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 19 2011: How do we know when we are playing a good game?

    I think that we could consider gaming as a being in a state of mind in which people feel (more or less consciously) that they are experimenting something within a relatively "safe" or "more controllable" sandbox, an activity that one can stop at any moment with little or no consequence.

    Not that everybody would define playing, for instance, in a soccer match as "experimenting running behind a ball", but what separates pro soccer player from amateurs is also the fact that, in pro soccer, deciding to stop playing a match may have important consequences (financial, professional etc), while quitting an amateur match possibily has, at worst, the effect of not being called when the next match is played.

    So, for a pro soccer player, maybe playing a "good game" means being able to score a goal, or to show active participation, all the while maybe having some kind of anxiety about the outcome of the game, for part of the player's future may depend on the outcome of the game.

    Whereas, for an amateur soccer player, maybe playing a "good game" means just having a pleasurable memory of the experience, regardless of the outcomes.

    So being in a "game" or "play" state of mind, is what really defines an activity as a "game". Possibily, playing a videogame help setting a state of mind that what is being done is "not really real" or, in other words, that it is "just a game anyhow" ; that's a quite interesting property of videogames, understood as a tool that can be used for a wide range of purposes.

    For instance, in some cases playing a MMORPG could help some people overcome social anxieties, as much as they may provide an illusory self-inflicted shelter for others.

    In my personal experience, social games are the ones that yelded the better results (increased and improved social contacts), while shooters and simulators are a distraction that most of the times have appeared to be come potentially addictive.

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