My guest today, Jane McGonigal is a game designer and bestselling author. She believes that games can be a powerful force for good, helping people to recover from injury, become their best selves, solve pressing social problems, and even predict the future.
MCGONIGAL: I was really the first person to put my hand up and say, “Well, I want to study how playing games changes our sense of who we are, what we’re capable of, and what challenges we feel called to help solve, not just in the game, but in our real lives.”
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
Jane McGonigal earned a Ph.D. from Berkeley in Performance Studies back in 2006. She was one of the first scholars to examine the social implications of computer games. Now, she’s the director of game research and development at Institute for the Future. She’s also the author of three books on the topic, the most recent of which is called Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything, Even Things that Seem Impossible Today. Now, I have to admit, when I first heard about Jane, I was extremely skeptical. I expected her to be a shallow self marketer, a hack. But people whose judgment I trust, told me to read her books with an open mind. And I was really surprised at the subtlety and originality in her arguments. She’s changed my thinking on games. I suspect we’re going to have a really fun conversation.
LEVITT: How do you feel about games? Because I’ve known two sets of people. There are people who play a lot of video games and there are people who despise the fact that other people play a lot of video games, but you’re in a totally different camp. What’s your worldview when it comes to games?
MCGONIGAL: When we play games of all kinds, we have an opportunity to tap into a very powerful mindset where we feel that we can learn new skills, experiment with strategies, take on the ridiculous goals, and allow ourselves to put our time and energy and attention toward doing something that is — by design — challenging, frustrating, and yet instills a sense of hope in us and curiosity about how we might achieve the goal.
LEVITT: I got a Ph.D. in economics roughly 25 years ago. And I spent a lot of time thinking about economics and applying economic tools. The goal was to get papers published and to get cited by other researchers and to be seen as clever and ultimately get tenure. And then I visited the University of Chicago economics department. And I was struck by the fact that things there were very different. The older faculty — they didn’t just study economics, they lived it. They believed so deeply in the tools of economics and the power of the market, that economic thinking dictated every action they took, every conversation they had. That nothing else was as important as economics. Now, as I’ve read your books and I’ve listened to your speeches, I get the sense that you view games the way Chicago economists viewed economics. Am I right? Is that the way you think about games? That they are the solution, essentially, to everything bad about the world?
MCGONIGAL: Hmm. They may not be the solution to everything bad in the world, but they are a solution to finding solutions. That when we play games, we can explore possibilities that we can then apply to our everyday lives.
LEVITT: When you use the word game, should I imagine video game or are you including things like poker and fantasy football and golf?
MCGONIGAL: Yeah, definitely including all forms of games. My favorite definition of a game comes from a philosopher, Bernard Suits, who said that a game is the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles. Golf is a great example. Your goal in golf is to get a small ball in a small hole. If you wanted to just achieve that in everyday life, if it were your job, you would walk right up to the hole, you would put it in, and that would be it. But because it’s a game, we agree to some really arbitrary and ridiculous constraints. Like we have to stand really far away from the hole. It’s a terribly inefficient way to try to solve the goal. And what’s great about these types of challenges is nobody’s good at them the first time they try. Who’s the first person who played golf? How bad were they at golf? And then over years and decades, and even centuries for some games, as more and more people play them, we develop our collective intelligence about the game and our collective skill. And yet there always seems to be somebody coming along with a new idea, a new approach. And then we discover a whole new kind of virtuosity. And in video games, there are people still playing games that we’ve had now for decades. And what does it look like when we’ve been playing a game like League of Legends for a hundred years? And how does that compare with the chess Grandmaster phenomenon?
LEVITT: Implicit in what you said is that video games differ from something like golf in the sense that the video games have been optimized by the designer to create the best possible experience. Whereas golf really hasn’t been optimized in that way. Golf evolved from a bunch of shepherds banging things around in the highlands of Scotland to something today, but it’s not optimized so that for moment to moment, the player gets the maximum dopamine or the greatest learning or gift from it. So, what does the research tell us about what makes video games so enjoyable for people?
MCGONIGAL: Hm. A lot of people like to think about, oh, it’s optimized to increase dopamine availability, so, we feel really motivated and that is a factor. But I think it’s more important to take a kind of holistic view of the range of positive emotions. Because it’s not just about excitement. Some people play to connect with others — if you’re playing Pokemon Go, it might be really important for you that you have opportunities to collaborate with people, not just to compete with them. Because you’re trying to have a positive emotion that you can share with others, right? And so, the game designers could optimize a collaborative form of the game. Now, think about golf. What would it be like if we had a million person golf game? And how could we each play a different role in bringing our unique strengths and abilities to some collective effort? So, game designers can use the fact that these games are on the internet and they’re connecting millions of people with different strengths and interests and abilities and amounts of time. They can design really complex experiences that allow people to essentially have an experience of gaming that we’ve never had before. If you go back and look at games throughout human history and human culture, the idea that we could play a game where everybody wins, and that there’s like a huge, epic goal that we want to achieve together — computer games, essentially, pioneered this idea of cooperative gaming. There’s the social aspects. There’s the pride that we get in developing new skills. The fact that if you’re bad at the game, there’s a community of people online who can walk you through the levels. The feeling like you’re a part of a community of teaching and learning. I mean, there’s so many things beyond just what’s happening on the screen that, for me, are much more important than just the code that goes into the game.
LEVITT: You’ve coined a term called “gameful.” What do you mean by that?
MCGONIGAL: Gameful is a state of mind or a way of reacting to obstacles or challenges that we encounter — could be in a game, could be in our everyday lives — and bringing a certain willingness to play and an acceptance that we might fail and need to try again. And not feel stuck in one way of doing things. I mean, all of the attitudes that we bring to a video game the first time we pick it up and we’ve no idea what we’re doing. We try different things, we ask others for help, we look for clues, we kind of investigate what’s possible. We have this openness to the experience — trying to bring all of those ways of thinking and feeling to maybe a wider range of experiences than just a video game. So, trying to learn a new skill, or a language, or it’s my first day on the job, or I’m rehabilitating from an injury. Nowadays, I’m particularly interested in bringing a gameful mindset to thinking about future challenges, adapting to things like the next pandemic or mass climate-migration events. If we have to really dramatically reinvent our lives again, the way we have over the past few years during the COVID-19 pandemic, can we bring that kind of flexibility, curiosity, openness to change, asking others for help — that kind of gameful mindset to preparing for and being able to adapt to future events.
LEVITT: What gets in the way of people being gameful in everyday life?
MCGONIGAL: I think we may have created overly punitive systems in a lot of areas of our lives that maybe don’t need to be so punitive. So, one area of life where I think we’ve artificially made failure something to fear is our education system. Kids take an examination and whatever grade they get, that’s what they get. If you think about a game where the focus is more on mastery and actually being able to achieve whatever it takes to get to the next level, you can play a level, you can take on a challenge as many times as you want until you get that three-star performance, or the perfect score. In school, I find it so strangely punitive that you should only be allowed one chance to try to demonstrate your skill or ability or knowledge. It’s so different from the real world where we’re always telling people, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Part of it is that we haven’t designed society as well as we’ve designed some games. And that’s really been a through line in a lot of my work trying to figure out: are there somewhat simple changes we could make? Like, allowing kids to take tests as many times as they want until they get the grade that they want? Can we make simple changes like that, that better tap into our natural ability to enjoy challenge, and to put ourselves in positions where we are constantly learning and improving and excited by the opportunity to try to do harder things, instead of feeling anxious about it.
LEVITT: So, part of it’s the stakes are lower in games, right? So, when you die in a game, you just start over. And when you die in real life, you don’t get to start over. And what you just said about education is you wanted to make education lower stakes? Is that a fair way to interpret what you said?
MCGONIGAL: I mean, stakes is an interesting term because it’s more about providing a learning environment where you really are supported in learning, which often requires the ability to make multiple attempts at a goal. Because if you go down the route of saying, “Well, games feel good because there’s no stakes,” then you really can’t apply gameful psychology to very many situations because there are stakes in so many situations.
LEVITT: Yeah. I just wonder whether if stakes were really the crux of it all — like, if in low stakes settings, are people much more gameful in everyday life than they are in high stakes situations? Because if it all came down to stakes, then we might not be able to design around the fact that life is high stakes. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s, I guess, why I was focusing on stakes, because I think it is important to understand to what extent it’s just that games are seen as low stakes. Although, for some people, games are not low stakes, right? There are professional esports and I know some of my teenagers would get extremely emotional about the video games because they had made such heavy investments. And for them it really was high stakes. And I suspect the research would support that they’re gameful even in the face of high stakes.
MCGONIGAL: Hmm. What my research really suggests is that what allows somebody to be gameful in the face of everyday challenges, not just in a video game, is the ability to see the connection or see the bridge between video games and their everyday lives. One of the biggest predictors of who develops what we might colloquially call a “game addiction” — when we develop some pathological relationship to games. We play too much, in terms of what feels in balance with the rest of our lives. The biggest predictor of that is when somebody sees games as being escapist and then they start to use games as like a crutch, or a place to go when they don’t want to think about the real-world problems, or they don’t want to interact with people in their real lives. And the more that they have negative emotions in real life or problems in real life, then they seek out the games as what starts to feel like the only place they can have positive emotions, the only place that can have positive achievements or positive relationships. And that becomes a kind of downward spiral. On the other hand, people who are able to see a through-line. You know, “When I play games, I can take in a lot of information quickly and make decisions under pressure.” Or, “When I play games, I get a chance to be a leader. And I’m really good at motivating other people to stay engaged and not give up.” Or, “When I play games, I’m so creative, I always have 10 different ideas for how to tackle a goal. And if those ten don’t work, I’ll come up with another 10.” When people can talk about the real skills and strengths and abilities that they are demonstrating and cultivating and growing in games. Those are the people that we tend to see bring gameful mindsets to everyday life, even when there are stakes, even when it’s a serious health challenge, even when we’re talking about climate action, which — what could be higher stakes than that? What helps is when we see games more as a springboard. And we use the energy and the emotions and the attention that we experienced in games as a way to bounce back to the rest of our lives with those skills, with that energy, with those relationships.
LEVITT: As I’ve read your work, I see you tout different elements of games and how they can help individuals help society. The first one is what you just described, which is that if people could generalize the video game skills that they’ve developed to tackle real-world problems, that would be really helpful to them and to others. And one strategy you just talked about was aiding that kind of generalization through discussion and pulling it out. How else do you get people to take their best selves that emerge in video games and generalize that to their everyday lives?
MCGONIGAL: What you just said, that’s like the magic key. I don’t often go further than that because it’s actually so transformative when people just sit down and have a conversation, or start a journal of the skills and abilities and the accomplishments and achievements and the relationships. That act of reflecting is, as far as I can tell, the thing that you need to do. And there’s been like a whole industry built up around the idea of gamifying different aspects of our lives. And I don’t necessarily design for that industry or participate in it because for me, it’s so much simpler. Think about all of the curriculum that’s being developed to try to build grit in our kids — develop this character strength. You have never seen more grit than a kid playing a video game that they love, right? To me, it’s just about talking to that kid or your partner or your mom who just started playing video games because she’s retired and has all this free time — just saying like, “Oh my God, you’re like on your 20th time at this level? That’s amazing. I admire how you don’t give up.” Or you say it to yourself, like, “O.K., still on level 245, but I haven’t given up. I have such great perseverance.” We don’t need to make it more complicated than that. There’s all these self-help books and intervention strategies but literally just playing good games can help us develop these ways of being, and then we just stop and appreciate it and realize that this is a strength that is inside me.
LEVITT: Do you think we could help people by pointing them to good games and bad games, more than we do right now? So, Pokemon Go — probably you’d say Pokemon go was a good game, right?
MCGONIGAL: I love that you put it in the past tense. I still go on remote raids once a week with my friend who lives in another state. A tradition we started during the pandemic as a way to feel like we had something important to do on our calendar.
LEVITT: Do you know what I talk about Pokemon Go in the past tense?
LEVITT: Because I loved Pokemon Go more than any person on the planet. I know you didn’t want to use the word addicted — I was completely addicted to Pokemon Go. In both good ways and bad ways. I got tremendous enjoyment out of it, but it also had, in a way that might surprise people, taken a rather large position in my life. And finally, my wife gave me an ultimatum. She said she would divorce me if I ever played Pokemon Go again.
MCGONIGAL: Ooh. Ooh.
LEVITT: And it was a hard choice. But after some reflection I did stop playing Pokemon Go.
MCGONIGAL: Did she never play it?
LEVITT: She did. And she was totally addicted, too, she saw what did to her and she walked away first.
MCGONIGAL: Oh, so she made the decision.
LEVITT: And then I think she was jealous that I was still playing it.
MCGONIGAL: Yeah. Interesting. Because for me, like one of the pieces of advice that I have is when a game becomes divisive, is to continue to play it, but only in a social manner, like—
LEVITT: I thought you were going in secret. Only play it in secret where people can’t see that it’s divisive.
MCGONIGAL: But it’s like, O.K., you don’t want your kids spending so many hours on it. But what if the family’s playing together? And what if they’re playing with their sibling together? Or what if they’re playing and you’re watching and they’re talking to you about what they’re doing? Are there games that are good or bad? It really depends on the type of person and their personality. For example, collection games could be maybe not the best game for people who are like perfectionist or completionist. Like you’re going to play until you catch literally every Pokemon — then that might become too much of an obsession for you. It’s very much like a personalized diet. What you play is like what you eat. You’re putting ideas and experiences and emotions into your mind and body. It really depends on what you’re trying to add to your emotional diet or your experiential diet. If you’re really stressed out in your everyday work, you might want to play a game that is not adrenaline producing. That’s quiet and contemplative like Quordle, right? The four games of Wordle at a time, a lot of people play that at bedtime. It’s great. It’s also great because there aren’t that many rounds that you can play — then you just stop for the day. But if you are depressed, actually a high stakes, adrenaline producing game, like Fortnite, could be amazing for you because you can get physically energized from the artificial challenges of the game in a way that when you stop playing, you now have more energy than when you started and maybe you can apply that to something that you otherwise would not have worked up the energy or motivation to tackle. So, this is why games are so interesting. It is why you can get a Ph.D. in them.
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 how she gamefied her recovery from a traumatic brain injury.
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LEVEY: Hey Steve. So, our listener Perry wrote to us, and he had a response to a topic that has come up a few times on the show, which is the idea of using videos to amplify the reach of excellent teachers. So, you talked about this with neuroscientist and actor, Mayim Bialik and also mathematician Sarah Hart. But Perry was actually writing to say, he thinks this is a terrible idea. He’s a parent, teacher, and doctoral student. And he says, if this pandemic has shown us anything about education, it is that teaching and learning our social processes. And we need students to have physical and in-person connections with others. What’s your response to that?
LEVITT: I must be doing a terrible job of explaining what I really want to happen in education, because, like Perry, I do agree that this physical mentoring role of teaching is really important. So, let me just make clear what I do believe. What I don’t think makes sense is for every teacher in America to be trying to put together a lesson plan and to try to be a great lecturer, because I do think there are people who are amazing lecturers. I think what we need to do is to change the role of a teacher to emphasize the mentoring role, to emphasize the bespoke way in which a teacher can understand what his or her students need and to tailor around the edges a better learning experience. So, I’m not trying to get to a world where there are no teachers, I’m trying to get to a world where what teachers do is that thing that a good teacher can do better than anyone else, which is to personalize things. I just don’t think the best use of teacher resources is to replicate lectures over and over and over. I mean, let me give an example. There’s some things in the classroom that I’m really good at, and making the best lecture slides or talking about supply and demand, I can’t touch a really good teacher at doing that. But what I can do is, on the side, bring my own personal expertise into bringing to life those lessons. And that’s what I want teachers to do instead of spending all their time trying to create lecture notes.
LEVEY: And I should say that we interviewed Sal Khan, who’s the founder of the educational platform, Khan Academy and Sal and Khan Academy actually have a Khan Lab School, which is essentially the model that you’re talking about. They use Khan Academy to teach lectures, but then have in-person interaction with teachers and students in the classroom.
LEVITT: Exactly right. They’ve really changed the model of how to teach and I and my team have observed what they’ve been doing at the Khan Lab School. And I would say it seems amazing. And it has further convinced me that the kind of model that I’ve been proposing could really work.
LEVEY: Thanks Perry for your concern — hope we’ve calmed your fears. If you have a question for us, our email addresses firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. It’s an acronym for our show, Steve and I read every email that is sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
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I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of the many topics I’d hoped to talk about today with Jane McGonigal. I want to shift now to her game SuperBetter, which has proven to be for many people a powerful tool for recovery from injury. I’ve taken some of the ideas from SuperBetter and I tweaked them and put them into my own daily life. And I’m really curious to see how Jane reacts to my interpretation of her ideas.
LEVITT: So, we talked about how to generalize video game skills to real-world problems. But the flip side of that is how do you transform real-world problems to make them more video game-like? So, you might disagree with my characterization, but I would say that’s what you did with something called SuperBetter. Could you talk a little bit about what SuperBetter is and how you see it fitting into the picture of the power of games?
MCGONIGAL: Yeah. Back in 2009, I had a mild traumatic brain injury. It was a concussion that was a pretty severe concussion and it wasn’t healing properly. And so, I was going through this concussion recovery. I was experiencing many of the psychological phenomena that you experience with a concussion — being depressed, not having hope for the future, not being able to visualize good things happening. There was of this sort of black screen or blank space in my mind when I tried to imagine my life, and even suicidal ideation, which — one in three people with a serious concussion go on to experience. And it sounds totally bizarre, like at such a low point, why would you think something as trivial as a game could help? But I think it’s precisely because I was at such a low point that I didn’t reject this idea. I was already almost a decade into my research into game psychology and thinking about gameful mindsets. And, by the way, my doctor was like, “Don’t play video games because there is too much inflammation in your brain. It’s not good. You need to rest.” So, I couldn’t literally play video games. So, I needed to try to find another way to bring that experience of feeling hope that I could get better. And actually taking actions that have positive consequences. Being able to ask people for help. All the things that are hard to do when you’re actually quite sick or injured. I want to try to bring that to my real life. So, I just started making up a role-playing game, where I would try to treat my concussion recovery as a gameful challenge, even though I didn’t choose it. Could I recruit allies? Could I collect power ups that would help my mind and body feel stronger? Could I make a list of the bad guys that were triggering my symptoms that I needed to avoid? Could I come up with quests that would make me feel successful, even though I couldn’t do the normal things that made me feel successful, like work or running or writing? Essentially, some people might say, game-ify my recovery. And it was literally a game I played in a journal like with pen and paper. I started blogging about it. People started writing to me, “I’m using it to deal with… I just got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis,” or, “I just had dental surgery,” or, “I got broken up with,” or, “I just got fired. I’m unemployed, I need to find a new job.” People were writing me that they were using exactly the method that I laid out for their own challenges. And I decided to turn it into an app, founded a company. We had more than a million users. Researchers did randomized controlled trials. There were clinical trials to help people with depression, with concussion recovery. It was a really great experience, the sort of full circle of using that intuition that when we play games, we can make our brains fire up in ways that feel better, but that we can also do that without a video game. We can teach ourselves to view challenges in the same way that we do in a game. And that’s a skill that we can learn.
LEVITT: One of the things I found most interesting about the book SuperBetter, which is the written version of that, is you have little exercises and you buried some amazing nuggets of gold — of insight — in that book. I’ll give you just one example that I’ve used, which is as part of training for one of these gameful traits that instead of asking someone, “How has your day been?” You suggest asking them, “How is your day going on a scale of one to 10?” And then whatever the answer then you say, “What could I do to make it one better?” And honestly, if there’s one thing you can do with 30 seconds or a minute of your day, that will both be fun for you and energize the people around you — I’ve done that a couple of times now, and every time the reaction is over the top.
MCGONIGAL: It’s funny, I knew you were going to pick that quest. Because that is what I’ve heard from people who read the book or play with the app. There’s something about that “plus one-ing” someone’s day. And it’s funny, when I first came up with that idea, my editor said, “That sounds cheesy. Nobody’s going to want to do that. You should take that out and replace it with something else.” And that’s the thing with playing games. It’s like, until you try it, it can often sound dumb or just not like something you would be interested in. And with all of the quests that I designed or the simulations that I create, I’m constantly play-testing them. Challenge my own assumption or intuition — will this be fun? Will this be meaningful? Will people actually be able to successfully do it? And that idea of, “We can have a slightly more detailed conversation if I ask you on a scale of one to 10, how your day is going, that by putting a number on it, you’re actually opening up a space for a more meaningful conversation. Because then I can say, “Three. Ah, why a three?” Or, “A nine? That’s amazing. What’s going on?” In a way that we just don’t have if we’re following normal social scripts. Usually when I use this technique, people say, “Honestly, just that you even offered, I already feel plus one.” And it’s not really so much about doing something, it’s about just reminding people that they have someone in their life that is willing to put a little time and energy into helping them feel plus one better.
LEVITT: Another little gem that I loved from SuperBetter was the idea of playing what you call “worst-case bingo”. Could you describe that?
MCGONIGAL: Yeah. So, oftentimes we have to do things that we are not looking forward to, and this is kind of a mind hack that allows your brain to look forward to something that you would otherwise dread or try to avoid. So, you actually make your own bingo card. You create a game where you write all of the things that could possibly happen — all the bad things you can think of. Let’s say I’m not looking forward to getting on a plane. And I have all these ideas in my mind about things that might happen. Like, I’m sitting next to somebody who wants to talk the whole time and is annoying. Or there was turbulence or we’re delayed at the gate. Just write it all down. And then when they happen, you’re marking it on the bingo card. And it’s just like a way of bringing humor and mindfulness and acceptance to maybe things we can’t control, but we can, I don’t know, feel a sense of ownership over even the things that we dread. And again, it sounds trivial or silly, but I always say, try it before you judge it the way you would play a game, before you really know if it’s fun or for you.
LEVITT: I had my own little version of this. I do it sometimes in parenting — like whining. When my daughter whines, each time I make a judgment about exactly how high pitched it was, and is the pitch going up or down? Again, just another way of taking something that’s inherently unpleasant and by quantifying it, and by putting it into a different context — finding a way to make something that’s inherently not fun, more fun than it was. It’s a simplified version of bingo.
MCGONIGAL: The thing about games, of course, is you can invite other people to play. And I would think if you’re thinking about the pitch of the whine — and I have kids who whine all the time, so I can relate to this — you want to invite them to play with you. Not just to judge the pitch, but to be like, “Hey, can you get that a little bit higher? Come on, let me hear that in a high C. Say that again?” Maybe whine back and, “Here, O.K., but can you whine like this?” And then you transform it into play and it’s something you’re doing together. It’s important that when we play these games, we invite people to play with us or we’re not playing games with other people’s lives like in our own mind. But that there’s a transparency and an openness and an invitation to play along.
LEVITT: It’s interesting because that’s not my inclination at all. I am kind of antisocial, and I’m very introverted. So, it’s interesting that your sense is that games are best played with other people. I find myself thinking games are a way to survive being with other people.
MCGONIGAL: Hm. I’m a big introvert too, which is one reason why I love games because they provide a structure for social interaction. So, if I have to just figure out like, “Oh, how do I talk to somebody?” To me, that’s stressful. That takes a lot of mental energy. But if we’re playing a game together — we’re on a scavenger hunt, we’re doing an obstacle course. There’s such a formal structure for our social interactions. For many introverts it’s relaxing. For people with autism, the same thing, because there’s such a clear structure for rules of interaction. Games can be an opportunity for people who would otherwise feel uncomfortable or awkward with social experiences, actually feel confident. In fact, there was a study of kids with autism. The first year that Pokemon Go came out that found that they were able to sustain longer and more positive social interactions with strangers than they ordinarily were able to because of the commonality — the common ground of the game and the shared experience. Even for introverts, many games, do afford an opportunity to be with other people. You’re a data nerd like me — early studies of massively multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft, found that a slight majority of people were essentially playing these games alone. They weren’t purposefully timing their gameplay to play along with friends or family. They were just kind of wandering around these massively multiplayer worlds alone. In the early days of game studies, that was one of the big surprise findings when you actually studied what people were really doing. The sense of just being around other people in the same way you would go to a coffee house, and you might just sit there drinking coffee by yourself. You go to a movie by yourself, but there are other people laughing or like shrieking in reaction to the horror movie, games can be a way to be alone together in a way that helps people feel socially supported.
LEVITT: Yeah, again, I’m an outlier because I like to be alone-alone. Like, I can’t really think of a time when I’ve sought out other people for anything. I really only like playing golf alone. I’ve never played one of these multiplayer games. It never occurred to me that I should play one of those because I just like to be alone. So, I must be unusual in that regard.
MCGONIGAL: I think that should be a new book. You know, Sherry Turkle went and wrote a book about that idea alone together? Maybe you should write “alone-alone.” I would buy that.
LEVITT: Lots of people play games, but not that many people study games. How did you make games a career?
MCGONIGAL: A question that I feel lucky to be able to ask myself every day. When I showed up at U.C. Berkeley in 2001 to start a Ph.D. program, I was actually planning to study how scientists communicate their research to the public. And I had this idea that I would get involved with new art forms and storytelling strategies that would help everyday people understand complicated physics or biology.
LEVITT: And you came from a theater background, right?
MCGONIGAL: Yeah. I was working in New York City at the time off-Broadway and off-off Broadway and just running my own shows and experiments, trying to get weird ideas about the origins of the universe into some kind of embodied form that people could participate in. And sometimes when you’re working in an obscure area, you get a lot of “Mm-hmm, O.K., sounds great. Good luck with that.” And then the first year I was in grad school, there was this explosion of weird stuff happening in gaming that might blur the line between what happens on a screen and what happens in our everyday reality. Maybe we could use these new smartphones, now that they’re connected to the internet. We could send the game into real spaces. The phones have G.P.S., so we can start creating game missions for real-world locations. And I thought, you know, this is kind of like theater. They need some stage manager, some like direction. I volunteered to start working with startup companies in the Bay Area that were trying to create these first real-world video games. And when I started telling people about that work, it was a completely different reaction suddenly it was like, “Whoa, tell me more about that I want to play. Wow. This is amazing.” And I realized over the course of that first year of research, I found a new area to study. The problem was nobody in my department or anybody at the university was studying gaming yet. In fact, 2001 was the year that the field of game studies was formally declared as a subject of academic research. The first scientific journal for game studies was found in that year. So, it was really a kind of free for all, wild West moment of, “Well, how can we study games? What should we be looking at?” And I was really the first person to put my hand up and say, “Well, I want to study how playing games changes our sense of who we are, what we’re capable of, and what challenges we feel called to help solve, not just in the game, but in our real lives.”
We ran out of time today, without even getting to what might be the most important and interesting work that Jane has done: creating games that help people imagine and prepare for the future. So, we’re doing something we only rarely do. We’re bringing Jane back next week to finish the conversation.
MCGONIGAL: They look like a social network. But the weird thing is that all of the news stories that are on the social network are from 10 years in the future.
Until then, if you’re interested, check out the website superbetter.com to learn more about what we talked about today. 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 this week 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.
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LEVITT: Have I plus-oned you for today, Jane?
MCGONIGAL: Yeah. For sure.
- 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).
- SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient, by Jane McGonigal (2015).
- “Randomized Controlled Trial of SuperBetter, a Smartphone-Based/Internet-Based Self-Help Tool to Reduce Depressive Symptoms,” by Ann Marie Roepke, Sara R Jaffee, Olivia M Riffle, Jane McGonigal, Rose Broome, and Bez Maxwell (Games for Health Journal, 2015).
- “Gameful Design,” (SuperBetter, 2012).
- “Clinical Trial of a Rehabilitation Game – SuperBetter (SuperBetter),” by Lise Worthen-Chaudhari (ClinicalTrials.Gov, 2011).
- “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” by Jane McGonigal (TED, 2010).
- “‘Alone Together?’ Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games,” by Nicolas Ducheneaut, Nicholas Yee, Eric Nickell, and Robert J. Moore (Proceedings of the 2006 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2006).
- The Grasshopper, by Bernard Suits (1978).
- “Mayim Bialik on the Surprising Risks of Academia and Stability of Show Biz (Replay),” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Mathematician Sarah Hart on Why Numbers are Music to Our Ears,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sal Khan: ‘If It Works for 15 Cousins, It Could Work for a Billion People’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “How to Win Games and Beat People,” by Freakonomics Radio (2016).
- League of Legends.
- Pokémon GO.