an abandoned warehouse or a screen full of gems they encounter a goal with some constraints. Players experience frustration as they attempt to overcome obstacles. If they win at the point they are about ready to quit, players experience fiero (Italian for triumph over adversity). This is the feeling of the epic win. I call this opportunity for challenge and mastery Hard Fun because it requires a lot of effort. Next, to make the win feel even more epic many players cooperate and compete with their friends for amusement, naches, schadenfreude, and ameiro (my word for the emotion from social bonding). Games offer the excuse to hang out with friends or what I call People Fun. Finally to make the win mean something, games amplify feedback to make the win change how they think feel or behave. I call this Serious Fun where gamers play Dance Dance Revolution to lose weight, Brain Age to get smarter, or Google Image labeler to help label every image on the Internet.

          Pardon the plug, but you can download free white papers on on the Four Keys to Fun and other emotion and games research to help you design more meaningful games here: http://xeodesign.com/whyweplaygames.html Game On! o/
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      Feb 17 2011: To me, the allure of video games, as well as with cinema, is the fact that they allow you to experience things that are not currently possible. Your friends game sounds very interesting.
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      Feb 17 2011: Possible reasons why gamers don't see life as the ultimate game:

      01. They don't have a life? [Disclaimer: This is meant as a joke at the expense of ignorant non-gamers who perpetuate such ideas; I am a gamer, I believe that gaming have done great things for me in my life, as you can tell from my responses in this thread; I did not mean to offend anyone, this should not be taken seriously, and I am sorry if anyone got offended in any way at this line]
      02. No 1-UPs
      03. No downloadable content, so less replay value
      04. You can never find a walkthrough for your version of the game
      05. Mashing buttons doesn't get you too far
      06. No save feature
      07. Plans for sequels are vague at best
      08. Changing your gamertag is more of a hassle, plus some old timers choose it for you!
      09. Wielding 10-foot swords is much more difficult
      10. An impossibly complex dialog tree
      • Feb 18 2011: Wow, really? You're going to insult the gaming demographic? I expected more out of people on this site, but every internet community has it's jerks I suppose.

        I'm actually willing to laugh at 2-10, they're really quite funny, but number 1 I simply can't let slip by. Who are you to decide what having a life is? Who are you to invalidate the passion of thousands upon millions of people? You don't have the right to make such a statement.

        Yours and other statements like yours infuriate me to no end. Would the same thing be said if instead of games we immersed ourselves in books, or movies, or theater, or music, or traditional art? Of course not, because those things have been socially accepted a methods for cultivating the mind. Games can cultivate the mind just as well if not better than all of those combined yet for some reason remain inferior due to this misconceived notion that games are for kids and anyone past a certain age who engages in them leads a sad pathetic life.

        What is "having life" as defined by modern society? From my observations at my current age "having a life" seems to involve going out drinking with friends, doing drugs, and generally being irresponsible until the age of 30. (or until you knock someone up) I can tell you right now that many, many people I have befriended through games live that life and many others. I know people that have families, are disabled war vets, and are from other countries. I have made lasting relationships with people I otherwise would have never known or had the opportunity to exchange ideas with.

        I have sought out information I otherwise never would have thanks to games. I was driven to learn more about the inspiration for the games. I draw immense creative strength from the experiences I've had playing games. They have driven me to better myself as a person; to view the world in whole new shades of understanding; to approach problems from angles I would have never dreamed of. My god, the list just goes on.
        • Feb 18 2011: Every new information technology has been ridiculed at it first introduction. Many people in Plato's time thought that writing would be the end of intelligent thought, because people would no longer have to memorize. Instead, we used this tool to support new kinds of intellectual pursuits. The Nickelodeons were like wise scorned for their cheap and lewd content, but eventually they gave birth to cinema such as Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali The same will be true for games. Remember that more women (64% ) play games online than men. http://news.cnet.com/2100-1043_3-6123172.html
      • Feb 18 2011: I would not be the person I am today without gaming. It has been an integral part of my life since I was very young. Many of the people I know would be completely different without their gaming experiences. Gaming is as much apart of my life as it is anything else I do. It is one part of the whole and without it I would be incomplete; the same as if you removed any part of my life.

        So I don't conform to your perceived ideas of "having a life" is, big deal. Do I, however go around saying that you have no life simply because you do not conform to what I have formed as my perception of "having a life"? Games have driven my ambitions for as long as I can remember, so of course I take great offense when someone says I and my fellows have no life simply because our passions differ from the norm.

        I'll tell you something, games bring lots of happiness to lots of people across this world filled with such rampant despair; same as movies, same as books, same as theater, same as traditional art. As I've come into adulthood I've looked at this despair and asked why it must be so; as to why we must treat each other with such wanton disregard. I looked at this and rejected it as the way I would live my life. That with the talents I was given, and with the experiences I have had. That I would work to impart that same unrestrained wonder and happiness that had been shared with me onto the world.

        So don't you dare; don't you bloody dare have the audacity to say that my chosen life is inferior to yours.
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          Feb 18 2011: Excuse me, I don't think you got the point. If you scroll down to the first response in this thread, i.e. my response, you can see how I said that I've been a gamer most of my life, that gaming has done a lot for me in very important ways, and that I have suffered from discrimination and misunderstanding from non-gamers. In my other responses, I continued to say how gaming is important to me. You will also notice how I put a question mark after the first point. It was meant as a joke, a joke at the expense of those who say ignorant things like that. Now, however, you flagged this post, and I am requested to remove it. Due to this misunderstanding, you just gave me an example of discrimination from a fellow gamer, and a very unpleasant experience (you used the word "despair").
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        Feb 18 2011: I LOLed even before the disclaimer on 1... mostly because I can see the pun in it :-P .

        I guess you could've said "They don't have hitpoints", but where's the fun part of that :D .
      • Feb 18 2011: Excuse me, I don't think you got the point. :)

        To "get" your statement on its own requires some knowledge of you. The assumes quite a bit and Ben Cathey's response is quite understandable. I was also not aware of the question mark's significance in online joke telling. Is this common? (not a joke)

        Also, my first comment on here was about how this looked like trolling and was deleted. But y'know, on its own it really did look like trolling. Ease off, mods.

        UPDATE b/c I can't make a 4th level reply (dumb):

        I get it, you're a gamer and you meant it tongue in cheek, but your responses are assuming that others are fools even though their responses are totally understandable. Man up, realize this, and apologize or, if you're feeling jerky, don't.

        Saying that neither of us "get" you doesn't really make it appealing to try to get you, but I already do. Get it?

        TL;DR I get what you're saying, but you're coming off like a condescending fool. FYI.
    • Feb 19 2011: Why don't gamers see life as the ultimate game? Here are a few things that occurred to me.

      - How do you know that they don't? Personally, I stil enjoy occasional games, but am much more intrigued by problems in real life. For me, games are a comfortable subset of life in which to play and practice mental skills.

      - For many people, life isn't that fun. It can be a grind and not that fun to look forward to, day after day. I used to play backgammon online with random people. For many it was their favorite part of the day. They could relax in a comfortable set of rules and enjoy both winning and losing and chatting with others.

      - Life doesn't let you shoot an alien in the face. Unless we get into a space war, this is the only option :)
    • Feb 19 2011: Because when you lose in real life, you lose. It's just too real! When you fail at a game you can always try again or stop playing. When you fail at life, it's all despair and wanting to escape but you can't because it's real and there's no way out! The horror, the horror!

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