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GDC: McGonigal: Game Developers Will Shape the Future of our World

GDC: McGonigal: Game Developers Will Shape the Future of our World

March 23, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 23, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, GDC

The IGDA Education special interest group keynote this year was delivered by Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute of the Future and notable ARG designer (ilovebees).

Here, she asked the question: "Are you optimistic about the future?" (incidentally you can receive her slides automatically by mailing slides at

"I think game developers have some of the most reason to be optimistic out of anyone on the planet," says McGonigal. She proses that about 1 in 2000 people have a chance of altering their own future.

"That's based on the concept of having 3 million game designers, developers, hackers, and counting. I have determined that game platforms are the best thing we will have in terms of determining the future."

The great work of game designers over the next decade, says McGonigal, will be to redefine life as we know it. Games, she says, have the power to change our actual world.

There are 5 key forces that drive us toward a game designer's future, she says. These are:
1 - sustainable happiness
2 - persuasive technology
3 - the engagement economy
4 - programmable reality
5 - superstructing.

Though her arguments for each can't be replicated perfectly here, I will address some of her salient points.

McGonigal says that to be happy, humans crave: Satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something (comparatively), time spent with people we like, and a chance to be a part of something bigger.

"These four things are what games do," she says. "Positive psychology is coming to the conclusion that multiplayer games are the ultimate sustainer of happiness."

Scientists agree as well that that dancing with other people creates a perfect happiness, because brains sync up if people dance to the same beat, and this elicits a very strong sense of happiness, akin to the strongest opiates.

"How can people dance together without being humiliated?" she asks. "But then I did more research and I found out that when people get humiliated, they get even happier!" Humiliation is a way of showing people we're vulnerable - and they like it because they gain power. We are happier when we're humiliated around people we trust.

Wikinomics says that "we must collaborate or perish." McGonigal points out that it took 100 million mental hours from a highly diverse knowledge community to create Wikipedia.

It's hard to get people to collaborate on things like this, but "It's not hard to get people to contribute cognitive hours to a game, or a game world," she says.

"It might only take 5 days of World of Warcraft to create Wikipedia," considering the vast number of players. "There's no reason why we can't take real world work and real world problems and seductively conceal it in a game world. Gamers have no problem doing work and doing collaborative things, you just have to figure out how to make them care about it."

"The idea is that game developers over the next decade and beyond, will be able to remake reality. Make us happier, make us smarter, and make the planet more resilient," she added.

60% of kids in developing countries are gamers, and 97% of kids in developed countries consider themselves gamers. So it's just up to developers to forge this future, McGonigal notes. A post-session Q&A echoed some of my skepticism, asking if developers have all this power, why haven't they already done it?

To this point McGonigal offered: "We've been building up an arsenal of strategies for reinventing the human experience, and maybe we're starting to realize that some of our games are more powerful than we anticipated. We didn't know our own strength."

"I think we've been a little seduced by our power to engage people. I think maybe only recently have we come around to the idea that we have to use that power to do good. We haven't done it because we've been so good at what we're already doing that we haven't felt motivated to do it. But now that the world is sort of falling apart, people may be thinking about doing something."

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