Could Gaming Be Good For You?

What if games could help solve, rather than exacerbate, real-world problems? Jane McGonigal, author of the new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, thinks they can. She explains how games fulfill needs that reality doesn't, and how to make real life more like a game.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

By the time they turn 21, the average American kid will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games, according to my first guest. Yeah, you heard it right. That's 10,000 hours. That's as many hours as they will have spent attending all of middle and high school combined.

And if you've heard the 10,000-hours rule, you know that that's also the amount of time it takes to master a skill or to become an expert at something. So is the average American kid becoming an expert at gaming? And what kinds of skills do gamers actually have, except for pressing buttons?

My next guest says they have many. In fact, she thinks we should be playing more games, not less, and if we put all that energy into the right games, we could change the world.

What do you think? Do you think online games could be good for you? Do you have ideas for games that could change the world? Let us know about it. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Also tweet us. Tweet us your questions by writing the @scifri sign. That's our tweet, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. What do you think? Is that too much gaming going on, or maybe not enough?

Let me introduce my guest. Jane McGonigal is the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future and author of the new book "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. JANE McGONIGAL (Author, "Reality is Broken"): Hi, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Why is reality broken?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Well, you know, we really - I really wanted to look at why we were spending these three billion hours a week playing games with such an intensity and a passion. You know, we know gamers really feel very passionately about their games.

And the research turned out to show that games are doing a better job of provoking our most powerful, positive emotions, and also helping us build up remarkable social relationships that cannot only improve our real lives but also potentially help us change the real world.

FLATOW: But what do you say to people who say, you know, my kids are spending too much time, they're not getting out meeting other kids, they're not playing in the dirt with the ants, you know? What do you say to those people?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McGONIGAL: Well, they're definitely not playing in the dirt with ants, probably, if they're playing games. But, you know, the majority of gaming for young people under 18 in this country is face-to-face game time with friends or family.

So the majority of it is social, and that's really important. In fact, that's what I tell parents: Try to make sure your kids are spending at least half their time playing in the same room with somebody they know in real life.

And also, we're seeing an emergence of cooperative games, rather than competitive games, where you're all trying to reach the same goal together and overcome the challenge together instead of competing. And it turns out that those are really powerfully positive games to play in terms of building up your relationships and your collaboration skills.

FLATOW: What is it about games? What do we get from games that we don't get in real life?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Well, games seem to tap into the psychological state called eustress, or positive stress. You know, normally we think about stress as very negative. It makes us anxious or frustrated or burnt out. But it turns out that if we have chosen a goal for ourselves, and if we feel in control of the work that we're doing, that stress is experienced very positively.

We feel more motivated. We have a stronger drive. We set more ambitious goals. We're more likely to ask other people for help. And in fact, we become more likeable to other people because we're more optimistic, we're more energized, and so they actually are more likely to help us when we ask.

So this is a very positive state of mind to be in, and when we play games, that's exactly the state that we're generating, this positive stress, goals that we choose to tackle and challenges that we choose to overcome.

FLATOW: Is there any way to define just what a game is? We all do lots of different things. Could a game, the definition be a lot broader than playing Parcheesi or on the Internet, something like that?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Definitely. I mean, right, because we've been playing games for thousands of years. I mean, the archeologists have shown that there are game artifacts from every human civilization known.

But - so it doesn't really have to do with technology, per se. My favorite definition of a game is unnecessary obstacles that we choose to overcome.

And golf is a really cool example of this because golf, you know, you have a goal to get a ball in a hole, and if it were real life, you would just pick up the ball and put in the hole, and that would be a successful mission.

But because it's a game, you agree to stand far away from the hole and to use a stick to hit the ball, which doesn't make any sense if you really cared about the goal. But what you really in fact care about are the unnecessary obstacles in the way of the goal because they provoke curiosity and creativity, and they give you a chance to get better at something that you've never done before.

FLATOW: And you're saying that games, if we play more of them and different kinds of games, and I guess I'm thinking about crowdsourcing games, where we might have a problem that if we game it out to all - let's say SCIENCE FRIDAY. If we're actually thinking about creating crowdsourcing games, that we come up with a problem, we have all our listeners come up with a solution, and we might actually create a game that improves our lives.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Exactly, and these games definitely exist. You know, my recommendation is that we spend six hours a week playing entertainment games and an hour a week playing these serious games.

And let's just talk about one of my favorite serious games, maybe, because it is - it's scientific. You can play a game with scientists.

There's two games right now called Foldit and Eterna, and both of them were developed by scientists who are working on protein folding, so how proteins fold in the body and how they mis-fold and lead to diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's.

So they've created 3-D virtual environments where you can fold proteins or design strands of RNA, and these can be scored as to whether or not they would be likely to be useful in creating medicines for cancer or preventing disease in the body.

And so far, more than 57,000 gamers have contributed to the first game, Foldit, with such success and creativity that they were listed as co-authors on a scientific paper in Nature Journal about how we could use videogames to actually cure cancer.

And the new game, Eterna, if your RNA that you design in the virtual environment performs really well with the scientific tests they run on it, scientists will actually create, synthesize in the lab, real RNA that you have designed in your computer, scientists at Stanford.

FLATOW: We'd like to take some credit here for the Foldit game because we drove - got them over 100,000 on their number of game-players when we did a story on that a few weeks ago.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Well done.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Oh, let's see if - oh, we have lots of calls, of course you can imagine, on game-playing. Jan(ph) in Boston. Hi, Jan.

JAN (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to share with you that I was a science teacher for a number of years, just retired last June, and I noticed that as technology came into the picture more, I thought the students were less and less able to do critical thinking and creative problem solving.

And when I would give them a critical-thinking exercise or a problem on a piece of paper, they exhibited very little interest. But when I learned how to put it on the computer for them to access, they went right to it, worked in teams, learned how to develop more skills, and I really saw their critical thinking improve.

Now, I know it's not the kind of games that your guest there is speaking about specifically, but I really thought it was helpful because it did help them start to improve their critical thinking.

FLATOW: Jane?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the key. It's tapping into what these young gamers are getting good at, which definitely includes online collaboration.

You know, gamers are used to working in teams, and they're used to using resources like wikis and forums to sort of share what they're failing at, give tips for other people so that they can get to the goal faster.

And so when we're making games that try to solve real-world problems, we definitely look toward that natural online collaboration process where people are thinking together rather than thinking alone.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Jan.

JAN: That's awesome because that's what's going to give them the skills to be appropriately, gainfully employed when they're older.

FLATOW: Once we get jobs out there. Thanks for calling.

JAN: Thanks.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Rich(ph) in Pennsylvania. Hi, Rich.

RICH (Caller): Hi, how are you doing? My question was about the negative effects of social gaming sometimes. And my example is me and my girlfriend play "Call of Duty" online with a couple of our friends. And now my girlfriend and my buddy's girlfriend don't get along because they got into a fight over the game while we were playing. Do you have any experiences with that? I'll take my answer offline, thanks.

FLATOW: Okay, hope you patch things up. Yeah.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Yeah, well, that's one of the reasons why I do recommend playing co-op more than playing competitive. You know, "Call of Duty" is a great example. They have these great special-ops missions were you have to cooperate together to achieve your goal.

And, you know, maybe you'll get into a fight if somebody's, I don't know, not as good as you would hope they would be. But really, we don't see fighting happen with those games. So definitely, the emotions can run high in gaming, and co-op is a good way to funnel those emotions in a positive direction.

FLATOW: We have a tweet here from HeatherLaGarde, who asks: Would love to hear her talk about the power of behavior-change games in global health and development.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Yes, so there are a lot of folks who are interested in using game design to inspire healthier behavior. You know, I did a game with the American Heart Association a couple of years ago, where we were trying to inspire people who don't think of themselves as athletes to get out and moving and physically active, maybe even learn to run.

And we created a game that involved hunting mythical creatures in the real-world streets, and you would hunt them down, and you would run like them. And we were able to get gamers who would never go to a gym and run on the treadmill actually out into the streets playing together.

So definitely, there's a huge interest in figuring out how do you take the positive emotions that we associate with setting these goals, these unnecessary obstacles, and tacking them onto real-life goals that are, in fact, necessary and therefore sometimes stress us out negatively when we try to achieve them.

FLATOW: So you can try to make a game out of everyday life.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Exactly.

FLATOW: And then cope better?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Yeah. In fact, maybe I should tell you about a game that I created about a year and a half ago, when I had a head injury. I hit my head while I was actually working on my book, and I wasn't able to read or write or think very clearly.

And after about a month of this, I was more anxious and depressed than I'd ever been in my life, which can be a consequence of having a mild traumatic brain injury. You do feel depressed and anxious.

My doctor told me that you had to stop feeling depressed and anxious in order for your brain to heal because it actually interferes with the biochemistry. But I had no idea how to feel happy, given the actual life circumstances.

But it did occur to me that if I could turn it into a game that maybe I could spark curiosity and optimism instead of this fear and anxiety. And so I created a role-playing game for myself called "Jane the Concussion Slayer," and I recruited my friends and family to play with me.

They helped me come up with challenges every day, little things I could do like walk around the block or, you know, get information about concussions through podcasts rather than reading online.

And it worked so well that we're actually running clinical trials now to see if we can use the game for other conditions, like asthma and obesity.

FLATOW: All right. We'll talk more about it. We'll talk with Jane McGonigal author of "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World." You can change our world by calling us or tweeting us. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the goodness in gaming with my guest, Jane McGonigal. She's director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future. Her new book is "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World."

What's your advice, Jane, to gamers? How can they take what they learn in games out into their real lives like you did?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Well, it's really important, I think, that we stop talking about games as if they were escapist, that we play them to get something in games that we can't get into our real lives, that when we play games, we become someone different than who we can be in real life.

You know, a friend of mine suggested using the term returnist instead of escapist. That we go into games, and we build up these positive emotions like resilience in the face of failure and the desire to achieve extraordinary things and that we can see the games as a place to power-up those emotions and then go tackle real-life work.

You know, we've even seen that playing a game for five minutes that you're good at before you take a test will help you perform better on the test, or before you go to a workplace meeting will help you negotiate more effectively.

And so there are ways to really strategically use games to power-up your real-life powers.

FLATOW: It's sort of like behavior modification. Instead of using drugs to treat some sort of mental illness, some people use behavior modification. And maybe even psychologists might use games.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Absolutely. Yeah, anecdotally, we see, all over the place, people talking about how they're even treating their depression and anxiety, instead of using medication, they're using games.

FLATOW: And is there a game that you would recommend? Do you have a favorite game that you would tell everybody about?

Ms. McGONIGAL: I have had lots of favorite games. You know, if you're looking for a game that can help you be creative and really play socially with friends, I love "Little Big Planet." You can actually design your own game levels while you're playing with your friends.

I love "Dance Central" for the Knect because it's physically active. You know, there's a huge interest in getting gamers up and moving because we know that that is a really important part of, you know, a positive life.

And then, of course, there's a game that I made called "EVOKE," which will teach you how to start your own social enterprise, or a business that can solve a real social problem like cleaner energy or better education. And that game, you play it for 10 weeks, and you have a business plan at the end of the 10 weeks.

FLATOW: So when you tell people that they should be playing more games, even though they're playing for thousands of hours as kids, I mean, you must hear all the time, like I said at the beginning, coming full circle, that they're playing too many games.

Ms. McGONIGAL: Right. Well, I don't necessarily mean that every person should spend more time playing. In fact, there's a pretty clear cut-off. It's at 21 hours a week. If you play more than 21 hours a week, you start to see a decrease in the positive impacts. And at 28 hours a week, you start to see negative impacts in terms of social anxiety or depression.

But what I do think is we need more people playing games. Right now, we have about 500 million gamers, who spend an hour a day gaming. I'd like to see us get up to three billion people gaming for an hour a day, which is how I get to the 21 billion hours a week that I'd like to see us playing.

FLATOW: Do you think you could create a game: How to create a peaceful social revolution?

Ms. McGONIGAL: Oh, absolutely. You know, this is one my favorite ideas that I've been talking to, you know, major videogame developers about lately, this idea for a game called "Civ-D," or short for civil disobedience, which would really be about how to survive a peaceful revolution, how to stage it and how to bring it to a successful completion.

Because we have all these games about war now, which are extremely popular, but that's not really an aspirational game. You know, people increasingly want games that tap into real hope and real meaning. And I think absolutely you could see in the next few years really big, commercial, successful videogames that are looking not just at, you know, war but also at peaceful revolution.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us. We'll be watching for that game.

Ms. McGONIGAL: I hope so.

FLATOW: Do you think it'll be out soon? Okay. Jane McGonigal is director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future. Her new book is "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World." Thank you, Jane, for joining us.

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