Four years ago, Jane McGonigal released Reality is Broken to make a case for the positive benefits of games, both as an anti-escapist outlet for personal growth and as a template for tackling serious societal challenges. The focus of Reality is Broken was on dissecting the core principles of game design, providing a series of case studies on how those principles were used to tackle big problems, and creating a community of game developers interested in making “gameful experiences.” Reality is Broken is a book of big solutions for big problems. It’s turning to games to encourage entrepreneurship in Africa, or to reinvent education to be more fun and rewarding for students. The book’s spiritual successor, SuperBetter, tells a much more personal story, of making the world better one person at a time.
Jane McGonigal, Concussion Slayer
Halfway through writing Reality is Broken, McGonigal slammed her head into a cabinet door and suffered a serious concussion that took away many of the things she loved most. To help recover McGonigal assumed a secret identity as Jane the Concussion Slayer. Over the following weeks, she recruited her friends to serve as Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed allies as she identified the “bad guys” (triggers that made her feel worse) and “power-ups” (concrete actions she could take to feel better) to get better. Longer-term quests helped her along the road to recovery. Jane the Concussion Slayer was a highly personal and transformative experience for McGonigal.
During her research, McGonigal learned that while traumatic events can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, they can also serve as opportunities for people to reevaluate their priorities and experience post-traumatic growth, coming out of their crisis better than they were before. Further research indicated it’s even possible to voluntarily embrace a difficult challenge to experience similar benefits without the trauma, as post-ecstatic growth. SuperBetter is McGonigal’s attempt to tell their own stories of growth, whether in response to personal trauma or as a voluntary route to betterment.
The release of Jane McGonigal’s newest book SuperBetter is not the game’s global debut. McGonigal released the basic framework for it six years ago on her blog, She went on to recount the story in Reality is Broken, before creating a free online portal to make it easier to guide people through the process. The game has been around for a while. The book provides a rationale for playing, an overview of the studies that influenced its design, and a roadmap to start playing the game.
According to Jane McGonigal, gamers tend to read books more than they watch TV. Books give us big ideas and inform our imaginations, create new worlds and take us on amazing adventures. Oddly enough, the place where books are kept and made available, the library, does not usually fill us with the same sense of wonder. The New York Public Library wants to change that perception. The library’s goal is to “inspire people around the world to see libraries as a place where they can achieve their dreams and invent their own future” and “show off NYPL as a space for active creation and social collaboration.” To do this, the library has developed Find the Future, an interactive experience that guides visitors through the many artifacts housed at the New York Public Library. The game is directed by Jane McGonigal and her husband Kiyash Monsef, and designed and developed by Playmatics and Natron Baxter Applied Gaming.
Find the Future will initially be played by 500 participants who will be locked into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building overnight on May 20, 2011. Once inside, players will go on real-world missions by following virtual clues on laptops and smartphones, collaborating online to discover 100 amazing and unique items from the collections of the New York Public Library, like Charles Dickens’ letter opener or a draft version of the Declaration of Independence. After finding each object, they will write a short piece based on the experience, inspiring the future with their personal contribution, which will later be bundled and published in a book. As McGonigal explained to CNN.com, “it really becomes clear that for every moment in history there was a person who set that moment in action — and you could be that person.”
McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, hits bookstores on January 20th, and expands upon the central point of her presentations: reality is broken, because games do a better job of making us happy. Rather than attacking games as an escapist outlet for avoiding real-world troubles, why don’t we subvert those game mechanics to make the world a better place? The book draws upon a healthy mix of psychological research isolating specific tactics for induce happiness (“happiness hacks”) alongside practical examples of those tactics utilized in both traditional and “serious” game design. The net result? A list of fourteen “fixes” that can help readers improve their lives through play. The book did a superb job of outlining concrete examples of why we like games in the first place, and how we can transform that interest into something that will make our lives and the lives of others better. While reading through the book, I often found myself cheering along with the “epic wins” documented in the book, ready to proudly declare, “We can do this! We can make the world better, if only a little bit!” Reading this book about happiness feels good: don’t be surprised if you catch yourself grinning from ear to ear a few times each chapter.
The book is structured in three sections: the first delves into what makes us happy, the second embraces the notion of entering alternate realities, and the third addresses the challenges and potential embodied in massive collaborative projects. Each section could easily be a book in its own right, with the first section providing a game developer’s how-to guide that should be on every development team’s required reading list, explaining key concepts like flow and failure in easily digestible language. Another section addresses how massively collaborative projects like Wikipedia and [email protected] use gaming elements to achieve “epic wins.”
Get ready for another exciting edition of Come Out and Play! This New York-based public games festival is gearing up for its 2010 edition, which will be headquartered at the Lyceum in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood June 4-6. The Festival has extended its deadline for submitting games to April 19th, so if you have an idea for a fun game, there’s still time to get involved. The Festival planners are working with game designers to refine their ideas and make sure they fit the location and scope of the event. Past games presented/debuted at COAP include Cruel 2B Kind by Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost, as well as Jane’s Cryptozoo and the Lost Sport of Olympia, Ken Eklund’s Spy School, and TAH II, which was an extension of TAH, an alternate reality game produced by Cultural Oil.
I spoke recently with Greg Trefry, Festival Co-Founder and the author of “Casual Game Design: Designing Play for the Gamer in ALL of Us,” to get some details on what to expect this year. Greg says there will be a mix of games requiring tech and not, and is very enthusiastic about location-based games that leverage tech like smartphones and apps for play. Festival sponsor SCVNGR, known for their smartphone based geo-gaming tech platform, will be presenting their own game, but CEO/Chief Ninja Seth Priebatsch was not forthcoming with details. “Well, I can’t tell you too much about what we’re going to be showing off (it’s some sweet new features) but in general it’s in the same vein as what SCVNGR’s all about; making building and playing location-based mobile games fun, quick and easy.”
Greg says that while no games have been officially accepted and announced yet, the popular “Circle Rules Football” from last year’s event will be returning, and he expects a great mix of games, including “weird new sports.” He would love to see submissions for ARGs and games that include ARG elements, as he feels location-based games and ARGs dovetail nicely by using the content of the real world and blurring the lines to enrich the experience of gameplay so you’re “not sure if you’re looking at the game any more.” The real world “is the highest resolution thing you’re gonna play,” he notes.
During her talk at TED 2010, Jane McGonigal argued that game developers have a responsibility to change the world for the better by harnessing the efforts of gamers to improve the real world. Her dream is to see a game developer win the Nobel Prize by 2032. EVOKE, McGonigal’s most recent foray into the serious games arena, launched on March 3rd and may be a step towards achieving that goal. To date, there are over 9,000 agents registered on the site, with more joining every day.
The primary outlet for gameplay in EVOKE is the EVOKE Network itself. After creating a profile on the game’s ning social networking platform, agents can post blogs, images, or video files responding to a number of Quests and Missions. Alternatively, content can be added or accessed via SMS, mobile web, or mobile Facebook to make the game more accessible to players without access to computers. By successfully completing Quests and Missions, students can earn “mission runes” and achievement badges to track their progress. They can also award EVOKE Powers to contributions that excel in a number of different categories. Structurally, the EVOKE Network is similar to McGonigal’s previous project, Top Secret Dance Off, which relied on the community to identify and reward positive contributions while offering loosely structured challenges.
In addition to the EVOKE Network, the game provides an opportunity to learn more about the EVOKE organization and its leader, Alchemy, through a series of weekly graphic novels taking place in the year 2020. Through EVOKE, Alchemy provides anonymous services to countries in desperate need of assistance in exchange for a percentage of the profits from their contributions. Meanwhile, a second, equally secretive organization is seeking information about EVOKE for unknown reasons. So far, interactivity has been limited to the EVOKE Network, with the graphic novel serving as a passive accompaniment to the larger discussion. For example, in the first two installments of the graphic novel, EVOKE solved a food shortage in Tokyo without requiring or asking for the assistance of the game’s players.
Wouldn’t it be great if, during times of crisis, there was a way to access a network of experts ready and able to help avert the crisis? Starting March 3rd, the Evoke Network goes live and available for all your crisis-averting needs!
EVOKE was developed by the World Bank Institute, the educational branch of the World Bank Group, and directed by Jane McGonigal, the creative mind behind Superstruct and World Without Oil (among many others) and most recently an invited speaker at TED2010. The alternate reality game’s mission is to help the world help itself, by empowering young people to tackle the world’s toughest problems. In the first episode, the year is 2020 and Japan is facing a nation-wide famine. The Governor of Tokyo sends an “EVOKE” to the mysterious Alchemy, who then activates the Evoke Network by contacting individuals with the necessary skills and ideas needed to help Tokyo avert her food crisis, and teach her people how to avoid it in the future.
During the 10 week course of the game, players will be presented with 10 different challenges involving topics like hunger, poverty, and education – one challenge per week. Players who participate in all 10 challenges will be honored as a “Certified World Bank Institute Social Innovator – Class of 2010.” On top of that, the top 10 Social Innovators will also have the opportunity to be mentored by noted social innovators and business leaders, along with scholarships to the EVOKE Summit in Washington, DC to share their innovative ideas with the world.
The goal of the game? Fun of course! But the main goal is to teach the young people of the world skills such as networking, resourcefulness, creativity, and vision; empowering them to start solving the world’s problems. Teach the people, save the world!
EVOKE launches on March 3rd and is accepting membership reservations now, and discussion is brewing over in Unfiction. Also, the first graphic novel episode can be read in its entirety on the EVOKE homepage, including links to articles for additional information on the topics discussed in the episode and a video trailer with clues about the nature of the EVOKE Network.