STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's a number that may shock some people. Every week, people around the world spend 3 billion hours playing videogames. That's 3 billion with a B - which is not enough for game designer Jane McGonigal. She says we should play even more. She's just put out a book called "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better, and How They Can Change the World."
NPR's Laura Sydell has this profile.
LAURA SYDELL: Jane McGonigal is on a mission, and she'll give a speech anywhere to convert the skeptics.
DR. JANE MCGONIGAL (Author, "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World"): If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week, by the end of the next decade.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DR. MCGONIGAL: No, I'm serious. I am.
SYDELL: McGonigal is serious. That's what she insisted at last year's TED conference, and that is what she insisted to me.
SYDELL: Aww, come on. You're really trying to tell me that games are good for me? Come on.
DR. MCGONIGAL: What I'm trying to change is this perception that playing a game is just this waste of time. We know that it has a real impact on how we think and how we act.
SYDELL: McGonigal has used games to get people to think differently about the world's oil supply, household chores, and entrepreneurship in the developing world.
McGonigal looks a bit like a character in a video game - perhaps an enchanted sorceress. The attractive 34-year-old has a mane of curly, blond hair and cat-like blue eyes. While getting her Ph.D. in performance studies from UC Berkeley, McGonigal took a close look at the behavior of people in games like "World of Warcraft."
(Soundbite of music, "World of Warcraft")
SYDELL: It's the kind of game where trolls battle monsters.
(Soundbite of game, "World of Warcraft")
Unidentified Man #1: It is cunning trolls like you who will fight to preserve the honor of the horde.
DR. MCGONIGAL: Even if I've failed a quest a dozen times, I'm still improving my abilities with each try that I make. I'm getting stronger; I'm getting smarter. And this is, obviously, meant to model what would happen in real life if you kept tackling an obstacle.
SYDELL: Of course, that may not mean much when you are solving fake problems in a fake world. But in McGonigal's games, the world might be fake but the problems are real.
(Soundbite of game, "World Without Oil")
Unidentified Man #2: Gas prices jumped to over $4 a gallon.
SYDELL: In her game "World Without Oil," the price of oil rises fast.
Unidentified Man #3: There is very much a police state going on in the streets now.
SYDELL: McGonigal was a consultant on the game. Ken Ecklund was the game's designer. Over the course of a month in 2007, Ecklund placed people in the middle of a virtual world, where they could really see what would happen as the price of oil rose.
Mr. KEN ECKLUND (Game Designer, "World Without Oil"): Uh-oh, it looks like our transit systems are being overloaded. Uh-oh, it looks like it's very hard to hang on to your bicycle because bicycle theft is rampant.
SYDELL: Players shared blog posts, videos and audio updates about how they were coping.
Ms. CHANTALLE DRAYCOTT: I went grocery shopping today, and I couldn't afford to buy food. The only thing I could afford to buy were simple things, like Kraft dinner and canned soup - canned soup!
SYDELL: Chantalle Draycott is a poster child for Jane McGonigal's argument. A game can change the way someone thinks and - most importantly - acts in the real world.
Ms. DRAYCOTT: When I watched somebody else's responses, it felt real. And that was kind of the turning point for me - to be able to see all of this chaotic action, and realize that could be you out in the street one day because you can't get to work, because you can't make money, because you can't feed your family.
SYDELL: When Draycott went to buy a car in real life, her stepfather was pushing a high-powered engine.
Ms. DRAYCOTT: And you think about it, yeah. We're using so much fuel - how am I going to buy groceries, how am I going to do this, how am I going to do that?
SYDELL: Draycott went for the fuel-efficient car - which Jane McGonigal says proves her point.
DR. MCGONIGAL: The goal of this game was to get people to make real-life changes to the amount of energy they were consuming - to change the way they cooked, the way they drove - and to do it by challenging them to survive a fictional oil crisis.
SYDELL: But raising awareness of a problem isn't the same thing as solving it. Bruce Woodside also played the game. He recently retired from a career as an animator of online games, and he's seen a lot of designers hype up the power of games. He thinks McGonigal is no exception.
Mr. BRUCE WOODSIDE (Retired, Online Game Animator): It's very true that people invest a great deal of themselves in virtual worlds. But my principal critique is that it just doesn't translate into any sort of real-world consequences. They may feel better, but the world is still swimming in problems.
SYDELL: Woodside notes that "World Without Oil" only had about 2,000 players whereas "World of Warcraft," which is all about fun, has 11 million.
"World Without Oil" was produced by the non-profit ITVS, which is primarily known for its documentaries. ITVS recently had a project about the Zabaleen, a group in Egypt who collect and recycle garbage.
(Soundbite of movie, "Garbage Dreams)
Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)
SYDELL: Cathy Fisher, senior producer of content at ITVS, says the game that goes along with the documentary helps people see how many items in their own lives could be recycled.
Ms. CATHY FISHER (Senior Producer, Content, ITVS): And we look at that as a way of working with teachers. So we actually include lesson plans or curricula tied into the game, so they can be used in the classroom.
SYDELL: But Fisher says as they try to bring games into more and more projects, they've come to the conclusion that not all topics are right for games -for example, the sex trade.
Ms. FISHER: Sometimes, animation takes this kind of unreal quality about it, or it makes it much - childlike as opposed to this mature topic. So we just kind of felt that it didn't fit.
SYDELL: Games may not be the right way to approach every issue, but Jane McGonigal firmly believes we have to find ways to use them for more than just frivolous play.
DR. MCGONIGAL: Ninety-nine percent of boys are playing games, 94 percent of girls. If we don't tell them that this can be a positive process that can have real-world outcomes and powers, and skills and abilities come about as a result, we're throwing away an opportunity for an entire generation.
SYDELL: The number of hours spent playing games has hit 156 billion a year - and it's growing. Jane McGonigal believes that if we can make solving the world's problems that much fun, there's no reason people won't spend just as much time working at it.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.