A Q&A with Jane McGonigal
September 16, 2015
We continue our residency with Jane McGonigal with four questions about her new book, Superbetter.
"I tell parents that
the single most important decision they can make about games is not which games
their children play, or for how long they're allowed to play, but instead
simply making the decision to talk to their kids about all of the personal
strengths and skills that their favorite games develop."
We continue our residency with Jane McGonigal with four questions about her new book, Superbetter, and also personally thank her for validating my inability to take things seriously as a child.
Q: The book is full of research that demonstrates how gaming can help people overcome debilitating psychological issues like PTSD, anxiety, and so much more. Who I'm curious about, though, are people whose issue IS their competitive nature. What if winning is so important to the player that not winning, or playing poorly, disallows the player from realizing the benefits of interacting with the game? I realize the answer probably lies in the chapter about making the leap from playing games to being gameful (bringing your gaming strengths into your real life), but can you indulge me?
JM: This is actually quite easy. Play Tetris. It's a single-player game, so you're not competing against anyone but your own previous best score. Better yet, a few years ago, a mathematician actually wrote a PhD thesis proving that Tetris is literally unwinnable. You cannot win Tetris. At best, you hope to keep playing, and keep improving, as the game gets harder and harder (and the puzzle pieces fall faster and faster). Eventually you will fail, and the game will end with you failing. Tetris is therefore the perfect game to practice one of the most important elements of a gameful mindset, which is to be comfortable with failure and the possibility of losing, and yet to still focus on self-improvement and getting better.
Q: Speaking of moving from games to gameful, it's very clear that simply playing games is not enough, that the reason for playing games is probably the biggest factor in whether they improve or harm one's life, because if we can't determine why we're playing, it's pretty difficult to apply the benefits of games to the rest of our life. With this in mind, gaming is ubiquitous and, at least with video games, people are starting to play at younger and younger ages. I'm wondering how we can collectively help kids, much less adults, consider the why before diving in. How do we move the conversation beyond, "Games are good. Games are bad," to games have value and here is the right way to approach them.
JM: This is absolutely true, and it's why I tell parents that the single most important decision they can make about games is not which games their children play, or for how long they're allowed to play, but instead simply making the decision to talk to their kids about all of the personal strengths and skills that their favorite games develop. Here are some questions I recommend to get this conversation started:
What makes this game hard? What skills or talents does it take to be good at this game?
What are you most proud of achieving in this game so far? How did you accomplish that? Is there another part of your everyday life where you could apply the same skill or talent to achieve a goal, or solve a problem?
How long have you been trying to complete this level or mission? What keeps you going? What do you when it gets hard, instead of giving up?
Q: I got more than halfway through the book, to the "Allies" chapter, and thought, "Wow, everything up to this point is great, but if you can't ask for help..." Nobody likes to ask for help, and a lot of us absolutely detest it. You mentioned in the first sentence of the chapter it took an "aha" moment to realize you needed to ask for help. Once you did, and once you started researching, was there a moment where you thought, "I have to get this right," perhaps even more than anything else? After reading through just how to ask for help, it seems so simple. But how hard was it to get to simple?
JM: You're right that I spent more time carefully crafting the advice in the Allies chapter than any other chapter, for two reasons. First, we know from our research that someone who invites just one person to be an ally in their SuperBetter experience will have much better outcomes, and faster. Second, we've also seen that many people resist inviting someone to play with them, even if they understand the benefits. But what I wanted to make sure I communicated effectively in this book is that not once in any of our studies or player interviews did anyone express regret about inviting someone to play, and quite often we would hear someone say, "I was never able to ask for help before, but now that I have, I can't believe it took me so long." So, yes, in the book, I really do try to walk people through the easiest, simplest, most positive way you can reach out to someone and say, "I'm going through a challenge right now, and I'd really like you on my team."
I also make sure to explain that asking someone to be your ally actually is a very positive experience for the person you ask. So I made sure to share some encouraging data. Our SuperBetter players have invited many thousands of allies to play with them online. And our data show that these friends and family absolutely relish the opportunity to help. How do we know? People who initially joined SuperBetter as allies logged in, on average, twice as often as people who signed up to play for their own challenge! And they took more game actions, on average, every time they logged in than did players working on their own challenges—leaving supportive comments, suggesting quests, and so on. In other words, most allies are more than just willing to play along—they are excited to be a part of the journey. As one SuperBetter ally put it, "It means a lot when a friend or family member asks for help, and it means a lot to be recognized for the support you give."
Q: This one's a bit more personal, but I think it's pretty common, too. From a very young age, I was pretty consistently told by coaches, teachers, parents, and other authority figures, "This isn't a game," or "Not everything's a game, Ryan." I always knew what they were trying to say—that I should take things more seriously—but what I couldn't get across was that, yes, a lot of situations need to be taken seriously, but making something a game WAS my way of taking it seriously. So first of all, THANK YOU! Secondly, how would you advise younger people, or even adults still struggling with authority, how to explain that this is simply their way of understanding, processing, and dealing with a situation. (Note: I do admit that sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, I was just being immature.)
JM: The great philosopher Johan Huizinga is famous for writing that "Play is a paradox, because play is never serious, and yet play is always serious." When we play a game, even though it's "just a game", we play whole-heartedly. We put all of our energy and effort into it. We are completely focused. We come alive. While we're playing, we truly care about the outcome—even though, afterwards, we can usually recover quickly if we failed or lost, and indeed find the energy and will to try again. So saying that something is "just a game" fails to recognize how effectively games tap into our natural ability to be motivated, determined, resilient, and whole-heartedly engaged in achieving a difficult goal or tackling a tough obstacle. We have 1.23 billion people on this planet today who play videogames (let alone sports, card games and board games!) regularly, on average an hour a day. One of the great possibilities of this next decade is to help those 1.23 billion people (and counting) learn to use that same gameful mindset in everyday life to be happier, braver, stronger, more creative, and more resilient. That's my mission, and that's exactly what I believe the Superbetter book will do for anyone willing to give a gameful midset a try.
"When we play a game, even though it's "just a game", we play whole-heartedly. We put all of our energy and effort into it. We are completely focused. We come alive. While we're playing, we truly care about the outcome—even though, afterwards, we can usually recover quickly if we failed or lost, and indeed find the energy and will to try again. So saying that something is "just a game" fails to recognize how effectively games tap into our natural ability to be motivated, determined, resilient, and whole-heartedly engaged in achieving a difficult goal or tackling a tough obstacle."