Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life (1)
I'm a gamer, so I like to have goals. I like special missions and secret objectives. So here's my special mission for this talk: I'm going to try to increase the life span of every single person in this room by seven and a half minutes. Literally, you will live seven and a half minutes longer than you would have otherwise, just because you watched this talk.
Some of you are looking a little bit skeptical. That's okay, because check it out -- I have math to prove that it is possible. It won't make much sense now. I'll explain it all later, just pay attention to the number at the bottom: +7.68245837 minutes. That will be my gift to you if I'm successful in my mission. Now, you have a secret mission too. Your mission is to figure out how you want to spend your extra seven and a half minutes. And I think you should do something unusual with them, because these are bonus minutes. You weren't going to have them anyway. Now, because I'm a game designer, you might be thinking to yourself, I know what she wants us to do with those minutes, she wants us to spend them playing games. Now this is a totally reasonable assumption, given that I have made quite a habit of encouraging people to spend more time playing games. For example, in my first TED Talk, I did propose that we should spend 21 billion hours a week, as a planet, playing video games.
Now, 21 billion hours, it's a lot of time. It's so much time, in fact, that the number one unsolicited comment that I have heard from people all over the world since I gave that talk, is this: Jane, games are great and all, but on your deathbed, are you really going to wish you spent more time playing Angry Birds? (Laughter)
This idea is so pervasive -- that games are a waste of time that we will come to regret -- that I hear it literally everywhere I go. For example, true story: Just a few weeks ago, this cab driver, upon finding out that a friend and I were in town for a game developers' conference, turned around and said -- and I quote -- "I hate games. Waste of life. Imagine getting to the end of your life and regretting all that time." Now, I want to take this problem seriously. I want games to be a force for good in the world. I don't want gamers to regret the time they spent playing, time that I encouraged them to spend. So I have been thinking about this question a lot lately. When we're on our deathbeds, will we regret the time we spent playing games? Now, this may surprise you, but it turns out there is actually some scientific research on this question. It's true. Hospice workers, the people who take care of us at the end of our lives, recently issued a report on the most frequently expressed regrets that people say when they are literally on their deathbeds. And that's what I want to share with you today -- the top five regrets of the dying. Number one: I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Number two: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Number three: I wish I had let myself be happier. Number four: I wish I'd had the courage to express my true self. And number five: I wish I'd lived a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me. Now, as far as I know, no one ever told one of the hospice workers, "I wish I'd spent more time playing video games," but when I hear these top five regrets of the dying, I can't help but hear five deep human cravings that games actually help us fulfill. For example, I wish I hadn't worked so hard. For many people, this means, I wish I'd spent more time with my family, with my kids when they were growing up. Well, we know that playing games together has tremendous family benefits. A recent study from Brigham Young University School of Family Life reported that parents who spend more time playing video games with their kids have much stronger real-life relationships with them.
"I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends." Hundreds of millions of people use social games like FarmVille or Words With Friends to stay in daily contact with real-life friends and family. A recent study from the University of Michigan showed that these games are incredibly powerful relationship-management tools. They help us stay connected with people in our social network that we would otherwise grow distant from, if we weren't playing games together. "I wish I'd let myself be happier." Well, here I can't help but think of the groundbreaking clinical trials recently conducted at East Carolina University that showed that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating clinical anxiety and depression. Just 30 minutes of online game play a day was enough to create dramatic boosts in mood and long-term increases in happiness.
"I wish I'd had the courage to express my true self." Well, avatars are a way to express our true selves, our most heroic, idealized version of who we might become. You can see that in this alter ego portrait by Robbie Cooper of a gamer with his avatar. And Stanford University has been doing research for five years now to document how playing a game with an idealized avatar changes how we think and act in real life, making us more courageous, more ambitious, more committed to our goals.
"I wish I'd led a life true to my dreams, and not what others expected of me." Are games doing this yet? I'm not sure, so I've left a Super Mario question mark. We're going to come back to this one. But in the meantime, perhaps you're wondering, who is this game designer to be talking to us about deathbed regrets? And it's true, I've never worked in a hospice, I've never been on my deathbed. But recently I did spend three months in bed, wanting to die. Really wanting to die.
Now let me tell you that story. It started two years ago, when I hit my head and got a concussion. The concussion didn't heal properly, and after 30 days, I was left with symptoms like nonstop headaches, nausea, vertigo, memory loss, mental fog. My doctor told me that in order to heal my brain, I had to rest it. So I had to avoid everything that triggered my symptoms. For me that meant no reading, no writing, no video games, no work or email, no running, no alcohol, no caffeine. In other words -- and I think you see where this is going -- no reason to live.
Of course it's meant to be funny, but in all seriousness, suicidal ideation is quite common with traumatic brain injuries. It happens to one in three, and it happened to me. My brain started telling me, "Jane, you want to die." It said, "You're never going to get better." It said, "The pain will never end." And these voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately fear for my life, which is the time that I said to myself after 34 days -- and I will never forget this moment -- I said, "I am either going to kill myself or I'm going to turn this into a game." Now, why a game? I knew from researching the psychology of games for more than a decade that when we play a game -- and this is in the scientific literature -- we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we're more likely to reach out to others for help. I wanted to bring these gamer traits to my real-life challenge, so I created a role-playing recovery game called Jane the Concussion Slayer.
Now this became my new secret identity, and the first thing I did as a slayer was call my twin sister -- I have an identical twin sister named Kelly -- and tell her, "I'm playing a game to heal my brain, and I want you to play with me." This was an easier way to ask for help.
She became my first ally in the game, my husband Kiyash joined next, and together we identified and battled the bad guys. Now this was anything that could trigger my symptoms and therefore slow down the healing process, things like bright lights and crowded spaces. We also collected and activated power-ups. This was anything I could do on even my worst day to feel just a little bit good, just a little bit productive. Things like cuddling my dog for 10 minutes, or getting out of bed and walking around the block just once.
Now the game was that simple: Adopt a secret identity, recruit your allies, battle the bad guys, activate the power-ups. But even with a game so simple, within just a couple days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished. It felt like a miracle. Now it wasn't a miracle cure for the headaches or the cognitive symptoms. That lasted for more than a year, and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering.