Jane McGonigal wants us to get serious about Serious Games

Apr
15

Jane McGonigal wants us to get serious about Serious Games

A recent report on National Public Radio’s (NPR) Morning Edition features an interview with game designer, writer and advocate goddess Jane McGonigal.  The interviewer, Laura Sydell, especially explores McGonigal’s assertions that people don’t play enough games.  During her speech at the TED Conference last year, she told an audience:

“If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity,” she said, “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.”

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Skeptical responses to her points use games that are popularly seen as violent or time-wasters as arguments against her enthusiasm for play.  McGonigal, however, sees playtime with games such as World of Warcraft (WoW) as valuable, cognitive reasoning exercises.  Of learning to play the game she says, “Even if I’ve failed a quest a dozen times, I’m still improving my abilities with each try.  I’m getting stronger and I’m getting smarter, and this is obviously meant to model what would happen in real life if you kept tackling an obstacle.”

Her outlook on games has had her playing the role of consultant for some Serious Games, games designed to explore and make arguments on relevant real world topics, such as World Without Oil, which imagines and has players live through a fictional oil shortage.  McGonigal and her supporters highlight the impact the online game has had with its 2000 players, but critics such as animator Bruce Woodside cite those numbers as insignificant against the millions playing games like WoW and Call of Duty.

If McGonigal’s theories are to be believed, should developers be making more of an effort to beef up the positive effects of successful franchises?  The power of games is certainly there when it comes to being a persuasive medium.  Modern game design theory is built upon the work of psychologists such as B.F. Skinner and educators such as Maria Montessori.  Authors Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read even argue for using games to increase workplace teamwork and productivity in their book, Total Engagement:  Using Games And Virtual Worlds To Change The Way People Work And Businesses Compete. Can games be utilized to train the next generation of productive members of society?

In her book, Reality is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World, McGonigal creates guidelines for productive play beyond her assertion that people should play games for 21 hours a week.  Her other points are:

  • Playing with real-life friends and family is better than playing with strangers online.
  • Playing face-to-face with friends and family is better than playing with them online.
  • Cooperative gameplay has more benefits than competitive gameplay.
  • Creative games have special positive impacts.
  • You can get all the benefits of a good game without the need for realistic violence.
  • If a game stops making you feel good (instead making you frustrated, angry, etc.), stop playing it.

While competitive online play is where a lot of modern game developers put their time and energy, cooperative games such as Left 4 Dead and Modern Warfare 2’s Special Ops mode are finding their own audiences.  Additionally, games like Little Big Planet, electronic toys like Spore, and creator modes like Halo’s Forge show that developers are interested in providing players opportunities to create their own worlds.

As for violence and subject matter, developers and publishers of popular titles certainly have it in their power to increase the sophistication of their content.  This isn’t to say that developers should stop making the games that make them money.  Designers like Suda 51 often put social or political issues at the forefront of their game narratives.  Former Rockstar director Navid Khonsari is even working on a game based on the events of the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Iran.

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The risk of making games with such serious content, however, comes in the threat of media and social backlash.  In April 2009, Konami pulled out on publishing Atomic Games’s Six Days In Fallujah, a third person shooter about the 2004 Second Battle of Fallujah during Operation Iraqi Freedom, after considerable media controversy.  While current events games may have a profound effect educating leagues of gamers already notorious for ignoring the outside world, their development can send the wrong message to those with an unhealthy opinion of the medium keeping their pitchforks and torches at the ready.

Time will tell if McGonigal is right, but her statements on the potential of games and the “productive” way to play them is promising for gaming families.  Should more thorough psychological studies be done, maybe game developers may beef up their own content and the distinction between a video game and a “Serious Game” will no longer be needed.

About Chris Totten

Chris Totten is a Washington DC based video game professor. Besides confusing his friends and students by discussing games in terms of things like “Behavior Theory” and “emergence”, he is a regular “expert” blogger and occasional features writer for Gamasutra.

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