On today’s episode, I welcome back game designer, Jane McGonigal. She’s a best-selling author and director of game research and development at Institute for the Future, a non-profit think tank that helps people prepare for the future. Last week we talked about what she calls ‘gamefulness’ — the optimistic, pragmatic attitude we have when we’re engaged in a game. But we didn’t manage to get to the topic I was most eager to talk about: her work creating games to help us prepare for and predict the future.
MCGONIGAL: We are all experts on our own values, our needs, what we would likely do in a hypothetical situation — we can predict that better than an expert would predict.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
So, today, we dive into that and more. And don’t worry, if you haven’t listened to part one of our conversation, the order doesn’t matter. The two conversations stand alone.
LEVITT: So, you’ve gotten a ton of press around some simulations you’ve done that mirrored future disasters. The best known one was a game that you ran back in 2008 involving thousands of people in which they faced a global pandemic. Could you just give me an example of a future game. And what would it look like if I came to one of your seminars?
MCGONIGAL: Well, most of these simulations are played online. They do not take place in a 3D virtual world. They don’t look like you’re in a video game. They look like a social network. So, we create these private community spaces that might look like you’re on Twitter or you’re on Facebook or you’re on Discord. But the weird thing is that all of the news stories that are on the social network are from 10 years in the future. And they’re describing future events that are hypothetical, fictional, and you’re being asked to post your own stories and updates and photographs and videos about what you’re seeing and doing and feeling and what you need in this hypothetical future. So, it’s like a massive collaborative storytelling effort where you might have a thousand or 10,000 or 20,000 people hanging out on this social network from the future, everybody giving their own little perspective, their own personal wisdom on what they would do in this future.
And we might ask everybody who’s gathered in the simulation to consider the same question, like, “You’ve been told by a health agency that you need to isolate. You need to quarantine for two weeks. Under what circumstances would you violate this instruction? What are you going out for, even though they said, ‘You’re possibly contagious, stay home’?” And people would tell stories. “I went to church because this is the most important community to me. And I’m not going to stop worshiping just because of this potential risk.” Or people would talk about going to weddings. And then, “I don’t care what they say. This is the most important day in my daughter’s life.” We are all experts on our own values, our needs, what we would likely do in a hypothetical situation. We can predict that better than an expert. And then we can look for patterns. We can talk about imagining the super-spreading events in this fictional pandemic, as we did in 2008, which turned out to be quite similar to what we saw in reality, when a real pandemic hit.
LEVITT: Can I make a confession around that? Which is, that’s how I first heard about you. And only reading the headlines and not bothering to read the articles, I immediately formed an incredibly negative opinion towards you. I find it so annoying when people make a bunch of predictions about the future. And when one of them happens to come true, they brag about it for the rest of their lives. And so, when I finally took the time to open your new book, Imaginable, I braced myself for all sorts of self-congratulatory celebration of how brilliantly you had foreseen the future. And I was shocked, that indeed, you did exactly the opposite. In the book you write something like, “How do we predict the future? Well, because it was obvious. Because the experts have been warning us for years of pandemics and the clues were all over the place if you just looked for them.” Like, I was won over at that point.
MCGONIGAL: Hm. What I’m interested in is why we refuse to think about challenges that we almost certainly will face in the future, or why we refuse to imagine, seriously, crises or disruptions that experts are very confident we will actually have to live through and adapt to. There’s this failure to imagine that is very interesting to me because if we gave ourselves time and space to think, “How would I adapt if I had to live through a pandemic? How would I help others, if there’s a mass climate-migration event?” If we give ourselves a little bit of extra time — give ourselves the opportunity to think about it before we’re neck-high in crisis and we have to act now — use the advantage of all of this time spaciousness to have a more gameful reaction to the obstacles. Let me consider multiple strategies. Let me think about who I would ask for help or how I could offer help to others. Let me think about my unique skills and strengths and abilities and how they might be able to help me rise to this occasion, like, do something important in a future challenge.
When the challenge is not actually happening — when the crisis is not actually unfolding — that’s the perfect time to prepare ourselves mentally and to think more creatively and effectively. And I guess maybe I’m a sucker for an apocalyptic scenario because of my experience with video games. Most of the games that we love to play are set in some reality where really strange things have happened or really terrible, dystopian phenomenon are unfolding and we’re like, “O.K., let me go live in that post-nuclear wasteland and see how I can survive and help.” We’re totally willing to do that. But would we be willing to imagine how we might need to adapt or react in the wake of an actual nuclear attack? I mean, people would say, “No, no, thank you. I’m not going to think about it. It’s out of my control. Nothing I could do.”
My professional interest is figuring out: what are the scenarios that experts think are highly likely to unfold? We really should get ready. And then how do I make it feel psychologically safe? And more than that, interesting, empowering, even fun to think about now, so that we can build our skills and strength for whatever we might face in the future. But it’s not about being right, being smarter than everybody else, knowing what’s coming so that you can have an advantage. It’s really thinking about, why do we keep our heads in the sand when it’s so obvious what’s coming — see climate change — and what can we do to make it easier for people to imagine what we otherwise say, “Ugh, I can’t even imagine that.” Or “I don’t want to imagine it.”
LEVITT: So, the way you just described it, you want people to have imagined in a thoughtful way, a pandemic, because then when the real pandemic comes, there’ll be more psychologically prepared for it. But I’ve always thought of scenario planning as being about, well, if we know a pandemic is coming, then we will take these 17 steps as a person or as a business to invest in this, or to stock up this in the basement. It sounds like you’re really focused not on the practical investment side of what would you do in terms of infrastructure or a generator. Is the psychological piece the part that’s most interesting to you?
MCGONIGAL: What I’m interested in is helping people essentially unstick their minds and accept that radical change is possible or that radical disruption is possible. And then whatever we face, we are going to be less rigid, less stuck in old ways of doing things. And, when we were imagining pandemics, part of it was about getting ready for an actual pandemic, but part of it was just an invitation to consider: what if some outside force changed what was possible? We’ve imagined oil crises. We’ve imagined government-mandated internet shut downs. It’s really about increasing our mental flexibility, our willingness to adapt, and just, have that mental fortitude that allows us to acknowledge that things may need to change. And in doing so, we developed the capacity to also imagine that we could change things for the better, because we just want things to be better. We want more economic security for all. We want to tackle racial injustice. We want to really take significant climate action.
LEVITT: So, essentially, what you’re saying is that there’s a mindset, which is maybe in the same spirit as being gameful, which if people think about future catastrophes, they develop a toolkit, an attitude which you’re arguing will make them not just better at dealing with some specific future catastrophe they thought about, but it makes them better at life. Is that a summary of what you’re arguing?
MCGONIGAL: Yes, that’s exactly right. And I think people have a lived experience of this for the most part, having gone through this real-world pandemic, seeing how quickly things changed. Borders shutting down, work going virtual, school is now remote. Big, big changes that we would have described as impossible before they happened. Can we give ourselves permission now to make massive change, not just in reaction to a crisis that we didn’t ask for, but make massive change because we think it would be better for all. And to me, that sort of gets to the idea of post-traumatic growth, right? Like what can we bring out of this collective trauma that we’ve all lived through and try to use it as a springboard for something better?
LEVITT: So, Jane, one thing you mentioned is that you set these scenarios 10 years in the future. Is there a reason why you put them in the distant future instead of next week or next year?
MCGONIGAL: I set the scenario 10 years in the future so people will suspend their disbelief and really immerse themselves in the possibility. If you ask somebody to imagine something really radical and disruptive happening tomorrow, or next week, or next year, our brain’s normalcy bias — it tends to make it harder for people to really accept that is possible. But when we stretch the timeline out further, 10 years seems to be this kind of lucky number — this magic number. It feels just unknowable enough, just uncertain enough, that people are willing to consider a much wider range of scenarios that they might encounter.
LEVITT: As I try to think of myself in 10 years, it’s kind of like that person is a stranger. And, that’s the point in some sense. Is it easier to think about things happening to strangers than it is to happening to yourself?
MCGONIGAL: That’s a very good insight, actually, because we do know that there’s a weird kind of brain glitch where when we imagine ourselves 10 years from now, our brain reacts like we’re thinking about either a stranger or just somebody we really don’t like, because we feel like we have nothing in common with them. Which, in some circumstances, it leads to choices that may not be the best in the long run. We’re less likely to save for long-term goals because it feels like we’re giving money to a stranger. We might prioritize things that are fun or feel good today over things that will help us be healthy later in life. So, it’s not always a good thing that our future selves feel like strangers, but I think you are right, that when it comes to imagining difficult futures, maybe that’s just an extra layer of psychological security in the same way that playing a video game with an avatar — we’re not ourselves, we’re this character — maybe it does feel a little bit like we’re playing in this alter ego.
Even though we always do ask people to try to think of who you are, what you are likely to need, what you are likely to feel, so that we can get that personal expertise that allows it to be meaningful for the participant and also potentially useful data for us as researchers. This was the breakthrough moment in my career as a futurist, as a simulation designer, seeing that people were able to accurately predict things that experts did not predict or feel it was necessary to prepare for because they weren’t as in touch with just the everyday needs, values, irrational choices of ordinary people. So, on one hand, these simulations are great for just improving the mindsets and creativity and flexibility of the people who participate. But on another level, they may give us insight into social behaviors, social consequences that we haven’t always seen a lot of investment in understanding.
LEVITT: When I first tried to envision what you were doing, when you talked about these future scenarios, I imagined all sorts of algorithms and stages where something happened. I’m dating myself, but like a game like Oregon Trail or SIM City where some genius Wizard of Oz type behind the screen was turning dials and trying to extract behavior, which I’m always highly suspicious of because — how does Jane know what the truth is? But what really won me over to the power of what you’re doing is that it’s so simple. All you really do is you lay out a new world in which one finds oneself, and then ask a person to imagine how they’d respond. It never would have occurred to me that something so simple and obvious could be powerful.
MCGONIGAL: Thank you for saying that. I used to rage against the machine, so to speak, like literally the machine. People would say they were going to create simulations that would teach us about climate change or teach us about pandemics, but they were essentially these little black boxes where some game designer came up with their theory of change or their theory of impact, and then players would come and they were supposed to learn. “Oh, these are the consequences. If I do this, I’ll die,” like Oregon Trail. And to me, the idea that one game designer would know what the future holds is absurd and not useful or interesting at all. What’s interesting about games is that every player brings their own perspective, their own strategies, their own skills, and you never know what will happen until people show up to play.
So, when we think about the future of climate migration, instead of me creating a computer simulation where if 1 billion people need to move and this many countries open their borders and we try to come up with some result — what to me is interesting is saying, “If there were economic support for migration, would you move?“ “Which of these extreme climate events would motivate you to move?” “Which ones would you try to live through? You would try to adapt to extreme heat? Are you going to try to adapt to instability of the power grid?” If there is extreme climate change, how open are people going to be to refugees, to migrants? Are they going to behave the way we saw Poland behave with admitting refugees from Ukraine during this war? Or are they going to be like Americans trying to keep people out at the border with Mexico? Can we get a better sense of our potential willingness to welcome others and what might make people feel more welcoming? That’s the scenario topic that I’m really interested in simulating now, much as we simulated pandemics in 2008 and 2010.
LEVITT: An issue that I find really troubling is when the oceans rise then many people — especially in developing nations — will be displaced. And almost for sure, the way it’s going to happen is over time, there’ll be increasingly high tides, there’ll be loss of property and the way of life and the fields will be covered in salt. And it’ll be incredibly traumatic. And by the time people move, they’ll be refugees. And it seems to me, we have time and there’s something totally obvious that we should be doing, which is we should be finding ways to move communities collectively ahead of time before the disaster hits. And yet, I have not been able to engage anybody on a serious discussion of how you could begin to think about that, admittedly, very hard problem of how you convince an entire community to get up and leave and maybe stay together or maybe split apart, but to at least give them the options of doing that. Does that feel like the kind of problem where a game could be helpful?
MCGONIGAL: Absolutely. I mean, that’s my obsession right now. I want to spin up so many climate migration games and simulations. One would be just thinking through the systemic or structural issues that we would need to tackle to make it possible to move entire communities. What does economic support need to look like? What laws need to be in place? Where are people moving? There are efforts to move people internally, right? So, you can be internally displaced through climate change. Also, you may need to move across borders. This is the kind of problem where we do have enough time now to think about if we don’t want a mass migration across borders, what kinds of financial support or global development should we be investing in now, so that there isn’t a refugee crisis that becomes an immigration crisis. It’s the same way that a virus doesn’t stay behind borders, right? If you don’t help communities become climate resilient where they are, then they’re going to come to where you are climate resilient.
Even just like playing with possibilities and laying them out, so that we can debate and discuss them now, before they’ve been overly politicized, before there’s tribal positions on them and we hate each other for having a different point of view. I also think in Imaginable, the big scenario at the end of the book is really just thinking about how do we increase our capacity to be welcoming of others. And I think that is a skill we need to practice and develop, for sure. The reality, every expert will agree, is that people are going to be on the move more than in any other point in human history. It will be the biggest mass migration event, and we are going to have to be ready for it and not hate other people. And not feel anxious or insecure or competitive. There has to be a new mindset that we practice and develop so that we don’t unduly suffer or harm others as the planet tries to work out where will it feel good to live? Where will it be safe to live in the next, you know, 50 years?
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Jane McGonigal. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about why Jane’s still an optimist.
* * *
LEVEY: Hey, Steve. So, our listener Caleb wrote in. He regularly donates plasma. Now he gets compensated, so Caleb wants to know: Would it make sense to allow people to be financially compensated for other things the body produces, such as blood or even bone marrow or organs, which can be safely donated? I bring this up because you talked about this in a past episode with Yul Kwon, who works at Google and is a former winner of the T.V. show Survivor. He is also an advocate for bone marrow donation. And you two talked about being dissatisfied with the act of donating organs and plasma. Do you remember that conversation?
LEVITT: Of course. Of course, I do. This is a question I feel extremely strongly about, and I believe wholeheartedly that we should have a market for organs. Let’s just take kidneys. There are thousands of people dying every year, because there are not enough kidneys to go to people who need these kidneys. O.K. And they’re on waitlists and they’re suffering under dialysis. When we have a simple solution, which would be to open up a market for kidneys. Now people flip when you say that. They become so upset and they think it’s morally reprehensible. But let me just try to clarify something where I think people get it wrong. What people worry about with the market is that now there’ll be low-income people who, because of financial coercion, will end up selling their kidneys really cheaply, and there’ll be exploited by the market.
But here’s the thing, the value of a kidney to a recipient and to society it’s astronomical, right? Because we spent so much on dialysis and it’s so much suffering associated with it that, you easily, as a society, could justify paying a donor something like $250,000 for a kidney. Now, if you offered a market price of $250,000 per kidney, do you know how many Americans would sign up for that? Like half of Americans would say, “Well, for $250,000, I would give you my kidney.” So, I think this idea that by creating a market, you lead to exploitation is just misguided. It’s just, you got to set the right price. And because kidneys are so valuable, we can afford to set a high price. In which case, for me, almost all of the moral implications, all of the ethical implications, they just fall away. And I really think we just haven’t thought about the problem right.
LEVEY: I mean, people already get paid for sperm or egg donations, correct?
LEVITT: Right. It’s a weird thing, which is not economics, but instead of morality. What I’ve never understood is how it can be virtuous to donate a kidney, but a crime to be compensated for giving a kidney. This is an interesting issue. because it’s one where every economist agrees that of course we should have a market for kidneys and virtually every non-economist thinks it’s crazy.
LEVEY: Caleb, thanks so much for writing in. If you have a question for us, our email address is email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
* * *
There’s one last thing I want to talk with Jane about. Something I find puzzling. If games are as powerful as she claims they are, why haven’t we found a way to make games more prominent in schools?
LEVITT: Let me ask you — in the last 50 years video game playing has exploded. I don’t know the facts, but I suspect teenagers must play 10 hours plus of video games per week, just as a rough estimate. And yet in the classroom, I think video games are still almost completely absent. What do you think explains those completely different trajectories?
MCGONIGAL: Well, it’s interesting. I have seven-year-old twin daughters and they are playing a lot of games in the course of their education already. So, that absence of games may be changing quickly. The tests that they take to assess their reading and their math — they’re not done on pencil and paper anymore. They’re done on tablets or interactive games that are used to assess their ability. That is certainly a technology that’s coming into the classroom more. What we’re really struggling with among older kids today is shaming of kids about the games that they play — that they are a distraction. They are an unwise use of time and energy. So, that when a kid is spending 20 hours a week playing Fortnite or whatever game they’ve built a community around, and they’ve developed a sense of positive identity around, there’s just a lot of shaming that goes on in schools, in families even. And for me, that’s the important thing to change.
We should instead be asking questions like: What’s the hardest thing that you’ve accomplished in this game? How did you do it? Tell me that story. Or, what does it take to be good at this game? I want to know all the skills, all the personality strengths, all of the characteristics that make somebody good at this game that you’re spending so much time getting good at. And just have these conversations that allow young people to really reflect on their own strengths and to feel validated by their community, by their friends and family, for the work that they’re putting into getting good at something. And we can validate that experience of putting time and effort and energy to develop skills and achieve goals.
LEVITT: I have a lot of radical ideas about higher education, but your radical ideas make mine look tame. What would higher education look like if you were in charge?
MCGONIGAL: Well, one of the scenarios that we play with at the Institute for the Future is what if we threw out traditional majors and people chose a global grand challenge instead? So, you’re not an English major or an economics major or bioengineering major, but you’re studying things like safe climates or gender equality or economic justice. Some global grand challenge where we’re trying to address the biggest problems of what it means to be human and to be on this planet. And all of your learning would be in service of whatever challenge that you chose. So, you could still take a class in economics or in literature or history, but you’re studying it through the lens of what are the skills that we’ll need, what are the ideas we’ll need to be able to tackle economic inequality or serious sustainability, whatever we’re trying to make better on this planet in the long term.
LEVITT: So, I’ll put on my educator hat. A bunch of professors will say, “I don’t know how to teach that. That’s not what I know. I like to teach my research.” And I do think it would take a lot of skill to make it good in the sense that I have, at the University of Chicago, really talented students who are trying to write senior theses. And honestly, they’re mostly really bad. And it’s surprisingly difficult for people to do anything that looks like original research. Now, partly it’s because they haven’t had much preparation. Partly it’s because they bite off more than they can chew. So, they can’t really say anything definitive, but I love the idea. So, I think that we do need a radical transformation. Let me ask you — have you ever thought about the equivalent of this in high school?
MCGONIGAL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The younger you can go the better. I think that high school is right for transformation because kids are so miserable and anxious and overworked. They’re not getting enough sleep, and they don’t feel like what they’re learning is meaningfully connected to what they want to do in life. And they’re so young and they have all this mental and physical energy, and we keep them trapped in these dumb classrooms where everyone learns basically the same thing. I am all for the formal education, as we know it, ending in eighth grade and then teenage learning is much more individualized. It’s much more connected to real-world challenges. It’s project-based. It’s community-based. But, just as a practical habit as a futurist, when do I think significant change or disruption is likely? It’s when there’s the most pain, and high school students are in such a tremendous amount of psychological pain and social pain and physical pain that it seems more unimaginable to me that we would not dramatically change it than for it to be unimaginable that we would.
LEVITT: As I reflect on our conversation, one big difference between you and me is that you put a real premium on optimism. Are you just naturally cheery and optimistic? Or do you work at it because you feel like optimism is a trait that’s productive and helpful and necessary in life?
MCGONIGAL: Hm, it’s a very specific kind of optimism that I try to cultivate in people. I call it urgent optimism, which is not the kind of optimism bias where we feel like, oh, everything will be fine, so I don’t have to worry, or I don’t have to take action. Or we underestimate future risk or crisis. We think, ah, those bad things, like they might happen to other people. They’ll never happen to me. That’s an optimism bias. I am not a fan of optimism bias, but urgent optimism is the confidence that we can take actions that will change what happens next. And we can take positive actions that have a beneficial impact on whatever world we live in or whatever future we wake up in. And, as a game designer, this kind of urgent optimism is so important to the worlds and experiences that you create.
If somebody starts to play your game and they don’t perceive that there are actions they can take to change the world or strategies that they can try to improve their circumstances, they’ll just walk away and stop playing. And in society, I think we reach a crisis moment when people look around and say, “I can’t think of any actions that I could take that would actually make a difference,” or “I can’t imagine strategies that would really make my life better or make my community better.” We need to find ways to fuel the same kind of urgent optimism that we feel in games, where we know: “There are things I can do to win, or to get to that next level.” I’m just trying to help people look around the real world and feel that same urgent optimism about the real risks and crises that we are going to have to address now or in the future.
I’ve never heard the term ‘urgent optimism’ before, but I like it. It’s not the unfettered, unjustified optimism that you’ll find peddled in some self-help books. Rather, the way I interpret it, it’s the feeling that with hard work and creativity, we have the power to shape the world around us. As I think about the values I’m trying to instill in my children, I’d put that one right up at the top of the list along with kindness, curiosity, and joyfulness. But oddly, although it’s something I believe deeply in, until now I never had a name for it. I love it when my guests teach me things. For me, that’s what this podcast is all about. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.
* * *
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, Freakonomics M.D., and Off Leash. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
* * *
LEVITT: He’s a smart computer programmer. Like he’s not a lunatic.
- Jane McGonigal, game designer.
- Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today, by Jane McGonigal (2022).
- “Jane McGonigal Believes Games Can Change the World,” by Emily Bobrow (The Wall Street Journal, 2022).
- “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun,” by Abrahm Lustgarten (The New York Times, 2022).
- “‘I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends’: Posttraumatic Growth in the Covid-19 Pandemic,” by Emma-Louise Northfield, and Kim Louise Johnston (Traumatology, 2022).
- “Gaming to Learn,” by Amy Novotney (Monitor on Psychology, 2015).
- “Future Self-Continuity: How Conceptions of the Future Self Transform Intertemporal Choice,” by Hal E. Hershfield (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2013).