Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

How To Save The World, One Video Game At A Time

Game industry analysts say the number of hours spent playing video games is increasing by about 8 percent each year.
Game industry analysts say the number of hours spent playing video games is increasing by about 8 percent each year.

Every week people across the globe spend 3 billion hours playing video games — but that isn't enough for Jane McGonigal. She told an audience at last year's TED conference in California that we need to play more.

"If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity," she said, "I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade."

As the audience broke out into chuckles she told them, "No, I'm serious. I am."

Virtually Learning Life's Lessons

When I met up with McGonigal I was just as skeptical. I prodded her with questions like, "Are you really trying to tell me that games are good for me?"

"What I'm trying to change is this perception that playing a game is just a waste of time," she said. "We know that it has a real impact on how we think and how we act."

In fact, McGonigal has used games to get people to think differently about the world's oil supply, household chores and entrepreneurship in the developing world.

McGonigal looks a bit like a character in a video game, perhaps an enchanted sorceress. The attractive 34-year-old has a mane of curly blond hair and cat-like blue eyes.

While getting her doctorate in performance studies from University of California, Berkeley, McGonigal took a close look at people's behavior while playing games like World of Warcraft, where trolls battle with monsters. Her main research method: playing the game herself.

"Even if I've failed a quest a dozen times, I'm still improving my abilities with each try," she says. "I'm getting stronger and I'm getting smarter, and this is obviously meant to model what would happen in real life if you kept tackling an obstacle."

McGonigal agrees that getting it right may not mean much when you're solving fake problems in a fake world. But in McGonigal's games, even if the world is fake, the problems are often real.

One example is her online game World Without Oil, which took place over the course of a month and imagined how the world would react to a global oil shortage.

When Jane McGonigal suffered a concussion that impeded her ability to read and write, she created a game to help herself recover.
James Duncan Davidson / TED
When Jane McGonigal suffered a concussion that impeded her ability to read and write, she created a game to help herself recover.

McGonigal was a consultant on the game, and Ken Eklund was the game's designer. Over the course of a month in 2007, Eklund says, people living in the game's virtual world got a taste of what would happen if the price of oil were to rise dramatically.

Eklund says the game would up the ante as the price of oil rose with messages like, "Our transit systems are being overloaded," or, "It's very hard to hang on to your bicycle because bicycle theft is rampant."

Players shared blog posts, videos and audio updates about how they were coping. Audio blogs often sounded like secret messages from a war zone. In one, a scared-sounding player named Chantalle Draycott tells virtual world listeners, "I went grocery shopping today and I couldn't afford to buy food. The only thing I could afford to buy were simple things like Kraft dinner and canned soup. Canned soup!"

Making The Virtual Message Hit Home — For Real

Draycott is a poster child for McGonigal's argument that a game can change the way someone thinks and, more importantly, acts in the real world. She says watching other players experience the game made its message hit home in a way that no movie or book could.

"When I watched somebody else's responses, it felt real," Draycott says, "and that was kind of the turning point for me. To be able to see all this chaotic action and realize, 'That could be you out in the street one day because you can't get to work, because you can't make money, because you can't feed your family.' "

Draycott says that when she needed to buy a car in real life, her stepfather pushed for a high-powered engine, but she wasn't so sure. She says she couldn't help thinking of all the extra money and fuel that would go into a gas-guzzler, so she went for a fuel-efficient car instead.

And that, McGonigal says, proves her point exactly.

"The goal of this game was to get people to make real-life changes to the amount of energy they were consuming," McGonigal says, "to change the way they cooked, the way they drove, and to do it by challenging them to survive a fictional oil crisis."

Missing The 'Real-World Consequences'

But raising awareness of a problem isn't the same as solving it. Bruce Woodside also played World Without Oil.

"It's very true that people invest a great deal of themselves in virtual worlds," Woodside says. And he would know — he recently retired from a career as an animator of online games.

Woodside says he has seen a lot of designers hype up the power of games, and he thinks McGonigal is no exception.

"My principal critique is that it doesn't translate into any sort of real-world consequences," he says. "They may feel better, but the world is still swimming in problems."

Woodside notes that World Without Oil only had about 2,000 players, whereas World of Warcraft — which is all about fun — has 11 million.

Playing Up The Video Game's Strength

World Without Oil was produced by the nonprofit ITVS, which is primarily known for its documentaries. These days, it often produces a game along with a documentary.

ITVS recently produced a documentary about the Zaballeen, a group in Egypt that collects and recycles garbage.

Cathy Fischer, senior producer of content at ITVS, says the game that accompanies the documentary helps people see how many of the items in their own lives could be recycled.

"We look at that as a way of working with teachers," Fischer says, "so we actually include lesson plans or curricula into the game so they can be used in the classroom."

But as they try to bring games into more and more of their projects, Fischer says they've come to the conclusion that not all topics are right for the gaming format. When someone proposed a game on the sex trade, for example, ITVS turned it down.

"Sometimes animation takes this kind of unreal quality about it," Fischer says, adding that it sometimes makes mature topics look more childlike than what's appropriate.

Games may not be the right way to approach every issue, but McGonigal firmly believes we have to find ways to use them for more than just frivolous play. She points out that 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls are playing games these days.

"If we don't tell them that this can be a positive process that can have real-world outcomes, and powers and skills and abilities come about as a result," McGonigal says, "we're throwing away an opportunity for an entire generation."

The number of hours spent playing games globally has hit 156 billion a year, and it's growing. McGonigal believes that if we can make solving the world's problems as much fun as playing a video game, there is no reason people won't spend just as much time working on that.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.