If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say you like games. They serve many purposes to many sorts of people, be it a time occupier over long travels, a lynchpin of our social circles, or the primary form for which we absorb stories and culture. Some of us take them a bit more seriously, arguing amongst ourselves about their artistic merits, or their economical repercussions. What, then, if I told you they could be even bigger? A harmonious addition to both medical and psychological treatment, as well as everyday life interactions? I laughed the idea off as pipe dream rhetoric before I heard Jane McGonigal speak about her personal utilization of this concept in a 2012 TEDtalk. Now, i’m not so sure it can’t be bigger.
McGonigal’s focus on alternate reality and location based interactive experiences stems from her pronounced interest in the human experience, and specifically our biological fondness of games in any form. In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better, and How They Can Change the World, she highlights the very easy to understand concept, at once declaring and proving a thesis that any gamer can relate to. “A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy.” She adds, ”In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.” Maybe she’s never played Dark Souls. Or maybe she’s better at Dark Souls than me…
“Games help reveal our strengths,” she told Forbes in a 2009 interview. “They make us feel capable and give us a taste of success.” Again, things we gamers all knew, whether we knew how to articulate this attraction or not. But her evangelism of games’ higher power comes directly from personal experience. She was her own guinea pig for what would be her most remarkable work to date.
After hitting her head and suffering a concussion, Jane was in a precarious state of health. The damage literally lowered her IQ. She was unable to read or write, or stand for long periods of time. This extreme condition lasted more than a month. During her self proclaimed “black vice grip of death,” she had a moment of clarity. Her background in game design and game’s social ergonomics were some of the few memories she could count on, and would lead to her developing SuperBetter. SuperBetter isn’t a videogame, but it is full of the sorts of objectives, scoring situations, and challenges that all game designers attempt to apply masterfully, no matter the medium. The game promoted positive thinking, assisting her rise from her mire of depression, which would aid in her full recovery. Her theory seemed to be proved by this chain of acts. Growing our strengths through challenges makes humans happy. Happy human brains are better at healing and recovery than unhappy ones. Games produce opportunities to test your strengths, allowing you opportunities to grow them. Bill Nye would approve.
“Gamefying” our lives has been a consistent goal throughout Jane’s career. It started with 42 Entertainment, and their penchant for “alternate reality” interaction. 42 was most famously the brains behind Halo 2’s ilovebees.com marketing agenda. ilovebees was lauded for its aggressive and innovating techniques used to engage their target audience in a way that was unheard of (collecting data files, taking weird phone calls, etc.). She’s founded many organizations with the specific purpose of creating gaming experiences that speak to us in a similar way, even if that means turning our mundane actions into point-garnering achievements.
On pretty much every site you can find information for, you can find Jane McGonigal’s bold challenge: “My #1 goal in life is to see a game designer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.” She sees games as humanism, and their prevalence and further ubiquity in our everyday lives as the key to our future. As her focus isn’t strictly in electronic entertainment, her efforts and groundwork that any game designer can build upon.
Her work is absolutely brilliant, and has incredible potential for our industry. I’m not the only one who thinks so, her website has a laundry list of acclaims too long for me to mention individually. We always leap at the opportunity to examine when games are breaking technical levels or raising narrative bars, but is there really any more important feature to a game than its human element? Thanks to Jane, there’s no doubt in my mind that there isn’t.