Jane McGonigal: How Can Video Games Improve Our Real Lives? When Jane McGonigal was bedridden after a concussion, she gave herself a prescription: play a game. She says games helped her get better, and for many of us, virtual games can improve our real lives.
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How Can Video Games Improve Our Real Lives?

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How Can Video Games Improve Our Real Lives?

How Can Video Games Improve Our Real Lives?

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Of course, for a lot of people today, play is nothing like Burning Man. Often, it's more like this.


RAZ: "Super Mario Bros.," one of the most popular video games of all time. This one and other games like it take up a lot of our time.

JANE MCGONIGAL: On the computers, the consoles, the iPads, the phones - there are a billion people now on the planet who spend, on average, an hour a day playing games on connected devices.

RAZ: That is, as Jane McGonigal says, a billion hours a year. Jane researches video games. We heard from her earlier in the show. And she's trying to challenge the idea that those billion hours of video game play are a waste of time. Here's part of her TED Talk.


MCGONIGAL: Now, this may surprise you, but it turns out, there's actually some scientific research on this question. It's true. Hospice workers, the people who take care of us at the end of our lives, recently issued a report on the most frequently expressed regrets that people say when they are literally on their death beds - I wish I hadn't worked so hard, I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends, I wish I had let myself be happier. Now, as far as I know, no one ever told one of the hospice workers, I wish I'd spent more time playing video games. But when I hear these regrets of the dying, I can't help but hear deep human cravings that games actually help us fulfill. For example, I wish I hadn't worked so hard. For many people, this means I wish I'd spent more time with my family, with my kids when they were growing up. Well, we know that playing games together has tremendous family benefits. A recent study from Brigham Young University School of Family Life reported that parents who spend more time playing video games with their kids have much stronger real-life relationships with them. I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends - well, hundreds of millions of people use social games like "FarmVille" or "Words With Friends" to stay in daily contact with real-life friends and family. A recent study from Michigan University showed that these games are incredibly powerful relationship-management tools. They help us stay connected with people in our social network that we would otherwise grow distant from if we weren't playing games together. I wish I'd let myself be happier - well, here I can't help but think of the groundbreaking clinical trials recently conducted at East Carolina University that showed that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating clinical anxiety and depression. Just 30 minutes of online game play a day was enough to create dramatic boosts in mood and long-term increases in happiness.

RAZ: So, I get like, you're surrounded by this research and all this evidence, but I wonder like, when you play video games and you're indoors and you're alone and maybe you're not even moving that much, like, I'm wondering how that really improves us?

MCGONIGAL: I fully concede that people who worry about that have some very compelling evidence on their side. For example, we know that the average "Call Of Duty" player spends the equivalent of one month of full-time work every single year playing "Call Of Duty." So it does make you worry is this a good investment of time, doing something that we know in anywhere between three to eight percent of active game players identify as addicted and self-identify as having negative impacts on their real lives? That's actually where I've focused my research over the past three years, trying to figure out what makes a difference between somebody who is going to spend 20 hours a week playing video games who will have positive impacts on their lives as a result. Would you like to know what that difference is...

RAZ: Yeah, please.

MCGONIGAL: ...By the way? (Laughter). So, the number-one thing is whether they are trying to avoid feelings or thinking about problems, if they view games as this escape. But there's another kind of player who play games with family members because they want to spend quality time together, or they know they're stressed out after a bad day at school or work and they want to be in a better mood before they tackle their homework or a project they brought home. And that's the only difference. There's - tons of studies have shown, if you are able to feel like game play is part of your everyday real life then you are far less likely to see a negative impact on your life goals.

RAZ: So the redemptive power of playing games is an idea that Jane McGonigal has been studying for most of her academic career. And a few years ago, she got the chance to test that idea on herself in real life.


MCGONIGAL: It started two years ago when I hit my head and got a concussion. Now, the concussion didn't heal properly and after 30 days, I was left with symptoms like nonstop headaches, nausea, vertigo, memory loss, mental fog. My doctor told me that in order to heal my brain I had to rest it, so I had to avoid everything that triggered my symptoms. For me that meant no reading, no writing, no videogames, no work or email, no running, no alcohol, no caffeine. In other words - and I think you see where this is going - no reason to live.


MCGONIGAL: Of course it's meant to be funny, but in all seriousness, suicidal ideation is quite common with traumatic brain injuries. It happens to 1 in 3, and it happened to me. My brain started telling me, Jane, you want to die. It said, you're never going to get better. It said, the pain will never end. And these voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately fear for my life, which is the time that I said to myself after 34 days - and I will never forget this moment - I said, I am either going to kill myself or I'm going to turn this into a game. Now, why a game? Well, I knew from researching the psychology of games for more than a decade, that when we play a game - and this is in the scientific literature - we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism and we're more likely to reach out to others for help. And I wanted to bring these gamer traits to my real-life challenge. So I created a role-playing recovery game called "Jane The Concussion Slayer." Now, this became my new secret identity. And the first thing I did as the slayer was call my twin sister - I have an identical twin sister named Kelly - and tell her, I'm playing a game to heal my brain and I want you to play with me. This was an easier way to ask for help. She became my first ally in the game. My husband Kiyash joined next. And together, we identified and battled the bad guys - now, this was anything that could trigger my symptoms and therefore slow down the healing process - things like bright lights and crowded spaces. We also collected and activated power-ups. This was anything I could do on even my worst day to feel just a little bit good, just a little bit productive, things like cuddling my dog for 10 minutes or getting out of bed and walking around the block just once.

RAZ: The game was that simple - adopt a secret identity, recruit allies, battle bad guys. It wasn't a video game, it was just a new game-like way of approaching a problem. And amazingly, after just a few days of play, Jane's fog of depression and anxiety began to fade.

MCGONIGAL: It just vanished. It felt like a miracle. Now, it wasn't a miracle cure for the headaches or the cognitive symptoms. That lasted for more than a year and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering. Now, what happened next with the game surprised me. I put up some blog posts and videos online explaining how to play, but not everybody has a concussion, obviously not everyone wants to be the slayer. So I renamed the game "SuperBetter," and soon I started hearing from people all over the world who were adopting their own secret identity, recruiting their own allies and they were getting super better facing challenges like cancer and chronic pain, depression and Crohn's disease. And I could tell from their messages that the game was helping them in the same ways that it helped me.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi, I'm Mike, and I'm getting super better from depression.

RAZ: Thousands of people have played "SuperBetter" through an interactive website that Jane built. And some of them have kept video diaries.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My "SuperBetter" challenge is sleeping better.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To, each day, take a creative photograph.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Lowering my stress...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: To lose 45 to 50 pounds.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...And controlling anxiety.

RAZ: Watching the success of her game, Jane began to wonder what exactly she had tapped into. So she spent the next couple of years...

MCGONIGAL: Doing more research to understand the brain chemistry of gaming so that I could understand better why this game helped me and why it's helped so many other people. One thing that I know now is that games do a very powerful job of increasing the amount of dopamine in your brain.

RAZ: Dopamine is one of those brain chemicals that makes you feel good. You get it from exercise, you get it from food. And when you play a game you get it because...

MCGONIGAL: Every time you make a prediction or you take an action that could potentially have a positive result, your brain increases dopamine because it helps you learn.

RAZ: So in "SuperBetter," for example, by taking a big goal and breaking it into lots of tiny ones, Jane was able to create a bunch of small opportunities for players to succeed. And those opportunities were called power-ups.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Now that I'm so far into "SuperBetter," I almost feel like there's a ding that goes off in my head and then I'm like, oh hey, I just did a power-up.

RAZ: And with each power-up, more dopamine in the brain, until those little victories begin to add up.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I just got back from the gym and I'm recording this just because I'm so excited to tell you that I have actually reached my weight loss goal already, in week five. I'm thrilled. (Laughter).


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. And in real life when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don't feel that way. We feel overcome, we feel overwhelmed, we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we're playing games, they just don't exist in games.

RAZ: Yeah. So like, it seems to me that it's not even necessarily about video games, but it's that video games are what most people are playing. So, I don't know, we might as well figure out a way to make them work for us.

MCGONIGAL: Absolutely. I have come to realize that video games are just one way to develop this incredibly powerful tool kit of psychological resources. So I call this gameful psychology, right? It's a way of looking at challenges, it's a way of generating social support, it's a way of activating positive emotions when you're facing something difficult. That's why video games, to me, are so exciting when we think about how might we treat depression or anxiety differently, how might we help people achieve their health goals? It's not that they need to play more video games or that video games are going to be the path to achieving these goals, it's that so many people have already cultivated these psychological strengths. And I want to help them bring those strengths to their real lives.

RAZ: Jane McGonigal, video game designer. She's got three Ted Talks, all up at ted.com.


RONNIE JONES: (Singing) Pinball, hockey, tennis, Ping Pong, play them video games. Speedway, Star Wars, Space Invaders, I love them all the same. Your turn, my turn, competitions get into my brain. Your score, my score, low score, high score, stop and play again. Video, video, video, video, video games.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show "Press Play" this week. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Bachman (ph), Megan Cain, Neva Grant and Chris Benderev with help from Daniel Shucan (ph). Barton Girdwood is our intern. In the front office, Eric Nuzum and Portia Robertson Migas. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Triff and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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