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'Gaming can change the world': Research shows benefits of games


Game designer Jane McGonigal thinks gaming can save the world, or at least help make it a better place.

“I know you’d rather hear that these games are turning kids into brain-dead zombies,” McGonical told a packed room at the University of Washington today, for the School of Social Work’s annual breakfast.

But the evidence suggests otherwise and that gaming is better than harmless. It could be a powerful force for good. Gaming is building a library in Ghana, for starters. More on that in a bit. 

Jane McGonigal

McGonigal began her UW talk by citing the scientific research, both basic neuroscience as well as behavioral studies.

Most research, she said, is increasingly — perhaps surprisingly — demonstrating that computer games correlate with better educational performance in children, improved productivity in the workplace, reduced symptoms of autism and attention deficit disorder as well as increased positive personal emotions like joy, confidence and optimism.

“And gamers fail about 80 percent of the time,” McGonigal noted.

So what is it about playing these games in which we fail so often yet emerge from the activity more optimistic, inspired and ready to tackle more challenges? That’s the counter-intuitive point McGonical, who is also a researcher and author of the best-selling book Reality is Broken, is trying get us all to accept.

“Basically, games make us resilient,” she said. Stressed-out soldiers returning home from combat can reduce their risk of PTSD by playing Tetris. Children with leukemia adhere  more faithfully to their difficult and exhaustive chemotherapy schedule if they play a game, ReMission by HopeLab, that allows them to virtually fight off cancer as a mini-superhero inside their body.

“The true opposite of play is not work, but depression,” McGonigal said.

'We just wanted to give them a different vision'

It should be clear by now to everyone that we are wired to play and the somewhat Calvinist notion of work is just wrong. If we’re not trying to incorporate play as much as possible into our work, we’re not going to be doing our best work.

So that sounds all fine and good for those of us living in Seattle, with our mobile phone games, our iPad games and the luxury to try to live our lives as a game. What good can this do for those who struggle against poverty and lack of basic resources? How can these findings be applied to poor or middle-income countries?

McGonigal has already been working on that. They started a game optimized for mobile phones in Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa. Called Evoke, the idea was simply to give young people a game to play that required them to imagine what they would like to be doing in their communities 10 years in the future. To get them to not focus too much on the problems they face today — which can seem overwhelming — but on being problem-solvers of the future. 


“We just wanted to give them a different vision,” McGonigal said. Follow-up studies with users of the Evoke game showed that many young Africans had a more optimistic, proactive and creative mindset. Rather than focus on the problem, they played a game that got them focused on possible solutions.

But it isn’t just about changing attitudes. Gamers have taken what they learned to start businesses and social enterprises. McGonigal talked about a young person wityh a solar energy business and another who charges electronics in a poor community using a bicycle. She said a group called Libraries Across Africa, which is building its first free library in Accra, Ghana, started out as gamers.

The point here, McGonigal said, is that playing games is inherently human and we are not exploiting our full potential if we don’t learn how to plug our gaming nature into all of the activities we care about.

Humanity spends an estimated 7 billion hours a week playing games. To help get some perspective on that as a potential source of innovation to be tapped, McGonigal noted that it’s been estimated that it’s taken 100 million hours of work by people all over the world to create today’s Wikipedia.

“That sounds like a lot, but that’s equal to about three weeks of Angry Birds play (globally),” she said. Let’s stop thinking of gaming as a waste of time and put it to better use, since it’s already a global force. Make it a global force for good. “Gaming can change the world.”

You can read more stories by Tom Paulson on his blog,

The host of the Humanosphere community is Tom Paulson, who spent 22 years reporting on science and medicine at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Tom was one of the first daily news reporters to cover the topic of “global health” (a much-debated label which he discusses the merits of on the Humanosphere website).

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