Geeky Woman Role Model: Jane McGonigal

This up coming weekend contains one of my favorite geeky and gaming events of the year: PAX East in Boston. Last year, it was the inaugural year for the event, and the keynote speaker was the always amazing Wil Wheaton. Well, this year, Gabe and Tycho have again pulled from the ranks of awesome for the keynote speaker, and it’s a woman who is a writer of an incredible book, a game developer, and someone who spends the majority of her time thinking about how to use gaming to improve the future of the human race. We only have one title for someone who does all that here on the blog: Geeky Woman Role Model, and this month, the honor goes to PAX East Keynote Speaker Jane McGonigal.

When she was announced as the keynote speaker, I had heard bits and pieces about her and mostly about her book: Reality is Broken. Well, being the good, prepared scholar that I am, I decided to read it. It helped that the husband decided to buy it and let me have a go at it first! I was hooked in about a paragraph and spent most of the next couple of weeks using every spare moment to finish it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I had to keep stopping to take notes on the great material in there!

Jane’s basic thesis from the book is that people use games as a way to escape from a reality that doesn’t fulfill our needs, and that we should harness the power of games to shape reality to improve ourselves and our world. Just from reading the book, I was already thinking about how games shape me, how to use games to improve myself, and how to incorporate gaming into college education to help engage the newest generation of college students. She might have inspired me to download a vocabulary game onto my new-to-me Droid instead of Angry Birds. I might just be a nerd. The jury’s still out.

So, a bit more about our Geeky Woman Role Model. She’s academic and has a PhD in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley and she taught some game design and play courses in the area. She’s helped to develop numerous games for various situations and companies. She’s currently the Director of Games Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. She forcasts the future! How cool is that? She gives talks about games all around the world and around the internets. Her TED talk is ranked #16 All Time Most Engaging TED Talk (which is one higher than Bill Gates!). She also visited with Colbert pretty recently. The remainder of Jane’s incredible achievements can be found on her Bio page.

Of course, what really makes her a Geeky Woman Role Model in my mind is that she doesn’t just want games to be fun and engaging, but she wants games to change the world. It is her goal to see a game developer win the Nobel Peace Prize someday. That’s an incredible, or to use one of Jane’s favorite words: Epic, goal. She has already put effort into games like that such as World Without Oil and Cruel 2 B Kind. These ideas are also inspired by Buddhist philosophies like ending suffering on Earth. Buddhism can be pretty geeky, right?

So, you should read her book, Reality is Broken, and if you are fortunate enough to be visiting PAX East this weekend, first, say hi to me, but second, make sure you check out her keynote. She says that it’s going to be about the science of gaming and why that makes gamers awesome. Science and gaming? I think that might be my favorite intersection! Either way, Jane McGonigal intersects with awesome as a single perfect circle, and that’s why she is the Geeky Woman Role Model for March!

See you at PAX, Jane!


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Greg Christopher
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 11:56:15

    I think she is actually a delusional person who is hurting people. My feelings are completely unrelated to her gender. And I say that as a Geek who plays Video Games on occasion when I am not working on my RPGs.

    I made a post about it recently:

    I guess if you remove her crazy beliefs and just focus on her professional work as a designer, then I guess I could see her as a role model. I have to do the same for people like Tom Cruise who are crazy but still do good professional work.


    • GirlsAreGeeks
      Mar 09, 2011 @ 12:46:42

      I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I married one. I definitely play games however, and a variety of them. I have been playing puzzle games as long as I can remember, and family board games, and RPGs of many varieties including computer, console, tabletop, and text. I know a lot of gamers, including some people who play WoW, and plenty of people who put hours and hours into consoles. I’m also a biologist. Now, let me explain why I disagree with some of your points, because I don’t feel like you understand what Jane McGonigal is trying to do or say. Now, I’m not saying I do, but I can see how her points can improve society.

      You said that “the real world has no advancement system” which is not entirely true, but fundamentally feels true, and that’s why people escape into games. Well, what I see Jane saying is that what we need to do is find a way to add that aspect of gaming into life. Make work a game with advancements that are more visible since today’s society doesn’t do that inherently. I would work significantly harder at work if I knew there would be more minor rewards, even if they were just in the form of earning points that mean nothing. What if my work were a game? What if my colleagues and I put together a system where I could earn credit for all the little things I do, rather than wait for the one piece of real credit, a manuscript, that only gets published once a year at best for most scientists? I will probably implement something like that in my lab some day. The Lab Game, which will also lead to real productive work.

      You also say that gamers are “solving contrived puzzles with almost no application to the real world.” And I would say that many of the skills I’ve picked up gaming and that I’ve seen my husband pick up have plenty of real world application, it’s just hard to make the connections sometimes. I know that my logic solving skills are improved when I do simple puzzle games such as Tetris and Minesweeper. I improve my creativity playing RPGs of all kinds. I watch my husband struggle with the moral decisions of whether to be a renegade or a paragon in Mass Effect, and I know that he will remember that in other decisions he has to make. I learned about time management as a kid trying to figure out if I could collect every coin in Super Mario Brothers levels within the allotted time.

      I also believe that games can connect people who otherwise would never find certain connections. My husband is borderline agoraphobic, and this can be incredibly problematic in the real world when it comes to meeting people and forming friendships. With online gaming, though, he is able to interact with people he knows but are far away and he even meets new people and talks to them. We started a DnD group that has given him close friends he never had before. He can go to PAX and stand in line and start up a conversation with people there that he’s never met. I don’t believe this would be possible without gaming, and I can see how games could be used and even developed to improve these skills for people who need it. That’s what I believe Jane talks about.

      I want to incorporate the ideas of using gaming in life in college classrooms. I was a very intelligent, relatively motivated student, but many of today’s students are in college because they have to have degrees or they can’t get a job. This creates a whole new type of student who don’t understand or want to learn just to learn, therefore, education can incorporate gaming elements to engage students. For example, allowing students to choose from a group of assignments would give them the voluntary choice Jane discusses and allow them to work to their strengths to solve what they see as solvable goals. Not everyone can do well on multiple choice tests, but everyone has something that they can do well on if they are motivated to believe they can. I also want to incorporate more instantaneous feedback, because waiting weeks for grades doesn’t help motivation either. What if I made part of my microbiology class an RPG? My student would be engaged, learning, and finding ways to improve themselves and their world.

      Jane points out that not everyone needs this. In the game played on the airplane, there were always people who didn’t participate and Jane said that was fine, but when you have a demotivated society, maybe these are connections that can be engaged to get people more involved. I think that’s what Jane says. We do have a community of smart, interested gamers who can be brought into civic engagement given the right motivation, and that’s what I see as her point. Use what’s great about gaming to make the real world even greater.



  2. Avalyn
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 13:49:44

    I think we could have a good debate around whether or not we should be rewarded in life for every little accomplishment we make. Yes, I think life could be more fun and feel more rewarding if we did get achievement points every time we sent an email or brushed our teeth. As kids we grew up getting gold stars to reinforce this sense of being rewarded for accomplishing tasks. However, being able to achieve accomplishments without getting those rewards is part of growing up. It’s life. Perseverence produces character, we’ve known that for thousands of years.

    Sure, let’s give eachother a pat on the back for finishing a project or running a great meeting at work… encouragement from others is a good thing, but don’t get to the point where rewards are no longer meaningful. If you work hard at something with no rewards for days or years, the final accomplishment is just that much sweeter.

    I am reminded of the author Brandon Sanderson, who spends months and years to complete one novel. Yet, along the way when he feels the need to be rewarded for the tedius editing tasks required in order to finally reach the finished project, he will reward himself by opening a new pack of Magic cards. Would he finish the novel without that reward? I don’t doubt it. But it took years of perseverence to pubish that first novel and I’m willing to bet he didn’t have a lot of little rewards along the way to get there.


  3. Greg Christopher
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 17:13:08


    First, when I use all caps below it is not screaming but bolding, since I cannot do that in a comment.

    A little background on myself, I was a hardcore gamer from the time I picked up Link to the Past as maybe an 8 year old until about 2 years ago, a good 20 year stretch covering my entire adolescence and early adulthood. So when I say that I know stuff personally, I really do.

    The problem with your comment about advancement is that advancement (as far as games conceive it) is contrived. It does not mesh onto the real world and it SHOULDNT. That is important. The distinction between games and work is a real distinction that should be there. Work is NOT a game. Whatever you place emphasis on to get “points” will result in people reacting to it in a way to manipulate the system. This is why standardized testing doesnt work in school either. When you create false goals in an attempt to get people to work toward something (ex. make a test to attempt to measure learning in children), people will stop caring about the actual things they are supposed to be doing and ONLY work towards the defined goals. You get kids who can complete tests but who don’t actually know anything. The same principle applies at work. So you make some rule that you get +1 point whenever a customer says something nice about an employee, and people start only focusing on pleasing the customer and you lose money as people forget about the interests of the company. The real world doesn’t work that way.

    I really sincerely doubt you actually learned very many skills from video games. Making obvious moral choices in Mass Effect really makes someone morally conscious? Really? Time management from Mario? I can’t remember ever really running out of time in a level of mario. Unless I went to the bathroom in the middle of the level or something. Surely, you must be joking?

    There are some actual cases where you can learn from video games; for example I learned the geography of the earth from war games, but those are very rare cases. Video games teach basic math, geography, some vocabulary, and a few other little bits. But not much more.

    There may be a rare application of video games to help someone who is dealing with a genuine psychological problem of Agoraphobia. However, that is not what McGonigal is advocating. She is advocating everyone play these games, to the exclusion of other activities, in HUGE numbers of hours. That is what I have a contention with, not the selective application to people with mental psychosis.

    Gaming applied to education almost always dumbs down the material in an attempt to beg the student to care. I have taught undergraduates. You are right that they don’t care. But that is not a problem that is solved by video games. In fact, it may in part be a problem caused by video games. The solution is to smack the kid in the face and tell them to wake the fuck up and see the real world. We spend so much time coddling children these days. Well, they dont want to do it, so lets figure out a way to make it fun, interesting, etc. This is a waste of time and has yielded a generation of damn morons who think they are special snowflakes. We should tell them, If you don’t like it, tough. Suck it up. Grow up, kid. Deal with life.

    Not everything is fun. Not everything is enjoyable. Don’t take my word for it, ask a janitor. Or a fruit picker. But some things have to be done. We coddle people too much on this crap and we have a generation of incompetents as a result.

    I like games. I design RPGs. I am a gamer. But advocating everyone play video games all the time because it has a few minor benefits is on the same level as advocating everyone get drunk every day because having a glass of wine does a little good for your blood pressure. It is irresponsible and delusional.


    • GirlsAreGeeks
      Mar 09, 2011 @ 19:38:11

      I’ve got some thoughts to continue to respond with, but I have a technical question: can you give me the reference on “she is advocating everyone play these games, to the exclusion of other activities, in HUGE numbers of hours.” because I don’t recall that from the book or her site. I’ll be back, though it might be late tonight. I have a date with karaoke.



  4. Greg Christopher
    Mar 09, 2011 @ 20:41:52

    She talks about everyone playing huge numbers of game hours in the TED talk.

    If you want some insight into what really motivates people at work (and why games would be disasterous for this): watch this video:


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