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Jane McGonigal at SXSWi: Game developers can induce happiness

In her Tuesday keynote, the world-famous designer of alternate-reality games suggests a road map to a better quality of life.

Jane McGonigal, Tuesday's keynote speaker at South by Southwest Interactive, and one of the world's leading designers of alternate-reality games, dances on stage, doing the Soulja dance at the end of her presentation. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--Game designers may be the professionals best suited to help humans find happiness in the future.

That was the thesis of world-famous alternate-reality game designer Jane McGonigal's Tuesday keynote address at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) here.

McGonigal began her talk by looking at the idea that happiness is something scientists and sociologists are increasingly studying and that embedded in the mechanics of games may be the very things that people need to be happy. And quality of life will likely be a key consideration of many interactive media projects.

An artist's rendering of SXSWi Tuesday keynote speaker Jane McGonigal and the points she made in her presentation. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"Because positive psychology will be a principal, explicit influence on interactive design and development," McGonigal said, "we're also going to see communities forming around different visions of a real life worth living....We will see communities forming around different brands, platforms and visions....Value will be defined as a measurable increase in real happiness or well being. Well being becomes the new capital, something we can trade, and which might increase or decrease."

So designers might benefit from heeding and incorporating into their games what McGonigal defined as four distinct things that make humans happy: satisfying work, being good at something, spending time with people we like, and having the chance to be a part of something, she said.

"What just completely blew my mind was the realization that nothing in the whole world gives these four things in higher quality than games," McGonigal said. "Games give you satisfying work, (players can become very good at them), multiplayer games give you time spent with people you like and games give you the chance to be part of something bigger with their mythologies...I'm pretty sure that most of us in the game development business are in the happiness business."

A second artist's rendering of McGonigal's keynote address. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

A big part of the picture, McGonigal added later, is that games have the power to kill boredom, alienation, anxiety and depression.

"Games have a value as an aid to quality of life even greater and more direct than has hitherto been suspected," a slide from her presentation read. "The ordinary routine of playing a game is fatal to conditions of depression, existential angst, human suffering and other serious afflictions of real life."

One part of her keynote that many attendees were particularly taken with was a description of "ten strengths mapping ARGs against what scientists say is needed for happiness."

McGonigal proposed ten strengths that game designers would do well to understand when trying to build games that help people seek happiness. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

These were: "mobbability," an ability to collaborate and coordinate on really large scales; cooperation radar, the ability to decide who would be an ideal collaborator for any given mission; the ping quotient, which measures your ability to reach other people in a network, and your ability to respond to people reaching out to you; "influency," the ability to adapt someone's persuasive strategies to specific and distinct individuals since each community requires different motivations; "multicapitalism," an understanding that people are increasingly trading in new currency systems; "protovation," an understanding that failure can be fun because that's when people learn the most; open authorship, a comfort with giving content away and knowing it will be changed; signal/noise management, an element of games that is able to handle large amounts of "noise," and to be able to detect right away which data are relevant in the moment; "longbroading," an ability to think in much bigger systems, bigger cycles and bigger scales; and "emergensight," being able to spot patterns as they emerge and take advantage of them.

McGonigal suggested that the next thing for game designers to do would be to look for systems that incorporate some of these ethos and others that allow users to seek happiness.

Based on her talk, McGonigal proposed several takeaways.

McGonigal said happiness science has been incorporated into several recent books, and that game designers could help themselves prepare for games geared at improving quality of life by reading these books and other such science. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

First, she said, most game designers will "soon be in the happiness business." She suggested that such designers spend some time reading many of the recent books on happiness science in order to prepare for when that science is in demand in the game industry.

Second, she said game designers have a head start on providing additional quality of life because that pursuit is built into virtual worlds and simulated environments.

And finally, she said alternate realities signal the desire, need and opportunity for people to redesign reality for a real quality of life.

"It's our responsibility to hear that signal," she said, "to say you're right and that life doesn't work as well as games. It's our job to fix" that.

See more stories in CNET's coverage of SXSWi (click here).