Jane McGonigal: The Super Gamer

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Jane McGonigal: The Super Gamer

Would we live in a better world if we played more video games? Jane McGonigal thinks so. Years ago, she bumped her head on a cabinet and suffered a concussion. The injury didn’t heal, and after months of conventional treatment, debilitating migraines and fatigue pushed her into depression. And doctors told her if she didn’t pull out within the year, she may never recover. So she came up with an idea: turn her therapy into a game.

“I could see that my problem was social isolation, anxiety and depression,” she told Elle. “I’m either going to turn this into a game, or I’m going to kill myself.”

She began designing the framework for the augmented-reality game. Her symptoms would be the “bad guys.” She designed mini-missions, or challenges, to give her points for walking a little farther. And “power-ups” would reward her in the form of playing with her beloved sheepdog. She also enlisted friends to play along as “allies,” and shared status updates on Facebook for support. In short, her goal was to promote optimism, and it worked — she started to feel better immediately. The aptly-named “SuperBetter” game set health and wellness-related goals to bring her out of a suicidal depression.

“If you can experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion, you dramatically improve your health and your ability to successfully tackle any problem you’re facing,” she said in a keynote at the ISTE conference.

She insists games, along with collaboration, can improve the way we learn, work and solve problems. At a time when critics often say video games are dangerous and distort reality, the 35-year old says we have it all backwards. “Reality is broken,” she told Wired. “Game designers can fix it.” Now, as the director of game research at the Institute for the Future, she’s developing an impressive track record based on that mission.

A Natural Gamer

For as long as she could remember, she always loved games. Born in 1977 to educator parents in New Jersey, McGonigal spent countless hours in front of a Commodore 64, according to the New York Times. But unlike kids that grew up in the ’80s, she didn’t progress into Nintendo or Sega. Instead, she preferred card games, like Spit, which fueled her competitive drive. She told Elle she developed her own games too. During high school, for example, she turned milestones of her relationship into a game, creating stages like “The First Date” that she played with her then-boyfriend.

Shortly after, she went off to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Fordham University. But from there, she explored her creative side, and switched her doctoral focus to gaming, earning a PhD in performance studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Her dissertation, “This Might Be a Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,” studied the ability games have to create collective intelligence, and led her on the path of collaborative design. Her interest in games, and in the way they could make a bigger impact on lives, fueled her academic career, but it would be the injuries she’d suffer in life that taught her the critical lessons about their healing powers.

She took the best parts of SuperBetter and created an app to help others live stronger, happier and healthier lives. She then wrote a New York Times-best-selling novel, dubbed “Reality Is Broken,” outlining her personal manifesto — and that idea is catching on.

The Rise of Gaming

If you think gaming is just for kids, think again. The stereotypical pimply faced teen, huddled in the basement, pale from the fluorescent glow of the monitor is gone. Since the rise of smartphones and social media, casual games like Angry Birds and FarmVille have taken hold among toddlers and parents alike, turning it into a $9 billion industry, according to Forbes. In fact, in 2011, there were over 180 million active gamers — that’s including your niece, your uncle, and maybe, even your grandparents.

And it’s not slowing down, either. Research firm DFC reports the gaming industry is expected to grow to a $70 billion sector by 2017. How? Well, it’s not all about entertainment — a large part of that is in healthcare. Today, hundreds of combat troops, for example, are playing games to help recover from injuries ranging from burns to traumatic brain injuries. It sounds silly, but an increasing number of doctors are prescribing games as part of the therapy and recovery process. It helps to cut a reliance on prescription drugs, and often the results are stunning.

Dyslexic children, for example, can also boost their reading skills, according to a University of Padua study. Kids between the ages of 7 and 13, who played 80 minutes of “Rayman Raving Rabbids,” an action-packed game, scored higher on reading tests, both for speed and accuracy, compared to those that played a calmer game. Parents may find it sounds far-fetched, but researchers say intense gaming can improve reading by sharpening the attention span and ability to process critical information. Don’t tell that to the kids.

The Next Frontier

Still, McGonigal is looking forward, to an even bigger mission: she says we need to play more games everywhere, even work. Moving beyond entertainment and healthcare, she sees games as a method to help society.

“My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real-life as it is to save the world in online games,” she said in a speech at TED. “If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, and obesity, I believe we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade.”

At time when a growing chorus is calling for us to limit screen time and unplug, her advice to increase the activity by seven-fold is bold. But she’s adamant in her belief: gaming is not escapism. It sounds outlandish, but research increasingly supports that idea. McGonigal explains in her book that games can help save lives, like hers, by helping you think more creatively about solving complex problems.

If you think the idea sounds techno-utopian, listen to this: Fortune 500 companies pay her handsomely to teach them to do it. She consults and develops game workshops for companies across a variety of industries, including Nike, Disney and Nintendo, among others. In addition, she’s received awards and accolades, such as being named one of the “Young Innovators Under 35,” by MIT’s prestigious journal, Technology Review.

She’s an innate problem-solver that continues to use her fascination of gaming to think big. For example, she created “World Without Oil,” a game that shows you a world without natural resources. While you play the game, the importance of conservation bleeds into your life, and shifts the way you think with huge ripple effects.

In gaming vernacular, an “epic win” is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible. As a girl, McGonigal only dreamed of a job where she could make games. But now, after following her passion and learning from her own experience, she’s not just making them — she’s motivating people with them. She’s changing the way we live, work and play in unexpected ways. That’s an epic win, indeed.

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