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Drawing on the Wii, reality TV

Game designer Jane McGonigal says the console could save democracy, advises other designers to watch Survivor.

In late 2004, a new phenomenon began getting buzz in Internet-based game circles.

It was called , and it was a futuristic, multimedia participatory game that had people all over the world running to answer ringing pay phones.

It turned out that I Love Bees--which was one of a fairly new genre of games known as alternate-reality games (ARGs)--was actually a promotional vehicle for Microsoft's forthcoming monster-hit Xbox title, Halo 2. But even when word about that commercial link began spreading, no one cared. The game was too engrossing.

I Love Bees was created by Seattle-based , the leaders in the ARG space. And the lead community designer on the game was a University of California at Berkeley graduate student named .

I always say my games are designed to teach you to answer a ringing pay phone.

Since then, McGonigal has become widely known for her work on ARGs--she was the lead designer on 2005's Last Call Poker, an ARG that promoted Activision's Xbox 360 launch title, Gun--as well as for designing "big games"--multiplayer, multimedia street games--like Cruel 2 B Kind, which gave players the task of roaming the streets of cities like New York, looking to "kill" opponents with kindness. Earlier this year, she got her doctorate in ubiquitous computing and game culture.

Recently, McGonigal sat for an interview before a packed house in the theater at . There, she talked about why ARGs are important, why Nintendo's Wii could save democracy and why game designers should watch CBS' Survivor.

Q: How do you describe what you do for a living?
Jane McGonigal: I create games to change people's everyday lives; games that let people use everyday technologies and spaces differently--more playfully, more socially, more superheroically. The other part of what I do is study games to see what impact they have on people's identity, habits and quality of life.

What does that mean?
McGonigal: I might make a game for your cell phone that interrupts your usual life with superherolike missions to fulfill at your dog park or bus stop, or in an elevator. I might make a game for your local historic cemetery so that people feel comfortable using a space that traditionally, we steer clear of.

The games use nongame technologies like phone calls, SMS (Short Message Service text messages), IM (instant messages), e-mail and objects planted in real spaces. And you are playing at the same time as many, many other people, because I'm really interested in the power of the massively scaled social experience.

What is an ideal project for you?
McGonigal: I recently finished my Ph.D., and the only thing that kept me sane was my dog and the people at the dog park. I never left the house except to take my dog out. There is something amazingly powerful about dogs and the social leverage they give us. So an ideal project for me would be a game that embraces the culture of play and extended social networks that dogs have created.

How are the games you create changing people's lives?
McGonigal: It's a quality-of-life issue. In virtual worlds and digital games, we feel powerful, engaged and connected. We have clear goals, tools and powers we use in amazing ways. Everyone playing shares our goals, and there is a tremendous sense of collaboration and community--even among competitors. So you can really change someone's mood, perspective and quality of life by giving them a sense that the world around them has more meaning for them.

That's a great feeling, and if you have it on the train or checking your e-mail, it can just influence how you see everything in your life. I always say that my games are designed to teach you to answer a ringing pay phone.

What kind of ARGs can you imagine in Second Life?
McGonigal: It's kind of a paradox. The purpose of ARGs is to change the way everyday life works for you. So what, in a virtual world, would you need to change to make it more responsive, engaging and social that you couldn't already do through the existing virtual-world system? But I haven't been very successful having new social interactions in Second Life. So maybe there are people like me who like the world but need help navigating the social sphere and finding ways to contribute.

An ARG gives you something specific to do, to contribute, through puzzle solving, message interpretation, stunt executing. So I could see ARGs in a place like Second Life doing a great job at rolling up introverted folks like me into a kind of social experience we don't know how to forge on our own.

Once you are used to having a visible impact on a game system, you are going to want a similar impact on other systems, say our political system.
What is the future of multimedia street games like you and Ian Bogost's Cruel 2 B Kind?
McGonigal: The biggest challenge facing big games--real-world, face-to-face, technology-enabled games--is making them more benevolent. A main goal of Cruel 2 B Kind, was to create a game with a less aggressive social footprint. Typical big games often look like stunts: they are very flashy and performance-based, and may borrow from digital-game genres things like killing as a core mechanic.

For nonplayers, that can be a really bad experience, seeing players--who you don't know are players--with concealed fake weapons, chasing each other in ways that don't necessarily look like play. So in the future, these games are going to have to be more thoughtful about that impact. How can you make a game that is intense for players but calm for passersby? The future of that kind of game is that paradoxical duality. Otherwise, they are going to be banned like Street Wars has been in many cities.

Tell me about designing games from the future?
McGonigal: I'm collaborating with the Institute for the Future, which creates forecasts about future society based on their research into signal phenomena and emerging trends now. They have a project where they create "artifacts from the future"--the future everyday objects that you might use or encounter in daily life.

Real world, you are going to have to let us game you.

I'm going to be creating playable experiences that you can try now to emulate the things we'll be doing in the future. ARGs like and I Love Bees have always been about emulating the future. Players had to emulate the collective intelligence/wetware artificial intelligence of the future, or become the swarm computing of the future.

Is Nintendo's Wii good for democracy?
McGonigal: Yes. What I like about the Wii is that it appeals to nongamers. And so it's increasing the pool of people who interact with game systems, giving them a pleasurable and positive experience of interacting with a video game machine. Why is this good for democracy? Well, such participation is really satisfying. You see your impact immediately in the games.

With Wii, other people are often there--an audience for your impact on the game state. Once you are used to having a visible impact on a game system, you are going to want a similar impact on other systems, say our political system.

So in the next 10 years, especially as more people become gamers, we'll see a demand for political participation to be more like a game state: more visible impact from my participation. That will encourage and enable more people to be engaged. Real world, you are going to have to let us game you.

I know you're a fan of Survivor from a game design perspective. Why?
McGonigal: Survivor is a very carefully constructed game that maximizes three aspects: emergent--surprising, player-driven--drama; meaningful game play--each player controls his or her own fate; and satisfying outcomes--the winner (often) deserves that fate.

Survivor needs all these traits, and so does any well-designed game. Because some seasons were less satisfying than others, the producers changed the game. So Survivor is a lot like a puppet-mastered game: the designers are flexible, changing it in real-time to fuel the positive momentum and minimize problems or boredom.

Each season has offered complicated, thoughtful tweaks to its design and deployment to ensure that the game continues to work as player strategies evolve from repeated exposure to the game. Each change can be analyzed for its impact on the social aspects and competitive aspects of the game. So you can learn a lot about game design or experience design from watching reality TV.

Tsukasa Keiko (from the audience) asks: How do you design massive games so everyone feels they are participating?
McGonigal: There are two main ways. First, you try to create an extremely diverse range of participatory opportunities. Some are online, text-based. Some are through vocal interaction, like phones or Skype. Some are real-world, face-to-face. Some are puzzles. Some are stunts. Some are problems. Some are literary. You just throw out a really wide range so people feel hailed by something, and something specific.

Second, density. You need to create a lot of content or data for players to deal with collectively. Sort of like a supercomputer, where you need massively multiple processors hooked up together. Even if I'm not a star player, I can contribute to the process. It's the same reason people like being a part of the SETI screensaver project or Google Image Search. Every little bit helps.

Scarlett Qi (from the audience) asks: Have you designed any games for seniors?
McGonigal: Yes. It's called Bounce. It's a phone game for multigenerational play. The goal was a game for seniors that would give them all the benefits of digital play without the unfamiliar interfaces. So it used a basic Web site and any regular phone.

Seniors would talk to strangers of other ages in a collaborative conversation game. The great experience of it was that when we tried to recruit seniors to play, they mostly said, No, no, we don't play computer games. So, we decided to just explain the interaction of Bounce without calling it a game. Suddenly, we had more volunteers than we could handle.

So we learned a lot about how scary the term "game" still is to some people. But that doesn't mean they don't like a good game.