Learning to Make Your Own Reality


Photo by Vincent Diamante

What new kinds of games will we play in the future, and what key knowledge and skills will game developers need to invent them? Futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal argues that over the next decade, games will become a powerful interface for managing our real work, organizing society, and optimizing our real lives. Increasingly, she predicts, game developers will be charged with the task of making people happier, smarter, friendlier, greener, and healthier — and hundreds of millions of new gamers will be playing together at home, at school, at work, and everywhere in between. The result? Game design and development expertise will become a sought-after talent in virtually every industry and field, from Fortune 500 companies to top government agencies.

The following transcript of Jane McGonigal’s 2009 Serious Games Summit keynote at the Game Developers Conference has not been approved by the speaker.  Audio is also available.  Related text and video is on Boing Boing.

Learning to Make Your Own Reality


Are you optimistic about the future?  If you are, please raise your hand.

That is not surprising at all, because I think game developers have some of the most reasons to be optimistic out of anybody on the planet.


Here is someone who is not too optimistic about the future.  This is some graffiti in London.  It’s kind of an angry guy yelling at people to “INVENT THE FUTURE.”  The person who posted this on flickr had a really interesting caption.  “‘Invent the Future,’ it says…


“Well, it’s probably better than inventing the past, but I wonder what proportion of people in the world really have the slightest chance of altering their own futures.”

Now, I am here with an answer to that question.  I would say about one in two thousand.  That is not a super scientific number, but a back-of-the-envelope estimation based on the prospect of having three million game designers on a planet of 6.7 billion people.

I think it is game developers that have the opportunity to invent and alter their own futures. I am the director of research development at the Institute for the Future.  If you don’t know the IFTF, it is a non-profit think tank in Palo Alto, California that has been going for 40 years. We have outlived many of our forecasts about the future and can be held accountable for whether or not they are helpful.


This is one of our recent logos that we made.  It is an adaptation of a World Fair sticker from the 1930′s.  It used to be that you would go the World Fair and see the future. At the IFTF we are not really interested in trying to predict the future. We want to decide what the future should be like, and then make it.  We are all about figuring out what the tools are to imagine a best-case scenario for the future and go about building it.

In my research over the last couple of years, I have determined that game platforms are probably the most robust tool that we will have for inventing a best-case scenario for the future.  That is what I am here to talk to you about today: learning how to make your own reality and teaching game developers, game designers and gamers how to make a better reality.

I believe that the great work of game designers over the next decade will be to reinvent real life as we know it.  We are not talking about getting rid of games that are mostly for entertainment.  We are going to use the entertainment games industry as a pipeline for innovation that we can use to redesign the real world.


There are five key forces that I think are driving us toward a game designer’s future.  These ideas are sustainable happiness, persuasive technology, the engagement economy, programmable reality and superstructing.  These five ideas will give game inventors the best odds of reinventing life as we know it.


Let’s start with sustainable happiness.  This is a measurably higher quality of life that first flows from scientific findings about optimal human experience and also requires fewer non-renewable resources to generate well-being.  Sustainable happiness is growing in part out of the new field of positive psychology.  This is a field that a lot of game designers are paying attention to now.  We all know that games in part are designed to make us happy and to give us optimal experience when reality fails to do so.


We are learning a lot about what makes people happy.  It is a science of physiology, of cognitive science, of social science.  There has been a lot of research over the past decade, but the findings that peaked across cultures and across demographics can be boiled down to four things.  We want satisfying work to do: something concrete and specific, so we can figure out when we’re done.  We want to experience being good at something.  We need time spent with people we like.  Finally, we need the chance to be a part of something bigger.  You want to feel like there is something that extends beyond your own life that you can contribute to.

That is what the positive psychologists are figuring out, and they are turning this into metrics that we can use to measure how much well-being there is in particular cities, schools or households. There are even websites now that will help you graph and chart how changes you make in your life affect your well-being.  There are some large organizations trying to measure well-being.


One of my favorite is nef, whose slogan is “Economics, as if people and the planet mattered.”  They are kind of at the forefront of sustainable happiness.  They have created an index to look at how well countries are using their resources to deliver longer lives and life satisfaction.  They had to change the name of this from the “happy planet index” to the “unhappy planet index” because they realized that we are doing a completely horrible job of trying to sustain happiness with the non-renewable resources that we have.

Of course, game designers would know better.  This is a classic quote on happiness: “Happiness consists in activity.  It is a running stream, not a stagnant pool.” (John Mason Good)  However, for decades now we have been living as if happiness were some sort of pool of resources that we can accumulate for ourselves and horde and consume.  That is obviously not true, and what we are seeing happening in the economy or with climate change is an indication that we have been pursuing failed methodologies for achieving sustainable happiness.


As game developers and game designers, you might look at this list of four things that make people happy and you might think these are the four things that games do.  That’s what I think. I think positive psychology is coming to the conclusion that multiplayer games are the best platform we have now for creating sustainable happiness.


I want to show you an example of trying to use positive psychology to improve one person’s happiness. That is me doing research for my dissertation at UC Berkeley, not seeing anybody, working all the time and that was a model that I pursued diligently even after I finished my degree, living a completely work-obsessed, technology-mediated life. I started looking at positive psychology and sustainable happiness research to figure out how I could make it better.


One finding that shows up in every country and every neuroscientist agrees on is that dancing with other people is one of the most perfect happiness engines.  If we are dancing with someone else, this unleashes an incredibly strong, evolutionarily adaptive pleasure, like the best, strongest opiates in the world.


If we could dance together with people more, that would be great.  The problem is that a lot of people are too shy to dance in public.  For most of my life, I have been too shy to dance in public.  However, when I did more research into positive psychology, I found out that humiliation actually makes us happier.  Across cultures, when we get embarrassed there is a physiological response.  This is a way of showing people that we are vulnerable, they realize that in this moment they have power over us, and that means they like us more. There is this synchronicity of people’s emotional needs being met.  We are happier when we are humiliated around people we trust.

I have invented a game in which you have to dance on the internet, figuring that I will both increase the number of people I dance with and also humiliate myself.  Your first initiative is to create a real-life avatar for yourself and then you have to dance in disguise, so that you don’t have to be too afraid to dance in public.  All the players pretty much cover up their faces.  Then you have dance challenges.  Your first challenge is to dance in disguise without moving your feet.  You upload videos showing that you did this, then other players on this social network give you choreo-power ups.

Like any good game, it gets harder the more you play.  The third dance quest is to dance at a cross-walk.  This is not a serious game, this is just a game for fun, but it is seriously trying to improve people’s happiness by getting people to dance more and humiliate themselves. Other game designers are trying to do this.  There was a great keynote this morning by the creator of a multi-layer card game connected to a social network online, where you are asked to do good deeds in public, prove that you did them, and get rewarded by the social network.


There are also more mainstream games looking at positive psychology, like flOw.  Also, Flower is a gorgeous game.  Jenova Chen, talking about it, says Flower has wonder, twists, despair and catharsis. These are all ways of being happy.  If you look at the whole spectrum of optimal human experiences, here is this great game developer that I am totally inspired by and clearly taking seriously the idea that we can create games to explore the space of sustainable well-being.


Here is my forecast around sustainable happiness. Over the next decade, game designers will become happiness hackers, called upon to help individuals, communities and entire populations better structure their everyday lives for authentic happiness and sustainable well-being.  This is moving beyond entertainment to think about quality of life. If you want to learn more about this, here are three books that I recommend reading, and these are some organizations to track.


One design challenge is, if you could make one person measurably happier, who would it be and what game would you make for them?  In my spare time now I am trying to make a game for my grandfather, who is 96.


The formal definition of persuasive technology is a human-computer interaction that is intentionally designed to change the way someone thinks, acts or behaves. If you have heard of this field, you have probably heard of B.J. Fogg.  He is the father of the field of persuasive technology.  He talks about three ways to change somebody’s life through technology.  You can either increase their capability by building them a tool, you can change the social dynamics in their life by being a social actor, or you can provide them an experience that offers them a new point-of-view by using technology as the medium.

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One of the most prominent examples of persuasive technology are hybrid cars with a dashboard that tells you exactly how much you are consuming at different speeds.  This is a blog post by someone who drives a Prius, who says, “My car is a videogame!”  Now she can guage her fuel consumption with realtime feedback just like a game.  Google has a great new technology prototype that will let you see exactly which appliances and utilities in your home residence are using how much power.  You realize how much you’re paying to have your toaster plugged in all the time, so people who have used it have dropped 80% of household usage, just by knowing when they are consuming.


Coming out of the game space, Chore Wars is really persuasive for kids who don’t want to make their bed or do the dishes.  It’s a game where you can claim experience points for doing chores, but it’s a very persuasive medium, I have heard from many parents. Looking at more traditional games, Left 4 Dead persuades gamers to focus more on collaboration than competition.  A friend of mine, who is a hardcore first-person shooter gamer said basically he can’t be an asshole anymore when he plays the game online.


If you want to change people’s behavior in the real world, you can think about asking them to do something that is hard, like stop using oil.  The last time I talked at a GDC Summit I was just launching “World Without Oil,” which was a six-week simulation of an oil shortage.  Everybody says they are going to use less someday, but we asked people to pretend that we had already run out of oil. How would you cope?  What imaginative solutions would you come up with?  You really had to do it, by showing us your videos and blog posts or any other social media you could create that would be persuasive.  At the end of the six weeks we had all these real-life solutions that people had tried to live without oil.

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Here is the forecast for persuasive technology.  In the next decade we will see game designers  becoming change agents. They will be called upon to create systems that change minds, teach new habits and transform everyday practices. It is going to be a huge market.  These are some things that you might want to read as you start preparing for this future.


A design challenge for you, if you would like to design persuasive technologies, if you could change either what one person does every day or if you could change what one group thinks about one thing, what would you change and how would your game do it?

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The engagement economy is about the growing need to compete for and harness crowd resources and participation bandwidth.  This stems out of a lot of the recent interest in the wisdom of crowds, collective intelligence and mass collaboration.  How do you get lots of people together, combine their diverse knowledge and the brute force of lots of people thinking about something?  In order to have this kind of scale of collaboration, we need to gather up a lot of participation resources.  That includes cognitive resources (what people know, what they are capable of doing) and also cognitive diversity (how many points-of-view on a problem do you need to get it right?)

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If you think about the participation resources required to create Wikipedia, Clay Shirky has a great statistic about how many cognitive hours it took to create that. He calculated with someone at IBM that it took 100 million mental hours from a highly diverse knowledge community to create Wikipedia. You could parse that out lots of ways, like a million people contributing 100 hours each, or other ways.


That is a lot of resources to do a mass collab project. What a lot of people are finding out now is that it is really hard to get that many people to contribute to a project that is not their own. This is the prediction market from the front page of a really popular prediction market site, which is like a stock market but for future outcomes.  This is the flatline of activity on the featured prediction market for the whole month.  Nothing.  It’s hard to get people to participate.


This is a screenshot from one of the most popular crowdsourcing sites, where you are supposed to come and collaborate with other people on business enterprise projects.  If you look at the number of members for each project, this is the first page, it’s one member for everything.  Mass collaboration is hard.  It’s hard to get people not to just play by themselves.


Game developers are figuring this out in powerful ways.  It is not so hard to get people to contribute cognitive hours to a game project or game world. We are talking about 100 million mental hours—if you multiply 10 million games x 16 hours a week, you realize that it might take just five days of World of Warcraft gaming to create Wikipedia, the whole thing.  Big companies are starting to figure that out, and they want to know how they can make their mass collaboration problem as engaging as World of Warcraft.


Nick Yee, one of my favorite game researchers, says “The purpose of all videogames is to train a player to work harder while still enjoying it.  Success of online games demonstrates how seductive and concealed the work treadmill can be.”

There is no reason why we cannot take real-world work and real-world problems and seductively conceal it in an awesome game.  World of Warcraft players are some of the most active mass collaborators in the world.  Theirs is the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia. 5 million people go there a month.  They have over a million registered users and over 71,000 content pages about World of Warcraft.    Gamers have no problem doing work and contributing to collective intelligence—they just have to care about it.  There is a project from the University of Washington, where they have created a 3D game environment where you can fold proteins and they will analyze the folds that you come up with to see if it might cure cancer.

At the Institute for the Future we have just launched a game platform for micro-forecasting, where you have 140 characters to make a forecast about the future. We have been running a game called Free Space, which is about our ten year forecast for personal satellites.  When we bring the cost of sending a satellite into space down dramatically, we have been asking people, “What will you do when it is as easy and affordable to launch a personal satellite as it is to launch a website?”Right now it costs $30,000, but it looks like it will be well under $1000 within the next 20 years. We asked people to tell us their most optimistic idea and also their most pessimistic idea.  Other people can argue with them with “antagonism cards.”  They can build on their stories with “momentum cards.”

I think the most impressive project to date that is trying to use a game style to do real scientific research is Galaxy Zoo.  This is an amazing project that not a lot of people know about.  They take in a quarter of a million high resolution scans of other galaxies by means of a robotic telescope, they release them to the public and ask them questions.  These are questions that you cannot just run through algorithm detection—you need a human eye.  For instance, “Is this galaxy smooth or rounded?” People look at it, and they identify if it is or not.

For the first 24 hours after launch, they had 70,000 classifications an hour, and this is not just about participation.  They are actually finding stuff out.  They have four published, peer reviewed scientific papers and four more in progress, just based on what players of this game have found.  They actually discovered a new solar object that nobody has seen before in all of science, and they named it after the player who found it.  It’s called the “Voorwerp mystery.”


Part of the challenge will be matching what normal people can do with engaging platforms, and then turning that into real results. Your forecast for the engagement economy over the next ten years, we are going to think about game developers as “fun engineers” and “mass collaboration architects.”  We will be asked to invent fun new ways for more people to participate in mass collaboration efforts to contribute their collective intelligence.  We will be charged with developing platforms that allow an average person to contribute to a larger good.


If you want to do a game design challenge around the engagement economy, if your game can get one hundred people to do one thing online, what would it be and what would it add up to?

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Number four is programmable reality.  Here is the formal definition: Our growing ability to embed sensors, microcontroller boards and networks in physical objects, built environments and ourselves.  We are talking about location-aware technologies, so my iPhone knows where I am.   We are talking about sensors like the Nike+ system, where my show knows how far I ran, and bio metrics like the NeuroSky headset that will measure attention and arousal.  We are even talking about augmented reality—things that overlay data on the real world.

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Those are going to be platforms that will increasingly be used for gaming.  They are a perfect fit for gaming.  Nike+ turns your runs into a videogame. You are competing against friends, and it’s telling you when your best runs are, when you’re being really lame.  It can give you special challenges, and it’s already naturally very much like a game.  They have recently taken the next step, though only in Hong Kong, by creating a virtual MMO using Google Earth overlays so that when you do your Nike+ running, it matches up with a virtual quest in an MMO.


Speaking of bio metrics, this is one of the first big game to use the bio sensor headset.  You control the game and are wrestling with these spirits by concentrating on them.  Instead of getting all worked up, you have to concentrate on silence and peace.  It’s a very different gaming experience.  I was able to play a prototype, and it was four of us sitting around the computer, all trying to concentrate.  Then we would get really excited because it was working, and then it would be terrible and we would fail.  It was a totally different game dynamic.


One of the classic examples in this field is called shark runner. Real tags were put on real sharks, and then you would play a game with real sharks online. You are chasing sharks online and they are in a real ocean, swimming around. You and sharks playing together… to me, that’s awesome.  People aren’t just interested in virtual worlds—they are interested in making the real world more engaging and interactive.


Your forecast for programmable reality is that game developers are going to need to learn to blend realities.  For every screen-based experience, there will be an equal and complementary real-world object, physical environment or social interaction.  I think this is going to be the most transformative out of all five of these.  It will perhaps happen faster than the others. Learning how to hack reality, how to hack stuff, there is a great book called Getting Started with Arduino, which is a super-cheap microcontroller board you can stick in anything.


If you want to program reality, the challenge for yourself, if you could make a game by embedding one microcontroller board or one sensor in one physical object, what would it be, and how do you want to play with that?


Finally, superstructing is the most serious out of all of these.  It is a method of extreme-scale problem solving that emphasizes flexibility, transparency and rapid prototyping.  It requires a high threshold for frustration and the ability to handle uncertainty. I think of this as a super combination of a game designer’s skills and the gamer mindset.  Gamers are probably capable of dealing with a higher degree of frustration because they know they have to stick with something to get past the challenge.


I was at a conference recently where Dan Newman, who is a leading strategist for governments and public agencies, and in the middle of his talk he said, “And wouldn’t it be easier to innovate if life were more like a game?” He was not really talking about games, but I was like “Yes, of course it would be.” He is not the first one to think of that. Albert Einstein famously said, “Games are the most elevated form of investigation.”  He was an avid chess player and he thought about chess as a problem space that you would examine again and again over the course of your life from different points-of-views.  Now we have a lot more than two people sitting over a board.  We have lots of people online exploring big ideas, weird ideas.


Spore is an interesting example of moving toward the superstructing concept in commercial games. There was an amazing interview/ interrogation between Jill Tarter and Will Wright. I just want to read you part of this exchange.


This is Jill: “I’m interested in the possibility that learning to be good at a game makes you good at life, makes you good at changing the world, and gives you skills that are going to allow you to reinvent your environment, because in the game you play against an environment that has been given to you.  You do everything possible to try and make an impact on that world and learn how to optimize your standing in that world.”

Will fired back, “There’s real value in being pushed toward global awareness and looking long-term.  That’s one of the things that I find very useful about games… I think these are the timelines we need to be looking at, the 100 or 200 year horizons.  Most of the really bad stuff that’s happening right now is the result of very short-term thinking.”  He agrees that learning to be good at having an impact in a game could teach you how to change the real world.


This idea that games could teach us to think in longer time cycles and to feel like we have agency to change the world around us is what I call superstructing.  We ran a game at the Institute for the Future this fall called Superstruct.  We decided to give the biggest problem that we could think of to gamers. We created a supercomputer called the Global Extinction Awareness System. The game was set in 2019, and we had the supercomputer predict the collapse of the human species in the year 2042. This was not a real forecast from the Institute for the Future, but a provocation to our gamers. We gave them five ways to try and change the world between now and then to prevent the extinction of the human species: reinventing energy, reinventing food, health, society and security.


We then created a social network where people came up with ideas about how to do that.  It was basically like the Global Game Jam, but for prototyping really strange ideas for saving the world. Our motto was “Together we can re-invent the way the world works.” Over six weeks we had a community of over 7,000 people, everyone from classrooms of high school kids to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They created over a thousand stories about this future, trying to save the world. They had five hundred active strategies going, and they created five hundred prototypes for how to reinvent society as we know it.


I was working with futurist Jamais Cascio on this, and our secret mission was to create what we call super-empowered hopeful individuals, or SEHIs.  I encourage you to look that term up online. Basically, SEHIs are people who feel personally empowered to make a difference and try and change the world.  They don’t need the government, they don’t need funding, they need social networks, technology and good ideas. At IFTF we are running a new superstructing project now that is documenting the future of caring, called Ruby’s Bequest. It is going on in the next four weeks.


The forecast for superstructing: game designers will find themselves in charge of extreme scale global collaboration jams.  We might find ourselves being asked to design games that help diverse, massively multiplayer communities handle real-world, open-ended problems.


Your design challenge if you want to help superstruct the world would be to think about this challenge.  If you could make a game that connects two unlikely communities who would never collaborate on their own, and you could ask them to do one extraordinary thing together, who would it be and what would they collaborate on?


Now, to wrap up, what’s important?  The idea here is that game developers over the next decade and beyond will be able to remake reality to make real life happier, to make us smarter, to make everyday work more engaging and to make the planet more resilient.  These are five significant trends in society, technology and science that are making game development one of the key solutions to global-scale problems.


I will just close with this picture, which is more graffiti from London.  It says, “Are you optimistic about the future?”  Then there is this little thing up there that says, “253 babies are born every minute worldwide.”

Right now 60% of kids in developing countries play games on cell phones or one laptop per child.  60% of kids in developing countries are gamers. In countries like the U.S., 97% of kids consider themselves gamers.  When I think about all the people who are born every minute, I think about the next generation growing up gamers, who are ready to be engaged, who care about collaborating and have great skill sets that we can apply to making each other happier and solving some really big problems.


2 thoughts on “Learning to Make Your Own Reality

  1. Pingback: Topics about Energycrisis » Archive » Future Current » Blog Archive » Learning to Make Your Own Reality

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