Six Questions for Jane McGonigal

Pioneering game designer Jane McGonigal harnesses the power of play to help solve some of the world’s most serious problems. Her games have allowed a new generation to envision a world without oil and launched real-life organizations to fight poverty, famine, and other social ills.

Jane McGonigal helped NYPL kick off its Centennial with Find the Future: The Game, an all-night scavenger hunt in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Friday, May 20, 2011, allowing 500 young people to learn about the Library’s treasures — and record their thoughts along the way.

Prequalified players explored the building’s 70 miles of stacks, and, using laptops and smartphones, followed clues to items such as the Library’s famed copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. After finding each object, the players answered questions — such as how would they write the Declaration—and the responses were compiled in a book that each participant took home.

We talked with McGonigal about her new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, and what her game at NYPL can do to help.


1. How is reality broken?

There are more than half a billion people worldwide — including 183 million in the United States — who play online games at least an hour a day. Why? Because games do a better job of provoking our most powerful positive emotions — like curiosity, optimism, pride, and a desire to join forces with others. Games are fulfilling genuine human needs the real world is unable to satisfy.


2. Some think gaming is escapist. Can games change the world?

That’s the biggest misperception. Gaming is productive. It produces positive emotion, stronger social relationships, a sense of accomplishment, and for players who are part of a game community, a chance to build a sense of purpose. I’m interested in bringing this mindset to our real lives and efforts to tackle the world’s most urgent problems, from curing cancer to slowing climate change.


3. How can Find the Future help?

The game is designed to empower young people to find their own futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and objects of people who made an extraordinary difference. Like every game I make, it has one goal: to turn players into superempowered, hopeful individuals with real skills and ideas to help them change the world.


4. How have your other games changed the world?

My most recent game, EVOKE, led to some pretty astonishing real-world results. EVOKE was a 10-week “crash course in changing the world,” designed for young people who wanted to do something to help solve really tough problems — hunger, poverty, climate change — but didn’t know what they could personally do. It was funded by the World Bank Institute, and over 10 weeks, we helped just under 20,000 gamers from 130 countries collaborate to launch 50 new social enterprises — real, local businesses designed to tackle local community problems. These teams were matched with a successful entrepreneur to get mentorship, and even acquired seed funding to get their businesses going from Global Giving. And all this happened in just 10 weeks of play! So we know that games can make a difference. My hope is that Find the Future at NYPL provides a similar, life-changing spark for people who play it. 


5. What is your favorite object, place, or collection at NYPL?

I live in San Francisco now, but when I lived in New York City I was an avid NYPL user. In college at Fordham, my favorite branch was the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. When I decided to apply for PhD programs — initially, to study physics and performance — I first studied for a year using materials from the Performing Arts Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library. Those libraries literally changed my life! They helped me get into graduate school — where eventually I discovered the world of game design and wound up completing my PhD in games research — instead of physics — at the University of California, Berkeley.


6. With so many gamers, what is the role for reading?

Absolutely! First of all, from what we know about gamers, they’re not giving up books — they’re giving up TV. Gamers watch less TV than anyone else. That’s the primary swap. And games can inspire a lot of reading! Will Wright, one of the greatest game designers in history — he created Sims and Spore — always spends at least a year reading before he makes a new game. His games are steeped in all kinds of science—biology, astrophysics, social psychology. Game designers need big ideas and really informed imaginations to create new worlds and design new adventures. I think it would be amazing for libraries to really become a brewing ground for new game ideas — not to mention the spaces where young people can learn the technology skills that will help them start inventing their own games! 




 Photo: Bart Nagel 

Art by Jacob Glaser

Photo courtesy of The Penguin Press

Extended through March 4

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