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Playing video games can change the world

Jane McGonigal

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Consider this the next time you hear a story about video games, about people spending countless hours gunning down bad guys or fending off aliens. Jane McGonigal says all the energy and creativity that we as a society spend gaming online might actually be able to help save the world. I say that without too much exaggeration.

Jane McGonigal's new book -- about gaming and the promise it holds - is called "Reality Is Broken."

JANE MCGONIGAL: What seems to me to be totally broken about reality is the difference between how we feel when we're playing our favorite games and how we feel in real life. When we're playing our favorite games, we feel like we are on a journey. We have a heroic purpose and we are ready to rise to the occasion. And in our real lives, we just don't have the sense that we can do something that matters, that we can have that impact, that we have the collaborators. And I'm really just looking for ways to take that incredible structure of games -- that put us on the path to save the world -- and bring it into the real world.

RYSSDSAL: So give me an example. You did this one called "World Without Oil," which does seem to be kind of macro, a large-scale kind of problem.

MCGONIGAL: Yeah, it's fascinating. We developed that game in 2007 and we had this crazy scenario: What if gas prices were over $4 a gallon. And at the time this seemed like a really futuristic scenario. And we...

RYSSDSAL: And then lo and behold.

MCGONIGAL: Well, then lo and behold, a year later it actually came to pass. But what we did was asked people to just try and live their real lives for six weeks as if this were a real oil shortage, a real gas crisis and to see what they could come up with creatively -- to get to work differently, to feed their family differently, to have a social life differently. We created a game and we made it a collaborative adventure and somehow that made it not stressful and not boring. It made it adventurous and a challenge.

RYSSDSAL: Let me try to pin you down a little bit. We are spending these hours -- these tens of thousands of hours, gamers are -- in these games, developing all these skills. But what are they really good at? I mean, what can gamers do?

MCGONIGAL: Yeah. So the first thing, I think this is the most important one when it comes to solving real-world problems, is they have an incredible resilience in the face of difficult challenges. So gamers spend 80 percent of their time failing in game worlds. They are not completing the mission, they're not leveling up, they didn't find the loot that they were looking for. And this is really remarkable. In real life, if we were spending 80 percent of our time failing at something, we would quit and go home. We would think we were bad and that would not be any fun. But gamers have this ability to keep their eye on a really ambitious goal.

The other one that is really important is this idea of extreme-scale collaboration. Now, increasingly, people are spending time playing multi-player and massively multi-player games. And when you do that you start to develop what I call "collaboration radar." You're always looking out for what other people are good at, what their strengths are, what they can bring to the team. And that ability to organize large groups of people, where everybody gets to contribute their skills, their strength, is really important as we start to tackle planetary-scale problems. We're going to need a lot of people and we're going to need to find something for everyone to do.

RYSSDSAL: You know, I was thinking about that because I watched a video of you as I was getting ready for this interview, you gave a TED talk. And I was thinking as I was watching that that the flaw in the logic, and I agree with a lot of your theory, but the flaw in your logic is that there is no down side in a game. If you mess up in a game, you die, but you regenerate. If you mess up in real life, you lose your house, you don't get to college or whatever, right?

MCGONIGAL: Right. Yup. That's totally true, which is why the kind of state of the art of alternate reality game design now is figuring out what is that right match between gamers who still need to be able to fail safely and real-world problems. So it's not about taking crazy risks and leaping off buildings and quitting your job, but it's about finding what are small things that ordinary people can do that when you combine them in a game that it turns out to be extraordinary.

RYSSDSAL: Jane McGonigal is at the Institute For The Future up in Palo Alto, Calif. She's also got a new book out, it's called "Reality is Broken." And
there's an excerpt of it at our website on our book blog, it's called The Big Book. Jane, thanks a lot.

MCGONIGAL: It was great to talk to you.

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