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Interview with Video Game Guru Jane McGonigal

Aired April 15, 2012 - 14:00   ET



JANE MCGONIGAL, ALTERNATE REALITY GAMER: There are a billion people on the planet now who qualify as gamers. There are games that you can play to learn how to start your own business.

If you're unemployed and want to start your own company, there's a game you can play to learn how to do that. When I tell people, do you want to cure cancer or Alzheimer's? You can do that by playing a game.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Playing video games to cure cancer? It just doesn't seem possible, but game designer, Jane McGonigal says it is not farfetched.

Gaming, she says, can improve real lives, solve real-life problems, and everyone, including your kids, should be playing them, at least a couple hours a day. Imagine encouraging your kids to play video games.

But Jane's not talking about attacking virtual zombies. McGonigal's a pioneer in the field of ARG, or Alternate Reality Gaming. These are games designed not just for entertainment, but also to tackle world issues, like poverty and climate change.

Inspired after recovering from her own traumatic injury, Jane's now unveiling a new game and she's certain that if you play, it will make you better, super better.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and welcome to THE NEXT LIST.


JANE MCGONIGAL, GAME DESIGNER: Games are an extraordinary way to tap into the best version of yourself, the most determined, the most creative, the most resilient in the face of failure, the most likely to collaborate with other people. Just sort of heroic qualities.

And it seems that if we play for games, games that we love, these qualities can actually spill over into our real lives. I'm Jane McGonigal. I'm a game designer and I'm the inventor of "Superbetter."

I've actually been designing games since 2001. And I was really interested in what would happen to gamers when they stopped playing their favorite games. Did it change the way that they would think about themselves and what they were capable of? Would it change what they tried to do in real life?

And so I started to track this phenomenon. My process for making a game usually starts with a problem. Someone has a problem. Either I have a problem or somebody out in the world has a problem. And they think that a game might be the right solution.

It was designed as a crash course in changing the world. It was a 10- week game that you would play and we aimed it first at young people in sub-Saharan Africa, although we invited the whole world to play.

You would play it and learn about social enterprise or how to start your own business that could not only make a sustainable profit, but also tackle a social issue like clean water or clean energy.

And at the end of the game, if you completed all of the quests and the missions, you would not only get certified by the World Bank institute as a social innovator, you were also eligible for funding for a business that would design during the game.

MARINA GORBIS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR THE FUTURE: I think this is Jane's greatest genius and contribution is that she is reframing the whole conversation about gaming. She created a game called "Superstruck." We asked people to envision four, five very disruptive scenarios for the future around energy, around water shortages.

MCGONIGAL: For example, we had a super threat called generation exile, which was considering the possibility that there might be massive migration due to climate change.

GORBIS: We asked people, how would you cope with these challenges? We had thousands of people from all around the world participating.

MCGONIGAL: And the result was this really amazing collaborative future forecast, this kind of epic report. I believe that most of us want to rise to the heroic occasion and to be able to see gamers stepping up and really doing it.

We're going to be much better able to tackle the toughest challenges. My current project was inspired by kind of a freak accident. I'm having a very hard time writing and also breathing.




MCGONIGAL: Game designers are obsessed with emotion. How do we create the emotions that we want gamers to feel and how can we really make it this intense, emotional experience?

There's actually something really interesting that was in the research this year showing through clinical trials, for the first time, that online casual games are more effective than pharmaceuticals for treating mild to moderate depression.

I'm very much interested in how we can use games to bring out the best in ourselves. "Superbetter" is really about changing you how long about yourself and what you're capable of, and it's exactly the kind of change that can really help you battle something like depression and anxiety.

Being the first player of the game, I know firsthand how much these resilient habits and resilient ways of thinking can really change your ability to deal with a tough situation.

I was writing any book, which is all about how games help us really provoke positive emotion and strengthen our relationships. And I hit my head here in office, I was standing up underneath a cabinet, got a concussion.

It had been about a month, having all the symptoms, the dizziness, nauseousness, vertigo, and it was most miserable time of my life. The recovery has been very slow and harsh. I was just ready to give up all hope.

I thought, wait a minute, you know, if all of that research is true and you really believe in it, you should be able to make this into a game. So that's what I did. I turned my concussion into a game.

The only thing I knew is I wanted to call it Jane the concussion voluntary and I was going to draw on the mythology of the vampire slayer, which for me was a very inspirational figure who didn't want to be the slayer, but she was.

I knew I wanted to invite my friends and family to play with me, because I was having a hard time trying to explain to them, I need help and I need engagement, and did you know I'm still in bed every day? Come see me and call me. I have a part for you in the game.

KIYASH MONSEF, HUSBAND: She asked me to play her willow, which is can geeky, smart one. So my job was to help her connect with the outside world.

MCGONIGAL: My husband, Kiyash, started giving me achievements every day. He gave me the still human award the first day I took a shower and put makeup on like I felt human.

And something really interesting happened. I guess, it was about a week after I started playing and I think this fog of anxiety started to lift.

MONSEF: "Superbetter" was kind of a blueprint in a way. This idea of kind of casting your friends and family in these roles that are heroic and inspiring and then harnessing that power to help, you know, with the recovery or healing process is really effective, is really powerful. It certainly brought us closer together.

MCGONIGAL: I have to say, it's been a long road since, I think, 2001, when I first started telling people, you know, I think gamers really want to do more than they're doing now. Like, I think they have this passion for solving problems. The reaction originally was pretty skeptical. My grandfather passed away this past year, but he was one of the strongest advocates for my work.

He would watch a news story on TV and they'd be talking about, you know, the dangers of violent video gaming, and he would write me a letter and say, don't they understand that games can be played to solve real problems?

And I thought, if my grandpa can get it, then there is definitely hope that everybody can see the potential for these games. There were a lot of games growing up. My dad taught us to play poker when we were really young.

When I was in fifth grade, we got our first home computer. It was a Commodore 64. One of the games we got was a game called "Load Runner." I instantly became obsessed with that and I would fall asleep at night dreaming in load runner and wake up with new ideas for levels.

So I learned some basic programming and started making games. And definitely, that was something that emerged really early on. My first job after college was with a dot-com, as a writer and editor.

But pretty soon afterwards, I started to kind of crave something a little more playful, something a little more in the arts and I started working evenings off Broadway in theatre.

I was looking just for like a cool activity to do, something to keep busy, and got hired by the "Go Game," the first company that was making games for real-world spaces. And I was designing game missions and puzzles and writing the actual game content.

I was very lucky in 2004. I was invited to work on a game that was being developed for Microsoft and Bungee for the release of "Halo 2," which at the time was arguably the most anticipated video game of all- time. You know, and they wanted to create a kind of real-world extension of the "Halo" game.

We had to track down pay phones that could receive incoming phone calls and get their GPS coordinates and their phone numbers, but my favorite aspect of that was just watching the heroic efforts the players went to get somebody to every phone that rang, you know, 40,000 calls.

That, for me, was kind of a breakthrough moment. Because I thought, well, if you can get people to answer any ringing pay phone for the rest of their lives, what other kind of habits can we instil in people from playing a game?

There was actually a really interesting moment in my life. I think it was 2006. Up to that point, my games had been -- I would say more entertainment focused.

And I thought, well, am I changing the world with technology? I don't know if I am and I want to actually ask solve urgent problems. (END VIDEOTAPE)



MCGONIGAL: People have this misconception that games are about relaxing or about kind of zoning out or sort of passive downtime. It's the opposite of that. Games are real hard work.

And that's really interesting, that in our free time, what we choose to do is to work hard at something that we're going to fail at, a lot, before we succeed. Rolled out oil was an opportunity to see if gamers could be of service to a real problem.

In this case, the problem was, how do we survive a peak oil scenario? You would sign up, tell us where you live and we would give you daily updates on this fictional scenario, and then you would tell us what you were doing to survive.

You would use social media like, up loading videos or photos or blogging and tell us, OK, food can't be shipped in from far away, we have to eat today only on food that's available within 10 miles originally sourced.

What are you cooking tonight for your family? And based on what all the players documented, we were able to create this really amazing resource at the end of the game, a world without oil, A to Z.

The New York Public Library, their problem was that young people don't go to the physical libraries anymore. They do all their research online and they wanted to think about how they could get young people excited about the physical space and physical community of a library.

So for me, I take a challenge like that and think, you know, how is a game a solution? And one thing that occurred to me was, if they had a book in the library that they had written, that would be cool.

So that was the first idea that I pitched to libraries. I said, how about a game which if you finish it, you've written a book, we locked 500 gamers overnight.

They played a game, wrote a book, it's in the rare books collection and anyone anywhere else in the world can play an online version of the game and write their own book and put it in their own library.

Once we know what kind of game we're making, then it's a very collaborative, iterative process. We just sort of sit around and say, you know, what needs to happen. Is this a mobile phone app? Is this a social network online?

So any one of these games might have anywhere from 10 to 30 people working on them. For "Superbetter," for example, we have about eight people in our San Francisco office.

JOHN YOST, CEO, SUPERBETTER LABS: We quickly learned that we were both sort of students of this field of positive psychology. The whole other half of the human mind, the one that is part of, you know, in all of us, emotions like gratitude and compassion and curiosity. My name is John Yost. I'm the CEO, Superbetter Labs.

When we first met Jane and learned about this game that she had created for herself to help her recover from a concussion, we quickly learned that the game mechanics that she had already built into "Superbetter" were activating the positive emotions, social connections.

And we now understand there's quite a body of science that supports the importance of harnessing both of those powers to help us achieve challenging goals.

MCGONIGAL: We're helping you build up four different kinds of strength, mental strength, physical strength, emotional strength, and social strength.

This is based on the idea of resilience. That's an area of research that looks at how the body can withstand stress and heal itself and we're trying to translate all of that research into a game that you can play.

That will help you build up those traits in yourself and apply them to whatever real-life challenge you might be facing. So I watch with people on blogs use it for, you know, for chronic pain, for chemotherapy, for getting over a bad breakup, and seeing all these other people say, I'm getting "Superbetter too," and this is working for me, was really promising.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I started playing in February of 2011 and by June 2011, I was infection free.




MCGONIGAL: I'm here today in Austin by South by Southwest Interactive where I'm going to launch my new game, "Superbetter."

YOST: We're about to enjoy the biggest spot that any marketer could ever hope to have put on them.

MCGONIGAL: We've been play testing this game for about six months now and we've had thousands of people come and help us design it and test it. We have seen players adapt the game to the most extraordinary range of things.

You know, everything from I want to go vegan or I want to run a marathon. And we help you customize the game in two different ways. We have power packs, which you can download, which are kind of like a way to kick-start your game. You know, maybe it's for stress reduction or maybe it's for losing weight. CID LLOYD: When I first found out about "Superbetter" win went out and visited with the team, frankly, I was really pessimistic, because my idea of gaming was maybe an 18-year-old, 19-year-old playing games in their mother's basement.

My name is Cid Lloyd and we're partnering with Jane McGonigal and "Superbetter" to bring weight loss to millions of people around the world.

When we saw what Jane had designed, it was exactly in line with all of the stuff we knew about the science behind how people permanently change behavior.

In the game, we have power packs for stroke recovery, heart disease recovery, concussion recovery, and in our case, we worked with "Superbetter" to develop a full plate diet weight loss adventure.

MCGONIGAL: This is the first game that I've ever brought to, like, a trade show floor.

"Superbetter" looks more like a social media platform or a social network than a typical video game. You know, there aren't any 3-d spaces to explore. You don't have this avatar that you're building up. It's more about thinking like a gamer.

CHELSEA HOWE, GAME DESIGNER: One thing that makes "Superbetter" so different is that a lot of it is played offline. You're supposed to go out into the world. You're supposed to do things. You're supposed to kind of reach for these stars, these goals that you've always had and connect with other people.

Some people are a little skeptical at first, but then when they actually get started, we see them light up. We see smiles on their faces. They start reaching out to people in ways that they wouldn't have even 5 minutes ago.

And the people who play longer and actually get to their epic wins, we've seen people get jobs, overcome breakups, feel significantly better from pretty intense injuries and illnesses.

JESSICA MCDONALD, "SUPERBETTER" PLAYER: I was in the hospital with pulmonary embolism that I had developed from deep vein thrombosis in my arm. So I was pretty depressed, pretty upset, and my friend sent me this video. And as someone who's been a gamer her whole life, I was like, this is it. This is how I'm going to get through this.

MCGONIGAL: We started seeing her blogging about it and talking about how much it was helping her.

MCDONALD: I felt stronger, I felt for hopeful. The family and friends that rallied to support me as my allies just made me feel incredibly supported and incredibly loved.

MCGONIGAL: She wasn't panicked. She wasn't hopeless. She was more engaged with her treatment plan. MCDONALD: I started playing in February of 2011, and by June 2011, I was infection freed. I had the line out of my arm. I can't say that "Superbetter" made the infection go away faster, but it definitely made an improvement in the way that I handled the infection. And that was immediate.

MCGONIGAL: The future that I see coming is a future in which games are used by doctors, by scientists, by teachers, by the government, by anyone who needs to engage the world with a really tough challenge.

There's one thing that games do really well, it's get people to feel optimistic, urgently optimistic about a challenge and to bring a kind of whole-hearted engagement to it.

I do have this ultimate epic win scenario in mind, which is that every gamer on the planet spends 10 percent of their gaming time playing a game that's connected to a real world challenge. That I could look at you and say, you play "call of duty?"

Play this game to help cure cancer. You like to play "Mindcraft," play this game to help teach girls in Pakistan. You know, I want there to be that many role changing games and life-changing games.

And that we can match the skill sets of the gamers, match their passion for the kinds of games they like to play with these urgent challenges and then get 10 percent of their game time a week. You know, give me an hour a week and we can change and save the world.


GUPTA: But McGonigal says her true epic in, that's game speak for a huge and surprising success, would be to see a game designer actually win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Jane doesn't even care if she's the winner or not. She just wants game developers to put their time and energy toward making the world a better place.

And building off the success of her "Superbetter" platform, Jane's teaming up with the former queen of talk. They're developing a game for OWN, that's the Oprah Winfrey Network. The theme of the game is gratitude.

It's a different venue and yet another attempt by Jane to harness the power of games to boost global well-being and happiness.

For more on this show and other agents of change, go to, and you can also follow us on Twitter @cnnthenextlist or Also join me in my live stream

Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back next week right here on THE NEXT LIST.