Jane McGonigal talk: "Reality is Broken"

Jane McGonigal is on a book tour for her new book, Reality is Broken. She spoke at the Harvard Bookstore on Feb 1. I took very scanty and context-free notes, but fortunately, the talk was basically "teaser bits from my book"! (As most book tour talks are.) So here are the notes, context-free, and if you think the subject sounds cool, buy the book.

First, the egoboo: Jane started by offering a real-world-achievement-quest award to anybody who could point out "the inventor of my favorite game", sitting anonymously in the audience. Which was me! (She says this, even though I don't consider myself the inventor of Werewolf, but hey. It made me happy. And it caused some people to talk to me afterward about Mafia/Werewolf, which was cool too.)

So, the thesis in this book is that gaming is a powerful activity; it makes us better; and it can be applied to make real life better. This is not just about MMO-ARG games curing poverty in Africa (a stereotype of "serious games"). It covers everything from, okay, that, down to feeling more motivated about your job or your exercise program.

Everyone is gaming. Everyone is spending a lot of time gaming. Tens of thousands of hours for an average kid these days, by the time he/she finishes high school. (Note: don't trust my numbers, I was tapping quickly.) This adds up to an additional education -- the same scale of time as is spent in high school. So what are games teaching?

Games have always been addictive, back to antiquity.

What is a game? "Games are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle." (That definition is a little broad for me, but only a little; my difference are only quibbles.) So human beings are motivated to tackle obstacles! For fun! (This is one of those tiny, obvious observations that spins my head around.) We prefer challenge to boredom; we prefer productivity to dissipation.

The notion of eustress: stress which has a positive emotional lading. Physiologically, stress is stress, but when a challenge is "for fun" then we experience it as exhilaration rather than nervousness. Games are eustressful.

Games are not relaxing, in general. Fun, relaxing activities (such as watching television) tend to be associated with a lowered mood after they end. Fun eustressful activities are associated with a raised mood. (She mentions psychological studies which are presumably described in the book in more detail.)

(One that didn't make it into the book: when too much eustress is too much stress. A study has pegged "too much" as 28 hours of gaming a week.)

We should stop talking about games as escapism. Games are something we do to improve our lives.

Problem: reality is too easy? (Not for everybody, obviously -- one of the post-talk questions got into this. But anyhow.) If our daily lives had more of the eustressful qualities of games, we'd feel better about them. How to put more of (the right kind of) challenge into life?

Using gaming bonuses (motivations, benefits) in personal life:

  • Nike Plus -- gamified running
  • One cited goal of Foursquare is "getting people out of the house"; meeting up with friends.
  • SuperBetter: In 2009 JM had a concussion, and spent several weeks with brain injury symptoms. She worked out a scenario -- "Jane the Concussion-Slayer", no lie -- with goals to mark recovery points and things she wanted to do. She says it helped a lot (maybe with recovery time, but definitely with her mood and attitude).

Using gaming bonuses for global-scale problems:

  • FoldIt -- protein folding as a game
  • EteRNA -- RNA synthesis
  • Evoke, "a crash course in changing the world" -- an MMO game in which the missions are forming real-life teams, finding mentors, identifying problems, etc. Players won scholarships or seed funding for their projects.

Links for further information on this stuff:

  • Gameful: JM's social website for serious/social game designers.
  • Google "gamify" (as a verb, not a trademark)
  • lifehacks -- not phrased in game terms, but the same idea
  • Epic Win, Goal Wars (Facebook? couldn't find anything) -- gamified todo managers
  • MPs Expenses, example of MMO journalism
  • iCivics, games teaching US civics (launched by Sandra Day O'Connor, among others)
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