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An Evening with Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal spoke last night as part of the California Academy of Sciences lecture series in San Francisco, at the packed Herbst Theater. Come along on my journey of contempt and redemption.


My expectations of this presentation were extremely low. I remember her GDC presentation several years ago on the top 10 findings in games that year that covered such breakthroughs as some players "playing to win" and how they actually seek an even playfield of fair competition rather than wanting to buy in-game advantages. Another involved a bunch of data showing that a huge percentage of players spend a huge percentage of time playing World of Warcraft alone. It even used the phrase "together alone" as opposed to the phrase "alone together" that I used in my infamous article. Since so much of that presentation was rehashes of my own articles from YEARS earlier, I had to wonder what Jane is really bringing to the table here.

The Format

Rather than a lecture, the format here was actually an informal interview, so the host and Dr. McGonigal sat on stage with a coffee table between them. I think this format is good, and allows information to flow more freely than in a prepared lecture. There is more room for adaptation, for tailoring answers to go with the flow the conversation, and for the speaker to let their personality come through a bit more.

The host opened by having Jane discuss her controversial statements that the world needs to spend more hours gaming. She said that currently the world spends 7 billion hours (per year? I forget) gaming, and that she thinks it should be more like 21 billion hours. This is a delicate subject because it's so easily taken out of context and misunderstood. I think Jane was only able to explain part of why she believed this in her actual answer to this question, and the rest of why she believes it wasn't clear until much later. The first clarification is that she doesn't mean people who play games now should play them more, but rather than more people should play games. She would like everyone on Earth to play an hour a day of something. She includes even playing a word game on your phone while on the bus, so this isn't all about sweating bullets in Starcraft matches, or whatever. Ok, but why should people play an hour a day?

A Waste of Time

What follows was painful and boring. There was some promise in the initial part of the answer to the above question. The answer is that gaming brings about all sorts of positive emotions. She then listed the 10 positive emotions that gaming has been shown to elicit, from gaming research. Joy, awe, wonder, love, satisfaction, and so on. At this point I would have expected some sort of support for this, like some examples so we know what she's talking about. Instead, a lot of time was spent on this terrible "massively multiplayer thumb wrestling game," involving the entire audience joining hands with three hands at each node (not just two) for a simultaneous thumb wrestling thing. A lot of build up, and explaining, and justifying, and bits of business about how everyone needs to get into position, and about the previous world champion (who was there, also he lost btw), and how this was the largest one of these she had done before and it involved people on three different levels of the building, connected by people in stairways, and so on and so forth.

Seriously what the fuck? It was all the emptiness and lack of substance I had come to expect, materialized right in front of me. Why did we all waste our time doing this? Because it gave us an opportunity to experience all 10 positive emotions at once, she said. Actually, the emotions I experienced were frustration, contempt, and antagonism. How about communicating real information to us instead?

Other Bad Stuff

I'd like to mention two things out of chronological order, then go back to the main timeline. Somewhere in the middle of the presentation Dr. McGonigal mentioned some research about the negative feelings people experience in cooperative games compared to competitive games, and in games where the other players are your friends compared to when they are strangers. The most negative is losing in competitive games against strangers. I am aware of this research and I think the small part of the overall story it shows is very true. It was disappointing to see Dr. McGonigal then conclude that "cooperative games are the BEST games." Not like, the best along that particular dimension, just the best. I think this sweeping dismissal of competitive games does a great injustice to the amazing wealth of personal growth that you can experience from them. And of course opening your world of opponents up to everyone, and not just your small circle of friends, has many positive properties as well. I actually think Jane would completely agree with this stuff if she had thought about it for two seconds before making that comment. So I will cut her some slack on that one.

Let's jump to the end, where members of the audience were allowed to ask questions. The worst question by far was, "Because games are designed to be solved, don't they do a poor job of preparing people for real-world situations that are difficult or impossible to solve?" This sentence is just for dramatic pause, so you can let that question sink in a little. Because games are designed to be solved. What??

Actually one of the most important design considerations of any competitive game is fighting against solvability. Competitive games are meant to be played thousands of times by players so devoted that they spend more time analyzing and trying to break the system than some people spend on full-time jobs. If there is one optimal way to play and a player can do that, then there really isn't any game anymore. The question's premise is completely backwards, and anyone who has played several competitive games with any kind of seriousness is actually *more* prepared to deal with real-life situations that are difficult or impossible to solve than someone who hasn't. I'm reminded of the article on Starcraft 2 player research that mentioned the top players are possibly better suited to handling real-life crisis situations involving allocating resources like food, police, medical workers, etc than non-gamers in those positions. Dr. McGonigal did answer this in the right ballpark, citing that you don't "solve" tertris, it's like a never-ending challenge. Yes, though the same applies to the entire set of competitive games.

Jane's Redemption

Once Jane got to talk about her actual work, things really picked up. I think there's a common thread to her philosophies, and it's one that's very easy to misunderstand. It's worth understanding. We'll come back to that.

She talked about a project to bring awareness to the peak oil problem. Peak oil means the point at which the rate we extract oil from the ground finally turns the corner and declines rather than increases. If demand for oil continues to increase, but the rate of extraction *decreases*, then it's a recipe for global disaster. What we really need to do is to decrease our demand for oil. Jane's point is that at first glance, that doesn't really sound fun. I mean if you cared about this, what would you even do? Probably give up on it being too big of a problem and go do something else. But games are ENGAGING. This is a trend in much of what she says. ENGAGING people is a powerful tool that can be used for the forces of good. It can be used, for example, to get people to care about oil dependency.

So her project engaged people by making a game out of the situation. It described a future world where the price of oil was much higher, and posed the challenge to everyone of "how could you survive without oil?" By framing it this way, it becomes a challenge to solve. What would you even do to survive, I mean think about it. You couldn't rely on trucks delivering food to your grocery store, so you'd have to consider locally grown food instead. Maybe have a garden too, if possible. School busses also use gas, so that's a problem. Maybe more people would consider home schooling. Driving to work seems really wasteful when a lot of office jobs could be done remotely. "How would you have NASCAR races?" she asked. We laughed but she told us the NASCAR group was actually one of the biggest and most active groups of the whole project.

I'm not exactly sure how the rules of this worked, or how the specifics went, but I get that the broad strokes involved framing the challenge as a game, and that that got a huge number of people involved and engaged. She said we should look up the results of all this ourselves, but that she'll tell us that the actual price of oil in the real world really did reach the price in the fictional world from the game several years ago. She says the players' solutions were eerily similar to what actually happened later in the real world, right down to predicting the bursting of the housing bubble in the real estate market.


Next, she told us about a library that wanted to get more people to come to the library and care about it. To me, it was actually this example where Jane earned her stripes, in my eyes. She asked rhetorically what would you? We need to *gamify* it, right? Like give points for checking out books, and more points if you read books in several different categories. Except that's really superficial and lame. You shouldn't just randomly tack on game elements to something to make it exciting, you should think about it at a much more core level.

"What is the fantasy of a library? What is the most epic win you could have?" she asked.

Her answer was that being an author is exciting. It's engaging. It's an epic win. How can we let people be authors? How can we let them have their work *in* that library? She made this into a game, where the players showed up to the library and were locked in (literally) overnight with the rule of "no one leaves until you write a book." The library had 10,000 applicants, of which 500 were accepted and attended this event. "The library people were beside themselves. They couldn't get 10 kids to show up, much less 10,000 to care," she told us.

So how do people write a book, exactly? Jane talked about the Declaration of Independence, and how Thomas Jefferson was still editing it at the last minute, and crossed out the part about slavery on the advice that it was too controversial. The point is that she was trying to tell people that a document that important was written by a real person, a real human being who has anxieties and time pressure, and who did his best anyway. She invited each student to write a declaration of sorts, a manifesto of was important to them. At any point during the event, someone could stand on a table and yell out their writing to everyone, and then they had to get 56 signatures, the same number of signatures on the actual Declaration of Independence. If they could get those signatures, then their declaration went into the book.

One guy was trained in medieval bookbinding and spent all night sewing the pages together, creating a beautiful, leather-bound, real physical book. Over 100 manifestos did get the required number of signatures, the book was finished (the binding, too), and the "prisoners" were released. They did it.

The reward for this epic win is that they were all authors. Their names all appeared in that book, and in the library's card catalog. The library decided to keep the book itself in the rare books section, along with other one-of-a-kind treasures. This portion of the library is usually limited access, but there's unlimited access to authors whose books are there, and their guests. So these "players" also got the bonus of being able to take friends to the library to show off their book without needing the usual signup to get to the rare books section. Let me just repeat part of that sentence: "take friends to the library." Well-played Jane, well-played.


Another project she spoke about was spurring entrepreneurship in Africa. Africa has serious problems, and if anyone can cause more people to care about solving those problems and get them to take action, then it's real victory with meaning past the kind of victory you get inside a game.

Now, I couldn't quite follow the workings of this particular example. (Suggestion: cut the bullshit thumb wrestling section and spend more time explaining real things like this.) Her concept here started kind of the same way as the library project, I think. "What's the fantasy? What's the epic win?" Her answer was to create a fiction of future world where the problems of Africa had spread to the rest of the entire world. Power grid failures in Japan. Famine in Brazil. Disease in the US, and so on. In this fictional world, Africa had been faced with these problems far longer than the rest of the world, and so Africa was where everyone looked for solutions. The players were, in some sense of the term, super heroes. They consulted for the various nations of the world, giving African-developed solutions to the various problems that other countries were suffering from.

Like I said, I don't know how that high concept translates to the actual mechanics of the game, but somewhere in there, hundreds or thousands of startup business ideas were generated, and 50 of them became actual real startup businesses in Africa.


She told us about the project at about protein folding. Proteins have rules about how they fold, and figuring out how to make various things out of those proteins is like a game, in a way. The project makes it literally into a game, and teaches people how to get better at protien folding. 97% of players have no formal background in biology. She said the point of the project was to see how good gamers were at solving protein folding problems compared to super computers. Gamers are very good at solving problems, especially spatial intelligence problems. It turns out, the gamers are better than the super computers.

Then they decided to give the players a particular protein folding problem that's unsolved in science, and it has to do with inhibiting the spread of HIV in the body. This problem was unsolved by scientists in 10 years, and it was solved by gamers in 10 days.


Jane told us about a time in her life when she suffered from some sort of injury or operation or something. She said she was extremely depressed, and physically and mentally unable to work for like 3 months. She was just in bed all the time. It occurred to her that the whole point of her research is to use the power of gaming to effect change, especially through positive emotions. So shouldn't she be able to help herself with this somehow? I'm not clear on the exact nature of her injury, but she said that she had to avoid certain types of things, and those involved coffee and playing games, lol. Something about the stress to the brain being a bit more than she could physically handle at the time.

Anyway her solution was to get some friends to give her "daily quests." She had them call once a day or something and she would do their quests. I think one was to sit by the window and enjoy the view for a while, instead of sitting in bed. Or to make sure to cuddle her dog enough that day. She said these quests really helped her break the cycle of depression and that she compiled all this and made it available to other people who are suffering from depression and who need some help.


Back to engaging the player, Jane said that the generation growing up now knows what real engagement is. By they time they graduate high school, they have done on average 10,000 hours of game playing. With perfect attendance in junior high and high school, they have only slightly more hours than that in the class room, and that it's clear which they prefer. In other words, after so much experience with legitimately engaging activities, the traditional classroom approach is passive, boring, and ineffective.

Jane told us about how some research has shown that you learn more from taking a test than by studying from it. I immediately understood that from all my experience with game competitions. Many times I have practiced some thing for hours and hours, only to find that when it came time for the real competition, that that thing really didn't matter much. It was all about some *other* thing that made me lose. And as a designer, this happens often when balancing games. Right now I'm working on balancing the next version of Puzzle Strike, and there can be a lot of debate about whether some particular ability will be too good or not. That's like "studying." Then it gets implemented online and tried, and that's closer to the "test." Actually even *that* is sort of more like studying because people play the new thing against their two friends or something and report back that it's too good or weak or something, but we *really* know what's what from a tournament. When we have a tournament, everyone learns something for real. They learn about what they lost to.

Back to Dr. McGonigal's point, taking a test over and over is actually closer to what playing a game is like than the more usual method of getting just one shot. She quoted some statistic that in some study, they found that 80% of the time players spent playing games (certain ones in the study, maybe?) was spent failing. Gamers fail and fail and they keep trying until they get it. Why can't you keep trying at a test until you get it right?

There's a school somewhere (New York I think?) that incorporates gaming elements into the curriculum. The end of a semester has a "boss battle" where everyone has to team up to defeat that boss. For example, maybe that boss (meaning, a hard task) is to produce and launch a small rocket. Everyone contributes, even though everyone does so in different ways. Some people are involved in the physical construction of it, or the design of it, or the fuel computations, or the documenting of the process, etc. She didn't say World of Warcraft raid out loud, but I think she might as well have.

This school also allows students to take a test any number of times. Take it and get a C, no big deal. Take it again and again and again until you get an A. Now, I'm sure they have to do something to avoid gaming that system (if it's multiple choice, it should probably be slight variations of the questions each time), but the high concept of it makes sense. If the point is to learn the material and that taking tests exposes what you don't know and helps you zero in on your weakness so you can correct them, then it sort of makes sense to be able to take tests over and over. You play levels in games over and over to get good at them too.


Jane coined a term she calls "gameful." It's because she was tired of being called "playful." She says people tell her "oh you must be so playful, you like games!" She took a personality trait inventory that rated 24 different personality strengths and "playful" was literally dead last. Jane is not playful. According to Jane, "Oh let's just do whatever! Hey let's make up our rules and who really cares what happens!" is possibly a playful thing to say. But it's not a gamer thing to say. Gamers are focused, often to the point of being kind of OCD. Gamers care about doing things right, and practicing, and mastering. They care about achieving. So she prefers some word other that playful to describe that concept.


Jane sees games as obstacles you choose to overcome. Getting to the end of Portal is a series of puzzles and dexterity challenges. Becoming good at Starcraft has an enromous number of challenges associated, and we do it volutnarily. The real world has many obstacles too, so why is it that one kind feels fun and the other kind feels stressful? She says that when stress is externally imposed--it comes from factors out of our control--it feels terrible. When we choose to take on stress voluntarily (for example, by choosing to play a game), that it feels fun.


While leaderboards are a common way to add a game element to something, Dr. McGonigal said that it's a motivator to men and a demotivator to women. Women (most women, she says, not all women) don't want to be subjected to social comparison. Having leaderboards is a great idea for your male-focused game if you don't care about women, she says. Women are motivated more by beating their personal bests.


Earlier she mentioned that competitive games amongst strangers generate more negative emotions than any other kind. They also generate generally terrible forum discussion. She worked with Activision at some point said that the Call of Duty forums were full of all the hostility and general hate that you would expect. Then they tried a new thing. There's some system where players are able to mentor each other, and this resulted in a radically different type of forum discussion. Once players were empowered to help each other (exactly how? I'm not sure) they had some kind of investment in others doing well. They felt "part of something bigger than themselves." The Activision executives said, "It's so weird. Have you seen the forums? People are so NICE!"

(Note: how about some sort similar system for our games here? Yomi mentoring league, etc.)


The last question from the audience was an appropriate closing for the evening, and for my post as well. The gentleman, who coincidentally worked for Jane's interviewer 20 years ago, explained that his new company is in the field of "gamifying" things and that there's a backlash over it. How can he explain to investors or whoever why it's ok?

Jane retorted "and rightly so" to the backlash over things being gamified. She explained that what's happening a lot is using game elements in a purely manipulative way to get people to do things they don't want to do. Get them to click some button you need clicked on the web, get them to pay you more for no real value, get them to play more, even when it's purely a trick that taps into their brain's wiring that they can't control, basically exploitative. But that's not what it has to be about, she explained. "Gamifying" something can be about creating real value. It can be about finding a way to get people involved in something they care about. It can legitimately engage them and improve their well-being though positive emotions and mastery of skills. Games can help prepare people for real life challenges, or even contribute to solving real life problems. And *that* is the common thread that runs throughout Jane's philosophies. That game mechanics can be a tool to empower and enrich, not just to exploit and manipulate.

Jane McGonigal is the anti-Zynga.

Reader Comments (13)

Thank you very much for an excellent writeup!

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterUlf

I can't stop trying to imagine you playing that thumb wrestling thing.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristoph

Sorry for the double post; I noticed in Jane's book, "Reality is Broken", that she does get around to saying something about competitive gaming. I'll share her quote in full, with italics set off by underscores:

"To compete _against_ someone still requires coming together _with them_: to strive toward the same goal, to push each other to do better, and to participate wholeheartedly in seeing the competition through to completion."

So in a sense, for her, a good competitive game (Street Fighter, Starcraft, Yomi, etc) is ultimately a cooperative game, since players are working together to create the experience.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBardicKnowledge

Thank you for sharing this. Excellent read.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFalke

A really great read, thanks as always. :)

The intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation point is where I thought this would head next, so the final paragraph is especially leading for that.

The "Because games are designed to be solved. What??" point strikes me as yet another direct problem of the changing nature of the word "game" due to videogames. What once generally always implied competition & challenge, now often doesn't.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

The part about how kids spend more time playing games than in school makes me laugh my ass off. Yeah, that's true, but that doesn't mean running school through some great gamification is going to do anything. Did anyone actually think that Math Blaster was fun?

The gamification folks seem to be unable to understand that while, yes, I play games and enjoy them, that, no, turning chores into games won't make them more fun. "Edutainment" games were never fun, and as a gamer, the reason I'm able to have fun with games is because I get to choose what I play; if I was forced to spend my gaming time on Mario Teaches Typing or Mario is Missing (he sure has been in a lot of "edutainment" titles), or, for a non-educational example, if I was forced to spend it on CoD4 or Halo, then you could bet that I'd quickly start resenting my gaming time much more than I resent going to work every day, or as much as I resented going to school every day as a kid.

February 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterObscura

That's bad logic though, and a strawman argument. I don't think anyone anywhere claimed Math Blaster is an answer? It seems clear that games are more engaging than the passive model of the classroom, so of course incorporating some of those things we've learned could make teaching / learning more effective. What a precarious and strange stance to argue that the old model of teaching is the best, period.

February 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Ok, this concept is much better than what I was seeing her talk about in TED, which might be the most worthless thing ever said. It is indeed, much better to view everything as a game, as a challenge to overcome. You lose resentment, you tend to affirm everything, and it is just a much healthier mindset overall.

February 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterinfernovia

I agree with Obscura. All approaches to gamify school completely failed. Classes are boring slow already and as soon as teachers start to do some non-frontal lesson it gets unbearable. (Just like you dislike the thumb-wrestling thing)

BUT I strongly agree with the approach of making multiple-tests. I enjoy writing an exam. I enjoy the pressure that drives me to a level I never experienced during all the hours learning for it and I definitely remember the hard questions and answers I did in exams 3-4 years ago.
The hard part is building up this pressure and preventing it from getting too much. Like if I could do an exam several times like she suggests I'd not care at all. I could just write it 5 times in a row and let the best result count ... no pressure involved. If I had to take a test every week and all tests count in some way it could end up in too much pressure (worst test counts for example would break people). Maybe something like the median would be fine, you'd have to be good consistently but slipping every now and then wouldn't be a problem.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeartes

Hey David,

I was at PAX East last year when Jane gave a similar talk during the Keynote, and the injury she was referring to was a Concussion. Concussions can cause routine things (reading/writing/gaming) to cause headaches. Depression actively impedes the healing process and so she got into a cycle of depression where her concision wouldn't heal, which made her more depressed (because she couldn't do anything that required focus), which impeded the healing process further. That's what I recall anyway.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBridger

Wow, long right up. You've got a few good points here, but I think you've missed more than you hit. For example, there was entirely a point behind the thumb wrestling experiment - aside from my getting to be on stage :D - and it was to serve as an example of fundamental elements of play as used in generating engagement, attention, and energy. You didn't appreciate it, but you did it didn't you? And deep down, you were smiling to yourself.

I would suggest that you lot read her book, or one of the hundreds of others put out by equally impressive minds. Gee for example.

I currently teach Gamification at UW, and I can say that, when applied correctly, even something as silly as a thumb wrestling challenge (which I had my students do btw) can be inspirational and informative. But the person leading the 'fun' has to have a solid grasp on the theories and more than anything else, isn't so stuck in what was or "should be" that they can't see what could be.

As for Math Blaster etc. No, no one thought that was fun. Because it wasn't. But you can't blame the game, or gamification in general, for a given teams poor execution (especially given when MB came out). There are some great educational games out there now, and in the case of my class, there are plenty of off the shelf games (whose "fun" level is driven by massive corporate profits... say what you will but it's effective) that have educational value if played in a correctly mediated environment.

All in all I thought her talk was at least the most interesting of the conference. It made people smile, which is not something many of the other speakers can clam. Most were too busy shouting "education is failing!" to think beyond the problem.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Peril

Dr. Peril, what is the point of your post? Let's coverer each of your five paragraphs.

Paragraph 1: thumb wrestling. No I didn't think it was good deep down. I told you exactly what I thought, and it was an offensive, content-less waste of my time. Instead of conveying any real information, it was just fluff that communicated nothing. I told you the emotions I felt during it, and I think contempt was justified. I am well aware of the various positive emotions gaming can produce, the work of Nicole Lazzaro, etc, and telling us something about that would go much further than hand waving it with thumb wrestling.

Also, you said I "missed more than I hit." I think it hit it all pretty fucking on the head. You list a grand total of one disagreement and it's the thumb wrestling, so this is like some vague disapproval where we are left with no idea what you think is hit or missed.

Paragraph 2: "I would suggest that you lot read her book, or one of the hundreds of others put out by equally impressive minds. Gee for example." This is incredibly condescending on your part. So you felt the need to sneak in some insulting line?

Paragraph 3: You teach gamification. Most gamification is the evil terrible kind, like whatever Zynga would do. We'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you're more what Dr. McGongal would do. This paragraph doesn't explain anything about what is hit missed in my post, still.

Paragraph 4: Math Blaster. I assume that isn't to me. I already get this, so you must be responding to one of the commenters.

Paragraph 5: you like smiling. Yeah me too. Also nothing to support your initial claim of more missed than hit.

So you TEACH gamification and in all those words of your post, the only thing you really added to the discussion is your approval that people smiled, your defense of the bullshit thumb wrestling, and vague disapproval of my points with no explanation on what that is.

February 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Yes Dr.Peril. Kindly shut the fuck up.

Great post, Sirlin. As always.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKage
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