From Games to Reality: Q&A with Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal, PhD is a games developer and the author of “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World.” Her work focuses on how social video games and collective intelligence can be used to solve major real world problems and help individuals live happier, more fulfilling lives. On Wednesday night she delivered a lecture entitled “Games to Change the World” as part of the Cooper Series.

What initially got you thinking about ways of using video games to enact or promote positive global change?

Little known story, actually: I started my PhD in the fall of 2001. I’d just moved from New York, showed up in Berkeley, and 9/11 happened. My husband and I had been playing a game that year called The Beast that was this online, collective intelligence, extreme scale collaboration game. It had ended in July but on 9/11 a lot of the players of the game came back to the game forums and said, “Maybe we can solve 9/11; we have this global distributed network, we have this amazing collective intelligence, let’s try to solve 9/11.” That morning, it was the first thing they thought of, and it wasn’t just one random person. It was hundreds of them. They had this whole debate, “Are we crazy? This is real, that was a game, we shouldn’t even be thinking like this, it makes us sound like we’re nuts,” and it got me thinking: Once we’re done with the game, have we learned anything that’s actually applicable to real life, and, if so, how do we apply it? Although they didn’t “solve 9/11,” that got me interested. Were there lots of gamers who wanted to do real problem solving?

Did the idea to make games specifically tailored to solve real world problems come from your research into the positive psychological effects of regular video game use?

Kind of. I’m really just trying to fix the real world. I’m not trying to fix games, I don’t want you to stop playing whatever games you’re playing, you don’t even need to play them for fewer hours. I’m just trying to take all the stupid ways we do things in the rest of our lives—the way we run schools and workplaces and hospitals, and try to solve climate change—and make it work better. I don’t even necessarily think of what I’m doing in those spaces as making games. In my mind what I’m really doing is creating a massively open online chorus. I’m just happening to be inspired by things I know about, by game design and game psychology. In some ways we might be better off not thinking about it as two kinds of games but thinking about it as trying to do everything else better than we do it now, and looking to games as inspiration for how to do it.

More information about McGonigal can be obtained at her website,

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