Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world (1)
I'm Jane McGonigal. I'm a game designer. I've been making games online now for 10 years, and my goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games. Now, I have a plan for this, and it entails convincing more people, including all of you, to spend more time playing bigger and better games.
Right now we spend three billion hours a week playing online games. Some of you might be thinking, "That's a lot of time to spend playing games. Maybe too much time, considering how many urgent problems we have to solve in the real world." But actually, according to my research at the Institute for the Future, actually the opposite is true. Three billion hours a week is not nearly enough game play to solve the world's most urgent problems. In fact, I believe that if we want to survive the next century on this planet, we need to increase that total dramatically. I've calculated the total we need at 21 billion hours of game play every week. So, that's probably a bit of a counter-intuitive idea, so I'll say it again, let it sink in: If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week, by the end of the next decade. (Laughter)
No. I'm serious. I am.
Here's why. This picture pretty much sums up why I think games are so essential to the future survival of the human species.
Truly. This is a portrait by photographer Phil Toledano. He wanted to capture the emotion of gaming, so he set up a camera in front of gamers while they were playing. And this is a classic gaming emotion. Now, if you're not a gamer, you might miss some of the nuance in this photo. You probably see the sense of urgency, a little bit of fear, but intense concentration, deep, deep focus on tackling a really difficult problem.
If you are a gamer, you will notice a few nuances here: the crinkle of the eyes up, and around the mouth is a sign of optimism, and the eyebrows up is surprise. This is a gamer who's on the verge of something called an "epic win." (Laughter)
Oh, you've heard of that. OK, good, so we have some gamers among us. An epic win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. It was almost beyond the threshold of imagination, and when you get there, you're shocked to discover what you're truly capable of. That's an epic win. This is a gamer on the verge of an epic win. And this is the face that we need to see on millions of problem-solvers all over the world as we try to tackle the obstacles of the next century -- the face of someone who, against all odds, is on the verge of an epic win.
Now, unfortunately this is more of the face that we see in everyday life now as we try to tackle urgent problems. This is what I call the "I'm Not Good At Life" face. This is actually me making it. Can you see? Yes. Good. This is me making the "I'm Not Good At Life" face. This is a piece of graffiti in my old neighborhood in Berkeley, California, where I did my PhD on why we're better in games than we are in real life. And this is a problem that a lot of gamers have. We feel that we are not as good in reality as we are in games.
I don't mean just good as in successful, although that's part of it. We do achieve more in game worlds. But I also mean good as in motivated to do something that matters -- inspired to collaborate and to cooperate. And when we're in game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves -- the most likely to help at a moment's notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long at it takes, to get up after failure and try again. And in real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don't feel that way. We feel overcome, we feel overwhelmed, we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we're playing games, they just don't exist in games. So that's what I wanted to study when I was a graduate student. What about games makes it impossible to feel that we can't achieve everything? How can we take those feelings from games and apply them to real-world work? So I looked at games like World of Warcraft, which is really the ideal collaborative problem-solving environment. And I started to notice a few things that make epic wins so possible in online worlds.
The first thing is whenever you show up in one of these online games, especially in World of Warcraft, there are lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away. But not just any mission, it's a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game. Right? So you can do it. They never give you a challenge you can't achieve. But it is on the verge of what you're capable of, so you have to try hard. But there's no unemployment in World of Warcraft; no sitting around, wringing your hands -- there's always something specific and important to be done. There are also tons of collaborators. Everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.
That's not something we have in real life that easily, this sense that at our fingertips are tons of collaborators. And there's this epic story, this inspiring story of why we're there, and what we're doing, and we get all this positive feedback. You guys have heard of leveling up, +1 strength, +1 intelligence. We don't get that kind of constant feedback in real life. When I get off this stage, I'm not going to have +1 speaking, and +1 crazy idea, +20 crazy idea. I don't get that feedback in real life. Now, the problem with collaborative online environments like World of Warcraft is that it's so satisfying to be on the verge of an epic win all the time, we decide to spend all our time in these game worlds. It's just better than reality. So, so far, collectively all the World of Warcraft gamers have spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of Azeroth. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It might sound like it's a bad thing. But to put that in context: 5.93 million years ago was when our earliest primate human ancestors stood up. That was the first upright primate.
So when we talk about how much time we're currently investing in playing games, the only way it makes sense to even think about it is to talk about time at the magnitude of human evolution, which is an extraordinary thing. But it's also apt, because it turns out that by spending all this time playing games, we're actually changing what we are capable of as human beings. We're evolving to be a more collaborative and hearty species. This is true. I believe this.
So, consider this really interesting statistic; it was recently published by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University: The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. Now 10,000 hours is a really interesting number for two reasons. First of all, for children in the United States, 10,080 hours is the exact amount of time you will spend in school, from fifth grade to high school graduation, if you have perfect attendance.
So, we have an entire parallel track of education going on, where young people are learning as much about what it takes to be a good gamer as they're learning about everything else in school. Some of you have probably read Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers," so you would have heard of his theory of success, the "10,000 hours" theory of success. It's based on this great cognitive-science research that says if we can master 10,000 hours of effortful study at anything by the age of 21, we will be virtuosos at it. We will be as good at whatever we do as the greatest people in the world. And so, now what we're looking at is an entire generation of young people who are virtuoso gamers. So, the big question is, "What exactly are gamers getting so good at?" Because if we could figure that out, we would have a virtually unprecedented human resource on our hands. This is how many people we now have in the world who spend at least an hour a day playing online games. These are our virtuoso gamers, 500 million people who are extraordinarily good at something. And in the next decade, we're going to have another billion gamers who are extraordinarily good at whatever that is. If you don't know it already, this is coming. The game industry is developing consoles that are low-energy and that work with the wireless phone networks instead of broadband Internet, so that gamers all over the world, particularly in India, China, Brazil, can get online. They expect one billion more gamers in the next decade. It will bring us up to 1.5 billion gamers.
So I've started to think about what these games are making us virtuosos at. Here are the four things I came up with. The first is urgent optimism. OK, think of this as extreme self-motivation. Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it's always worth trying, and trying now. Gamers don't sit around. Gamers are virtuosos at weaving a tight social fabric. There's a lot of interesting research that shows we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they've beaten us badly. And the reason is, it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, stay with the game until it's over. And so, playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation. And we actually build stronger social relationships as a result. Blissful productivity. I love it. You know, there's a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week -- kind of a half-time job. It's because we know, when we're playing a game, that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing, or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings, to do hard and meaningful work. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they're given the right work.