Author Touts Merits of Gaming

Jane McGonigal’s “Reality Is Broken” is this year’s First Chapter Freshman Reading Program selection.

Jane McGonigal
October 07, 2013

Award-winning game designer and New York Times bestselling author Jane McGonigal says that gamers are superheroes. At her keynote address last Friday, hosted by the George Washington University Writing Program, she revealed their superpowers.

“We usually think of games as being trivial, or maybe a waste of time. But tonight we get to take them seriously as a platform for changing people’s real lives and for solving real problems,” said Ms. McGonigal in an event in the Marvin Center’s Continental Ballroom.

To illustrate points made in the book “Reality Is Broken,” this year's First Chapter Freshman Reading Program selection, Ms. McGonigal invited the audience to play a game. Her aim was to demonstrate through “Massively Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling” the 10 positive emotions people experience when immersed in a game.

Freshman Macrina Wilkins was one of four volunteers who demonstrated the two-handed thumb wrestling game before the entire audience was encouraged to form one large network of thumbs battling thumbs for supremacy.

Ms. Wilkins and fellow members of the class of 2017 were invited to read “Reality Is Broken” this summer before arriving to campus as part of UWP’s First Chapter Freshman Reading Program.

“The selection process involves a cross-disciplinary group of faculty thinking about what kinds of work will be accessible to students from a lot of different perspectives – students who are interested in gaming, students who are interested in society and politics, and all the kinds of issues that Jane brings to bear on gaming, and on which she brings gaming to bear in her book in challenging and intellectual ways and in ways that also provide points for argument,” said Derek Malone-France, University Writing Program executive director, in introducing Ms. McGonigal.

Before reading the book, Ms. Wilkins held the belief Ms. McGonigal speaks against: that playing games is not productive. Not only did the book sway her opinion, Ms. Wilkins said, but she now takes a different approach to school and activities because of what she read.

“I’m so glad I read the book and decided to come,” Ms. Wilkins said.

After playing the thumb-wrestling game, all in the audience could track their experience of the 10 emotions outlined, feelings like contentment and joy, but also love – as Ms. McGonigal explained, holding hands can instill feelings of helpfulness toward others.

“They are a real gift for gamers, to be able to provoke these at any time and any place,” Ms. McGonigal said, explaining that studies show those who have at least three positive experiences to one negative experience will enjoy a better outlook and improved quality of life. Thus gaming, by offering an avenue for positive feelings, increases resiliency in the gamer. Soldiers who play war games have the lowest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and children undergoing surgery require less sedation if they’re playing games because they are in better control of their emotions.

“Every gamer has this ability to bring positive emotions into their daily lives,” Ms. McGonigal said.

And when a game brings people together, Ms. McGonigal has found, they can accomplish more than just feeling good. A game based around tending a real-life garden increased community garden participation by 100 times. Gamers who played a spatial reasoning game to fold proteins were able to solve in days a medical mystery scientists had struggled with for years – even though the vast majority of those who played the game didn’t have biochemistry backgrounds. And in a scavenger hunt game Ms. McGonigal recently staged at the New York Public Library, 500 players wrote an entire book on ways to make history in the future, based on their encounters with historical artifacts in the library’s collection.

To Ms. McGonigal, these stories show the gamer’s superpowers in action, and she invited her new superheros to be part of that process in the future.

“I’m really excited about the future,” Ms. McGonigal said. “If any of you are aspiring game designers, or game developers, think about the way we can use these powers to change the world. …  Even if you want to just keep playing typical games that are made for entertainment, they are still making you stronger, they are still activating your brain in really special ways. …  Every game you play is making you stronger and better in your life, and that’s awesome.”