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PAX East 2011: McGonigal On How 'Games Are Bringing Out The Best In Us'

PAX East 2011: McGonigal On How 'Games Are Bringing Out The Best In Us'

March 11, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

March 11, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC

Author and designer Jane McGonigal spoke during her keynote at PAX East 2011 in Boston, reaffirming her stance on the power of video games to enrich the lives of gamers and the people around them.

At over 60,000 total attendees, it was the largest PAX ever on either coast, and McGonigal kicked off the keynote by leading the packed expo hall in a massive scream of elation to illustrate the concept of Fiero: “that feeling you get when you’re about to tackle some incredibly daunting obstacle,” and the quality she believed was most positive in gamers.

“Playing games is the single most productive thing we can do with our time,” she said, suggesting that far from limiting our time spent, we should increase the time people collectively spend playing games from 3 billion hours a week to 21 billion.

Her formal title for the keynote was “The Discrete Science of Why Games Make You a CONTAGIOUS VECTOR of Awesome 101.” The media hasn’t shared this "science", she said, and she encouraged gamers to go out and tell their friends about it.

She began her lecture with a few caveats about gaming, and a plea for the audience to not hate her for saying them. The science she believes will make gamers awesome doesn’t work if they play games more than 28 hours a week, if they’re an asshole to other players, or they’re playing with a bunch of assholes.

Her leading example was a study of students from ages 16 to college that showed that only a half an hour a day spent on pro-social games increased their real life time spent helping others by a factor of three. She described it as developing a cooperation radar, because the video games put a cognitive framework in the minds of gamers.

“For years we’ve been told games bring out the worst of us, but is it possible what’s actually happening is that that games are bringing out the best in us?” said McGonigal.

She segued with a quote from Brian Sutton-Smith: “The opposite of play isn’t work - it’s depression.” In quoting the clinical definition of depression"a pessimistic sense of our own capabilities, and a lost of energy"she thereby determined that the opposite state would be an optimistic sense of personal capabilities, and rush of enthusiastic energy"which is what it is like to play a game.

Jane McGonigal identified this feeling as 'eustress', as opposed to negative stress. In both cases, human bodies change in response to the stress, sharpening enthusiasm and focus. But in eustress we gain both the focus and energy, as well as enthusiasm and optimism. Which according to McGonigal is “an optimal state of human beings.”

Being happy makes us successful and not the other way around, she continued. Far from the American Dream’s vision of work for eventual happiness, McGonigal sited studies showing that people who start out happy are much more likely to succeed.

Scientists will tell you, she said, that it doesn’t matter where you get your emotions; anything that you get counts. Emotions are also contagious, both positive and negative. She told the audience that the emotions they have are indirectly affecting 250 people a day, “Gamers are out there every day being contagious vectors for positive emotions,” said McGonigal.

But with great gaming comes great responsibility. While gamers have these “super powers,” McGonigal is concerned that they, and the video game community at large, haven’t quite figured out how to use them in the real world. She stressed that we need to do something with these emotions outside of virtual environments. She called for gamers to take this into the real world, saying that “games have been training us to do something extraordinary.”

Jane McGonigal illustrated her theory in describing her experience of the terrible concussion she suffered while writing her book Reality is Broken. He injury did not heal correctly, and she suffered from constant nausea and an inability to write, play video games or think.

To cope, she created a game game that she hoped would promote optimism, curiosity, agency, awe, wonder in herself. Instead of talking about her problem, she wanted to play a game with my friends and caretakers, finding ways for them to engage with her in positive ways.

“If there’s one thing that I want you to remember, it’s that gaming is unleashing our natural ability to be the best version of ourselves,” she concluded. She believes that the 3 billion hours spent on games each week is more than worth it. She urged gamers to springboard their new abilities into the real world, and achieve extraordinary things with them.

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