TED Radio Hour: Jane McGonigal: Can Video Games Solve Real Issues? Games like World of Warcraft give players the means to save worlds and incentive to learn the habits of heroes. What if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems? Game designer Jane McGonigal says we can.

Can Video Games Solve Real Issues?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

On today's program, we're talking to TED speakers about their big ideas for fixing problems like these.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This has been a civil war for weeks now...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The warnings of an impending famine...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...vital defense against climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...between fighting poverty...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...the country's obesity epidemic and here with us...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...by tackling America's energy crisis...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ... there most certainly is no plan for peace.

STEWART: Can all of that be solved by this?


STEWART: Our next guest certainly thinks so.

JANE MCGONIGAL: I'm Jane McGonigal. I am a game designer and my TED Talk was about the crazy idea that gamers may be our best hope for solving the world's toughest challenges.

STEWART: Jane says that real world problems can be fixed if we make it more like a game. We'll speak with her in just a moment, but let's start with Jane's 2010 TED Talk, where she makes a big proposition.


MCGONIGAL: Right now, we spend three billion hours a week playing online games. Some of you might be thinking that's a lot of time to spend playing games, maybe too much time, considering how many urgent problems we have to solve in the real world. But actually, I believe that, if we want to survive the next century on this planet, we need to increase that total dramatically.

I've calculated the total we need at 21 billion hours of game play every week. So that's probably a bit of a counterintuitive idea, so I'll just - I'll say it again, let it sink in. 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.


No, I'm serious. I am. Here's why.

STEWART: Jane, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

MCGONIGAL: Thank you.

STEWART: I want to get past the mental hurdle for many people and, just for the sake of our conversation, I'm going to lay down radio show host prerogative that we're not going to debate the merits of gaming whatsoever. I mean, some people are never going to buy your premise and - but that's not what you're talking about here. You're talking about harnessing the power of games and gamers.

So you did your Ph.D. on why we are good at games and not in real life, which I think's such an interesting comparison. What's the tangible difference between why we're good at games, as opposed to how we behave in real life?

MCGONIGAL: Well, it seems like what happens when we play games is that we go into a psychological state called eustress, or positive stress. It's basically the same as negative stress in the sense that we get our adrenaline up, you know, our breathing rate quickens, our pulse quickens.

But instead of feeling anxious or frustrated or angry, which we normally do when somebody else wants us to do something that's hard for us, we experience all of these changes as excitement, and drive, and ambition, and motivation and we're not anxious. We're actually optimistic and energized. And this is kind of like a perfect storm for success.

STEWART: Jane, you explain this more in your TED Talk. Let's get back to it.


MCGONIGAL: When we're in game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves: the most likely to help at a moment's notice. The most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes. To get up after failure and try again. So that's what I wanted to study when I was a graduate student.

What about games makes it impossible to feel that we can't achieve everything? How can we take those feelings from games and apply them to real-world work? So I looked at games like World of Warcraft, which is really the ideal collaborative problem-solving environment. Whenever you show up in one of these online games, especially in World of Warcraft, there are lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away.

But not just any mission. It's a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game, right? So you can do it. They never give you a challenge that you can't achieve. But it is on the verge of what you're capable of, so you have to try hard. But there's no unemployment in World of Warcraft. There's no sitting around wringing your hands. There's always something specific and important to be done.

And there are also tons of collaborators, everywhere you go. Hundreds of thousands of people, ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission. That's not something we have in real life that easily. The sense that, at our fingertips, are tons of collaborators. And also...

STEWART: So, Jane, at this point in your TED Talk, you show this great photo. Can you describe it for us?

MCGONIGAL: Sure. So this was a photograph from a portrait series by an amazing photographer named Phil Toledano. He set a camera up in front of gamers by the screen while they were playing games so that he could capture the, you know, the emotion and expression of being really engaged in a good game.

This particular player, it's a teenage boy, and he actually has a look of, sort of, you know, abject terror on his face. If you look at it, the pupils are dilated, the nostrils are flared, his lips are pursed in total concentration. But there's actually little bits of, you know, optimism in the face: the eyes crinkling up, the lips crinkling up just a little bit. You know, if you didn't know he was playing a game, you'd be very worried about him but, because he's playing a game, we know that he's struggling with a challenge that he's excited about. And then that could lead to good things.

STEWART: Well, let's go on to listen.


MCGONIGAL: This is a gamer who's on the verge of something called an epic win. Now...


Oh, you've heard of that. OK, good. So we have some gamers among us. So an epic win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. It was almost beyond the threshold of imagination. And when you get there, you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of. That's an epic win.

This is a gamer on the verge of an epic win and this is a...

STEWART: So why is the epic win so central to a gamer's psyche?

MCGONIGAL: If you look at why we play games - there's actually been some really great research into what gamers say they're seeking when they play their favorite games, and it's all been compiled into a top 10 list of positive emotions that we seek when we're playing our favorite games. One of them is surprise and the one right next to it is pride. And I really think that that is central to the gamer experience. That we can surprise ourselves with what we're capable of.

And what I think that epic wins really do, is they change how we see ourselves and what we're capable of. They give us this sort of long-term view that we can achieve extraordinary things, that we will stun and surprise ourselves with what we're capable of. And the - just the more hours we spend playing games, the more we build up that desire to surprise ourselves and to surprise others and to do extraordinary things.

STEWART: We're talking with game designer Jane McGonigal about her TED Talk on why gamers might be uniquely qualified to help solve some of the world's biggest problems.

Jane, you've researched what exactly gamers are getting so good at and you've targeted four qualities. Let's hear about those.


MCGONIGAL: The first is urgent optimism. OK, think of this as extreme self-motivation. Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it's always worth trying, and trying now. Gamers don't sit around.

OK, gamers are virtuosos at weaving a tight social fabric. There's a lot of interesting research that shows that we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they've beaten us badly. And the reason is it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, they'll stay with the game until it's over.

And so playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation. And we actually build stronger social relationships as a result. Blissful productivity. I love it. You know, there's a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week, kind of a halftime job.

It's because we know, when we're playing a game, that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they're given the right work.

Finally, epic meaning. Gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions, to human - planetary scale stories. OK, so these are four super powers that add up.

STEWART: A lot of the things you describe sound like the positive byproduct of sports. But this maybe is a little more inclusive, because you don't have to have an exceptional physical ability to do this. You - and it might make the pool larger for more people who can get involved in it. And I'm wondering if it's the mindset and the dedication to mastering something, more than actually the gaming skill or being able to dunk a ball. What do you think?

MCGONIGAL: Absolutely. I think that's completely correct. For sure, there are huge parallels. There are some unique things about video games and computer games that maybe even go beyond what we can get in sports. Things like collaboration. You know, there is no sport where you can collaborate with hundreds of thousands of other people at the same time, right?

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

MCGONIGAL: That network effect, that scale of reach, and the diversity of people we could reach globally through a single game is beyond what we've seen before. And that's, I think, what allows us to potentially turn all of these gamers into world-saving, problem-solving superstars, is getting them all involved at the same time with a problem.

STEWART: Now, Jane, the one big difference we have to talk about is the consequence of failure, because failure in a game doesn't have the same impact as it might in the real world. There's no tangible, necessarily, loss. So, how is winning in the real world, how can it be equated with winning online?

MCGONIGAL: Well, since I first gave that TED Talk in February of 2010, there have been a lot of games that have really innovated to show exactly how you can fail and fail and fail, trying to solve a real problem in a game, and still eventually get to success without any harmful consequences.

So, one of the big breakthrough games has been a game called Foldit, which was created by scientists at the University of Washington. They wanted to teach gamers how to participate in a scientific process called virtual protein folding, where you're trying to understand how proteins in the human bodies fold and unfold. And, if they fold in unstable configurations, you can get diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's.

And, because it involves so much 3D spatial manipulation in this virtual world, moving these protein parts around, they thought gamers might be good at it. You know, like, think about Tetris or any of these games that involve manipulating objects in space. Gamers definitely have this skill.

Now, there's no consequence for failure if you fold a virtual protein the wrong way. So the gamers are just playing this crazy game, folding and unfolding and folding and unfolding, being wrong 99.9999 percent of the time. But, because they have that resilience and that ability to learn from mistakes and to collaborate - they've had hundreds of thousands of gamers working on this together - just this fall, they actually solved a real scientific problem that researchers had been working on for more than a decade.

They actually were able to come up with a stable configuration of a protein that could stop the HIV virus from replicating in the body. And I think this is a great example of an epic win where you can fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. There's no potential down side to trying. There's no negative consequence to being wrong in this environment. And yet the gamers were able to come up with a real win, a real breakthrough that could help make a medicine to treat or cure AIDS.

STEWART: This is a good time to get back to your TED Talk. Let's listen.


MCGONIGAL: ...until we solve real world problems. Now, I know you're asking, how are we going to solve real world problems in games? Well, that's what I have devoted my work to over the past few years, at the Institute for the Future. So this is World Without Oil. We made this game in 2007. This is an online game in which you try to survive an oil shortage. The oil shortage is fictional, but we put enough online content out there for you to believe that it's real and to live your real life as if we've run out of oil.

So, when you come to the game, you sign up, you tell us where you live, and then we give you real-time news videos, data feeds that show you exactly how much oil costs, what's not available, how food supply is being affected, how transportation is being affected, if schools are closed, if there's rioting. And you have to figure out how you would live your real life as if this were true. And then we ask you to blog about it, to post videos, to post photos.

We piloted this game with 1700 players in 2007 and we've tracked them for the three years since. And I can tell you that this is a transformative experience. Nobody wants to change how they live just because it's good for the world or because we're supposed to. But if you immerse them in an epic adventure and tell them: We've run out of oil. This is an amazing story, an adventure for you to go on. Challenge yourself to see how you would survive. Most of our players have kept up the habits that they learned in this game.

STEWART: Jane, the games you've created like World Without Oil and another one called Evoke, that you created with the World Bank Institute, they brainstorm solutions for real-world problems, but what happens with those ideas when the game is over?

MCGONIGAL: Right. So we actually do a lot to try to make the ideas that players generate actionable. So World Without Oil, we created a resource at the end of the game called World Beyond Oil, from A to Z. You can actually go into the game and you can see all of the solutions compiled, kind of like a Wikipedia for the future, if you need them.

You know, for an example like Evoke, we were actually able to fund more than 50 real start-up ventures created by the players during the game to do crowd source funding, through global giving, and get them mentors. So real businesses were actually generated as a result of players playing that game. So, it's kind of a combination of creating an online knowledge resource and then actually putting time and money and effort behind the best ideas so that they can become real.

STEWART: You're a real-life example of how your hypothesis can be put into action. It's a personal story and can I let you take it from there, what happened to you? Can you tell people what happened to you?

MCGONIGAL: In many ways, actually, my giving that TED Talk was my personal epic win, because about six or seven months before I gave the talk, I had a mild traumatic brain injury. It started out as a normal concussion and then the concussion didn't heal properly. Every day: nausea, vertigo, memory loss. I couldn't read or write for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

And it did occur to me at one point, when I was living with this post-concussion syndrome that, if I could somehow turn my recovery into a game, that I would be able to get the positive emotions back and get the social connections back. And I wound up inventing a game. I called it Jane the Concussion Slayer, inspired by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"...

STEWART: Excellent.

MCGONIGAL: ...and I used that game to try to bring resilience to real life. You know, I was collecting power-ups, things that would make me stronger. I was identifying the bad guys, things that would trigger my symptoms. I enlisted friends and family to be my allies. They each had a specific mission every day to call me or come over and, you know, one - one friend's mission was just to make me laugh once a day by any means necessary. They were the comic relief character, you know?

And all of these things added up to me kind of recovering my sense of agency. The funny thing is, I got a call from the curators of TED a few months into this, when I was totally still concussed and I remember trying to hide from them how...


MCGONIGAL: ...brain damaged I was. I then made it my epic win to be able to get up on that TED Talk stage. And in fact my husband was at TED with me and he was, like, bawling in the audience. Like, tears of happiness that I had actually, you know, just, in a matter of seven months, gone from basically wanting to kill myself over this head injury that had just taken me completely out of my life, to being able to stand up and talk about something that I was so passionate about.


MCGONIGAL: I really hope that we can come together to play games that matter, to survive on this planet for another century. And that's my hope: that you will join me in making and playing games like this. When I look forward to the next decade, I know two things for sure: That we can make any future we can imagine. And we can play any games we want. So I say let the world-changing games begin. Thank you.


MCGONIGAL: So that was my own - my own little epic win; using game design to help solve my real world challenge.

STEWART: And people can engage in it themselves with Super Better.

MCGONIGAL: Right, yeah. After - it's funny, after I posted a couple of videos about how I was using the game to help myself, I started hearing from people all over the world using it for other things, like depression or losing weight or chemotherapy. It's free. You can play it on your iPhone or online. It's called "SuperBetter" 'cause not everybody wants to be a concussion slayer, so we thought we'd go with a more general approach.

STEWART: I can tell you something really funny. Someone is literally in the studio writing down "SuperBetter" right now to Google later.


STEWART: Somebody's listening to this. Jane McGonigal, thank you so much for joining us on the TED RADIO HOUR.

MCGONIGAL: My pleasure.

STEWART: Jane McGonigal. She's a game designer and director of games and research and development at the Institute for the Future. You can find out more about her world-saving games. Go to ted.npr.org.

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