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: I have "banned" videogames from my home : my daughter gets to play them when she goes to my parents' house. My daughter is now 16, and besides being obsessed with Facebook, she loves to read, play the piano and guitar and ... draw ! Until she was 12 she played with educational CD-Roms on the computer.

    My parents are obsessed with Guitar Hero. They play it every weekend for a couple of hours, and then they go shopping and watch American Idol. They don't read The Nation and don't watch TED Talks.

    I think you can guess where I stand concerning video games.
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      Feb 19 2011: Interesting comment, thank you.
      I wonder if it would be possible to present TED or some other reading/reasoning/commenting activity as a sort of a "game". As you know your parents well, maybe you can devise a way to reframe their perception, even if admittedly it's quite easier with kids than with grown adults.
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        Feb 20 2011: Gianluca, I have tried re-framing their perception for years and will keep trying.
        I LOVE the idea of an interactive TED game !
        20 questions ?
        Jeopardy-like ?
        One where you film yourself and play with others via a Network to give "the TED Talk of your life"
        Now THAT I'd play !
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          Feb 20 2011: Great idea! What about encouraging youngsters to give TED-like talks online, in a sandbox TED like presentation at school or at home with a webcam?
          The player take a topic of his/her interest, and speaks for 10 minutes about it. Then the video is brought online and a voting process by TED watchers goes on for a few months.
          The vote is then weighted by the time the video was actually displayed,so that, even if you were the one that submitted the last video, you still can win.
          The prize? You get to talk to TED.
          What do you think about it? And Jane, wouldn't that be an interesting research topic for a new book?
        • Feb 24 2011: Caroline, that game exists, check out my response to Gianluca...
      • Feb 24 2011: Gianluca, such a game exists, and I'm involved in it. global innovation game on facebook...you can upload a video of yourself backing your solution to our global challenges. check it out, a natural hangout for the TED set.
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      Feb 20 2011: Hi Caroline... It sounds like your problem is not with "video games" as a whole, but rather with the lack of relative worth that many games appear to have. There's a lot of low-value games out there, just like there's a lot of junk TV but also some brilliant programming.

      I would bet that there are many games available today that you'd be fine with your daughter playing periodically, once you saw how worthwhile they were. There are many games that are very much like the TED game you propose. And then there are games that could build on your daughter's strengths and interests to develop other critical thinking skills. For example, have you seen Crayon Physics? It combines artistic expression and problem solving in a brilliant way.

      Regarding your comments about your parents and Guitar Hero... it's easy to be dismissive of games like Guitar Hero as inferior to learning a proper instrument. However I know many people, particularly those past the "easy learning" years like your parents, who always wanted to play an instrument but never got around to learning. They've tried to learn piano or guitar but found the learning curve to be too steep or simply didn't have the time to put in to practice. Games like Guitar Hero make playing music accessible to a wider group of people. This is great because not only do more people get to share in the joy that is music creation and collaboration, but they also gain a real appreciation for the skills that "real" guitarists and other musicians have developed.
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        Feb 20 2011: Thanks Wes. I will look up Crayon Physics !

        I don't dismiss the easy pleasure factor of Guitar Hero.
        What bothers me is that my parents spend at least an hour playing it, almost every day, whereas if they played the guitar for an hour every day, they'd actually be able to play (and they both did study music). I do understand the "easy-learning factor" but 8 to 12 hours a week playing Guitar Hero seems excessive to me but then I'm not a gamer. However ...

        What is the average amount of time americans spend playing video games a year?
        According to Nielsen, users average 135 minutes, or 2 hours and fifteen minutes/day (x 365 days = 49275 minutes/year).
        • Feb 22 2011: I have both played guitar and Guitar Hero and have read many anecdotes of guitarists who love Guitar Hero. I don't know anything about your parents, but here are some things that may make it a bit easier to understand why they don't just play guitar.

          - Practicing guitar is tough and takes a while to learn new songs. In Guitar Hero you can get through a song pretty quickly on the easy level and make it more interesting with higher difficulty. That means that you keep experiencing new songs, which is cool. After practicing one song for a couple hours on end it's nice to fire up the game and interact with a whole set of songs.

          - Guitar Hero puts you into a band right away. Getting a group of people together to play songs that you like isn't easy. So many schedules to organize and a space needs to be secured. Then you need to move all that equipment.

          - Guitar Hero gets you the feeling of success faster. The game cheers you on and as silly a that sounds, it feels pretty good.

          - It's not all "easy pleasure." Some songs are quite difficult. Some are insanely difficult. There is definitely still challenge to be overcome.

          Of all the games out there, the rhythm games genre (Guitar Hero, Rock Band, DJ Hero, etc.) is one that I'd recommend. It's fun and gives you a new appreciation of music. Another way of thinking about is that it's not 8-12 hours of gaming (because it's NOT all the same), but 8-12 hours interacting with music.

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