Jane McGonigal: Creating Video Games to Build a Better World

At Institute for the Future, game designer Jane McGonigal creates MMORPGs focused on social change and the environment, with the hope that players will use their new skills to transform the real world.

Today, people spend a collective 3 billion hours a week playing video games like World of Warcraft.

Does that thought fill you with horror, imagining all those wasted hours of productivity that might otherwise be put towards curing cancer or solving one of modern society’s other ills? Well, according to Jane McGonigal, a game designer with non-profit Institute for the Future, our addiction to gaming is actually a great thing—provided we can harness it properly.

Speaking at this year’s TED 2010 Conference, McGonigal claims that we should devote even more time to gaming—a total 21 billion hours per week—to build the skills necessary to transform the world for the better. People who take part in massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft and Myst develop specialized skills in problem-solving as a team, claims McGonigal. So, if gamers are willing to participate in role-playing games based on real-world problems, they will be able to work together to find solutions that can be used in the real world.

“We have all the problems surrounding hunger, poverty, climate change, energy and those are all such extreme-scale problems that require so many different actors to work together, so much concerted effort and so much creative thinking that they seem to be the kinds of problems that gamers have been trained to solve,” she told Wired.

McGonigal is focused on creating the kinds of video games that enable players to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of those around them. In 2007, she helped to create a video game called A World without Oil, in which 1,800 players tried to find new ways to transport themselves in an alternate world with no oil. Even after completing the game, the players were focused on the problem and its possible solutions. “Overwhelmingly they report, three years later, having not only changed their own daily habits, but [they are] teaching friends, coworkers, family members, neighbors to adopt these habits as well,” said McGonigal.

McGonigal’s next game, called Evoke, takes an even more hands-on approach: game players, who are primarily young people in Africa, will learn to create a business that will help to stop problems of the developing world, such as poverty and AIDS, on a local level. By the end of the game, this alternate reality will become real: players will be matched with professional mentors, and will be ready to pitch their business to investors.

“We can make any future we imagine and we can play any games we want,” she said at the TED Conference. “So I say let the world-changing games begin.”

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