CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Author Jane McGonigal explains why 'reality is broken' (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: With her new book, the well-known game designer delves into the question of why life makes people unhappy and how games might well be the answer. She also tells CNET about her new start-up and the game that saved her life.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read

Until a couple of years ago, the idea that games could make people's lives better was heresy. Everyone knew that games were a massive waste of time and that, if anything, they were harming those who played them the most.

But then word began to spread of new research that showed just the opposite: that games, and playing games, could have a positive impact on people. And while there was still plenty of skepticism, the woman behind the research, well-known game designer Jane McGonigal, began to attract a lot of attention with her new claims. Especially the idea that game designers might just be the very people that had the best chance of positively impacting the most lives.

Over the years, McGonigal's work has received more and more attention. She first came on the scene as one of the people behind the hit alternate-reality game I Love Bees and soon began earning notoriety for the projects she herself designed--Tombstone Hold'em; World without Oil, which tasked players with imagining scenarios in a post-peak oil world; The Lost Ring, which was commissioned for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and introduced a "lost" Olympic sport to thousands across the globe; Superstruct, which asked players to come up with solutions to the kinds of massive problems that could threaten the future of our species; and more.

Along the way, she became a research director at the Institute for the Future. And now, McGonigal has published her first book, a big-picture tome called "Reality is Broken," which takes the research she had been talking about and implementing in her games, and in keynote addresses from SXSWi to the Game Developers Conference to TED, and beyond, and uses it to make the argument the whole world can see, that games can make the world a better place.

One of the most prolific game designers around, McGonigal usually tries to help other people, or at least get other people to think, with her projects. But she has also turned her work inward--when she suffered a debilitating head injury in 2009, she ended up designing a game called Superbetter that she now credits with being instrumental in her recovery.

Yesterday, McGonigal sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview to discuss her new book, the millions of work-years humans have spent on World of Warcraft, her oldest games, and nail polish.

Q: First of all, congratulations on the book. Maybe you could start by summing up for those who haven't seen the book why "reality is broken."
McGonigal: I investigated the reasons why games seem to have an increasing pull on us. We're up to 3 billion hours playing online games a week. I realized that compared to games, reality feels broken: it doesn't engage us or motivate us or inspire us or connect us as effectively and reliably as our best games do. This isn't necessarily a problem. Many people are effectively using games as a way to recharge from reality. But I think it clearly points to a problem with reality itself. Why should virtual worlds make us happier than the real world? Why shouldn't we feel as motivated, optimistic, ambitious, determined, resilient, and collaborative in our real lives?

And why do you think games can make people's lives better?
McGonigal: Games provoke positive emotions and strengthen our social relationships in really key ways that ultimately make us not just happier but also healthier and more successful. The book presents research that suggests that how we feel in games can spill over into our real lives--the confidence, the optimism, our willingness to help others. I write about why games make us more likable to others, and how they make us more likely to stretch outside our social comfort zone in ways that can make our real social networks stronger. That's the first half of the book-- looking at how "ordinary" computer and video games are charging us up and making us better. They're more than escapist. They're helping us get what we want out of life, and helping us spend time as the best versions of ourselves.

How long did it take before you felt you were making headway in convincing people that that argument wasn't absurd?
McGonigal: Is a month or so from now a fair answer? But seriously, in 2008 I keynoted at SXSW Interactive, and that was a big turning point. I made a lot of the arguments I make in the book's introduction in that keynote, and I was terrified that it would seem absurd and that I would be accused of trying to ruin the fun of games by pointing out that they actually make us better, not just entertain us when we're bored. That talk received a really enthusiastic response and I started hearing from game designers and game developers all over the world about how the ideas really resonated with them. Still, it's not easy today. There are so many people who "know" that video games are "bad"--violent, anti-social--and they don't want to hear any evidence otherwise. I'm not sure they will read the book, but I hope if they have friends or family who are gamers, they will, because understanding games can be a crucial step toward healing the relationships that are being strained over wanting someone to stop playing so many games.

At the same time, I am happy there are more and more game designers who are interested in thinking about positive impacts. There's a new working group in the International Game Developers Association for positive impact games. But it's still a hurdle for many I know.

Along those lines, you recently said that gamification of tasks should make them harder, not easier. First, explain gamification, and then, why harder?
McGonigal: Gamification, means to take an ordinary task--running, losing weight, meeting up with friends--and adding a "game layer" to it, like points, levels, badges, leaderboards. Making something gameful, as I call it in the book, means making it more like a game, and we know that games are designed to be challenging. So gamification isn't about making real life easier. It's actually about making real life more challenging, in ways that we want. We want to be challenged to run more and faster (Nike +), or to get in shape (the Game Diet), or to see our friends more often and actually get out of the house (Foursquare).

The big game project I'm working on now is for the New York Public Library. It's called Find the Future and we're gamifying going to the library. But we're not just giving you points for showing up at the library, or achievement badges for checking out books. We're focusing on a real challenge instead. By playing this game, you write a book. A real book. You can write the book in eight hours. There will be 500 gamers, locked in at the library, allowed down into the 40 miles of underground stacks, and if they win, they write a book, and it goes in the permanent collection of the library.

So, you talk a lot about your biggest goal--that a game designer will win the Nobel Peace Prize within 25 years. Why is that so important to you?
McGonigal: I think we need an epic win condition that we can aspire to, something that we can weigh our game design decisions against. When I take on new games, I use that as a criteria. Do I think that making this game will improve the odds of some game designer eventually winning a Nobel Peace Prize? Not every game is anywhere close, but it's a direction to head in. And I think that if anything can harness global engagement, it's a game. We know that world peace requires global engagement. I also believe that we can improve people's quality of life--their health, happiness and well-being--in meaningful ways with games. And if we make games that can measurably improve quality of life statistics, we should get the Nobel Prize for that.

I was wondering if it had to be the Peace Prize. Can you imagine a game or a game designer winning any of the other Nobel prizes? Economics? Medicine? Physics?
McGonigal: Sure. For example, players of Foldit or EteRNA could win the prize in medicine. They've already had a peer-reviewed article in "Nature" published after all.

You've said that the idea for that goal came while working on World Without Oil. I'm curious about whether you've felt you made a real difference with WWO, Superstruct, Evoke, or other games.
McGonigal: Evoke has been particularly heartening to see the real impact. Players created more than 50 real social enterprises that we were able to get seed funding for via the World Bank. Projects like Libraries Across Africa, which aims to be the McDonald's of libraries--a for-profit franchise that would reward local entrepreneurs for setting up a free library, with revenue-generating side businesses like selling snacks, Wi-Fi, or cell phone access. The demand for Evoke is still really high. The pilot engaged about 20,000 students from more than 130 countries. This week, we're opening the game back up to teachers and groups anywhere in the world to run the game again and go through this crash course in changing the world again. This means the game has a legacy--it's not just a big event that happened once, but a resource that can be used again and again.

When I first knew you, you told me about the Ministry of Reshelving. Why did you do that project, and do the principles of that early work show up in what you're doing today at all?
McGonigal: Back then, when I was a graduate student, I was looking for ways to use social media (before it was called social media) to inspire people to be playful in the real world. That project was an experiment--would people on the Internet accept a game mission to play out in their own local neighborhoods? You could play it in any bookstore, and you would report back with photos on Flickr. Now we have platforms like Scvngr and Groundcrew that can really compile lots of missions like that and create much more exciting game structures around them, better feedback, better social, better GPS confirmation.

Tell me how designing a game helped you overcome the aftermath of a serious head injury.
McGonigal: After I made the game SuperBetter to help me through my recovery, I wanted to see if it would work for others because it had literally saved my life. So I posted the rules online and asked folks to write me if they tried using any parts of it for their own illness or injury. I got anecdotal reports on using the game for diabetes, asthma, knee surgery, chemotherapy, quitting smoking, even a bad breakup. This was really encouraging and so I wanted to do two things--make a real, commercial version that anyone could play to improve the experience of recovery, and also do some clinical trials to verify how and why the game works.

At my new start-up games company, Social Chocolate, that's one of our first big projects. We're designing the clinical trials now with Ohio State University Medical Research Center, where they have one of the best rehabilitation centers for traumatic brain injury. And the game will soon be in beta.

Explain the name, Social Chocolate.
McGonigal: If you've read the book, you know that my ideas about games are really grounded in the science of positive emotion and social connection. I was lucky to meet some entrepreneurs and fellow researchers--including Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley and the founder of the Greater Good science center--who wanted to start a game company to make games powered by the science. I decided it was a match made in heaven.

The name comes from something Keltner said once--that the smiles and laughter and warm touch that we give to one another in every day life, between friends, family, and even strangers, are like social chocolate--rich, satisfying, addicting, rewarding. We crave them more than anything else. Our games are going to focus on provoking social chocolate.

How would you have responded if someone had told you when World of Warcraft launched that by 2010, people would have put 6 million work years into it?
McGonigal: 'Quick! Let's add one tiny thing to the game that players could do for a minute a week that would add up to 100 Wikipedias worth of collaborative effort.' It's too late now for WoW, but not for future games. I really feel that if we could put tiny opportunities to be of real heroic service into our games--a five-minute optional side mission--we could accomplish really extraordinary things.

Last question. I like IM interviews because I get a perfect transcript and because it allows my interviewee to be thoughtful and articulate. But also, it's because IM allows for multi-tasking. So, what else were you doing during the interview?
McGonigal: Hahahahahaha. I was talking to my husband about what I'm typing to you and reminiscing about the old games since we worked together on Evoke, World Without Oil, The Lost Ring, and Ministry or Reshelving. Also, removing my nail polish.