Jane McGonigal touts the good of gaming

PAX East 2011: Developer and author explains how games give players the power to change the world in convention's main address.


Who was there: Author, analyst, and current creative director of video game developer Social Chocolate, Jane McGonigal delivered the keynote speech for this year's Penny Arcade Expo East.

What they talked about: The year's PAX East, located in the arctic tundra of south Boston, started off with a bang as Jane McGonigal, this year's keynote speaker, took the stage and rallied the crowd into a roar. Once the shouts had settled, she took a moment to share a bit about herself in a slide show. Of course, she also kept it PAX themed, with photos of her at PAX 2008 jamming out in Rock Band and blasting her husband with a homemade death ray from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

With the introductions out of the way, McGonigal dove into the heart of her presentation. Titled "The Top Secret Science of Why Games Make You a Contagious Vector of Awesome," the talk focused on the positive side effects of gaming that McGonigal had uncovered while researching her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, and from her own personal experiences.

She opened with a statistic that video gamers worldwide spend roughly 3 billion hours a week playing video games. But are those hours spent gaming a bad thing? Not exactly, she said. The question of whether video games are destroying youth has been raging for years. However, for all the research devoted to the subject, a strong correlation between virtual violence and actual violence has not been established.

On the other hand, McGonigal had five studies ready to cite, which showed a connection between gaming and positive behavior. These included linking cooperative games and cooperative behavior in the real world, increased self-confidence after controlling a "sexy" avatar, and gamers having the highest rates of lucid dreaming and being able to control themselves while in these dreams.

"Video games make us into dream warriors," she stated.

However, the one finding she found most interesting was a survey done by the United States Army Mental Health Assessment Team. This survey examined the coping mechanisms of soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that those who regularly played three to four hours of video games, such as Halo and Call of Duty, had some of the lowest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. The only thing that protected the soldiers better was working out five to six hours a day at the gym.

Next, McGonigal suggested that the opposite of play isn't work; it's depression. If we define depression as having a lack of energy and an abundance of negative emotions, then the opposite of that is, essentially, what it feels like to play a game. The body gets energized when we enter a state of positive stress, called eustress, which differs from anxiety stress because we are making the choice to engage in the activity.

This positive stress leads to positive emotions, which have a real impact on our lives and the lives of others. Being happy makes us more likely to succeed in life. McGonigal turned around the old adage of "work hard, be successful, and then you'll be happy" by suggesting that if we are happy first, it will make us work harder and therefore be more successful.

She went on to cite a study that stated that people need a 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative emotions to feel truly happy. She also cautioned that if a person gets up to a 12-to-1 ratio or higher they become divorced from reality and are generally hard to be around. It doesn't matter where we get these positive emotions, even if it's video games.

So video games make us happy, but why is this important? Emotions are contagious, McGonigal explained, and whatever you're feeling is going to "rub off" on an average of six people, who will then pass it on to six more people, culminating in 250 people per day being influenced in some way by your emotions. So if video games make us happy, we become "contagious vectors of positive emotion," an army of nerds blissfully influencing the lives of people around us. This received a big round of applause.

Before moving on to her next topic, McGonigal cautioned that video games couldn't be the only source of happiness in a person's life. According to her, in order for these findings on positive emotion to be applicable, a person needed to play no more than four hours of games a day, not play with jerks, and not be a jerk themselves while doing so.

The talk then took a more somber turn as she recounted a struggle she faced in overcoming a concussion that had not healed correctly. Basically, in order to give her brain the relaxation it needed to heal, she couldn't read, write, watch TV, or play video games. Until this point, these things were her life. Without them, McGonigal said, she wanted to die. The turning point came in 2009 when she decided that she was either going to kill herself or turn this problem into a game.

She created a secret identity, Jane the Concussion Slayer, and set out to defeat the causes of her depression. She recruited allies--her friends, sister, and husband--and gave each of them missions to help her on this quest. She created an entire narrative in her head, found comfort in it, and it worked. In her own words, she found "blissful productivity, social fabric, urgent optimism, and epic meaning" from this experiment, which she dubbed SuperBetter: A Multiplayer Adventure Game.

She concluded the talk with two anecdotes from people who had created their own unique and personal games. She then reinforced the positive aspects that video games can have on our lives, stating that while games may be escapist activities, they are also returnist ones. Gamers venture out into fanciful worlds and return with power to influence the world around them.

Then, she had everybody link hands and thumb wrestle, and PAX East 2011 was under way.

Quote: "Gaming unleashes our natural ability to be the best version of ourselves."--McGonigal on the positive power of video games.

Takeaway: Video games often get a bad rap as being a nonproductive waste of time, when real-life benefits for players and others may be overlooked.

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