Game Masters

Game Masters: Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal happens to be one of my favorite gamers.  Why?  Because she’s out to prove that gaming can change the world.

Jane McGonigal 2009 Wikimedia Commons by Joi on Flickr
Image by Joi on Flickr. Licensed through Wikimedia Commons.

I first came across Jane while perusing TED Talks on YouTube.  Her talk on how “Gaming Can Make a Better World” was part of what inspired my exhibition on gamer girls and my dive into gaming history.  From what I’ve seen, there’s still a lot of debate about whether gaming – and Jane’s games – can change the world.  So, today, I’d like to highlight Jane and the work she’s done.

Jane holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in performance studies.  She’s developed and consulted on games, as well as taught courses on game design, performance, and play.  Now, she consults with a lot of companies and dedicates her energy to speaking about games, serving on the Board of Directors for Games for Change, and running the Institute of the Future and Gameful.

Here are the top three reasons that Jane is a true Game Master:

1. She provides solutions for the future.

The Institute for the Future is a non-profit research group investigating how games are transforming the way we lead our real lives.  They also investigate how games can be used to increase our resilience and well-being.  From her research there, Jane has written two books on the subject.  The first, released in 2011, is Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. In it, Jane evaluates why gaming works: because games make us happy.  She explores how we can develop games that bank on this concept of happiness – and extend it into our real world lives.

Screenshot of Superstruct.

The Institute also uses this research to develop a lot of future-focused games.  One of my favorites (and I wish I had participated) was Superstruct, the first-ever massively multiplayer forecasting game that saw over 7,000 players contribute to it.  Superstruct imagines that the human race only has 23 years left to live, due to catastrophic “super-threats” they face.  The game challenged players to solve five super-threats, including the outbreak of a new super virus, food shortages, the breakdown of society due to a completely hacked Internet, climate change resulting in massive influxes of refugees and the loss of habitable places to live, and an energy crisis.  These are all things that the human race could realistically face in the near future, and the game provided some really interesting results that could help inform policy development as we come to terms with these issues in the real world.

2. She develops games that make life better.

Jane develops lots of other games, too.  Most are for a planetary-scale challenge, such as EVOKE— a free-to-play 10-week crash course in changing the world through social networks.

The first game of hers that I played was SuperBetter.  Backed by science, SuperBetter helps people build “personal resilience.” Jane developed it specifically in response to her own personal challenge, a major concussion, as she talks about in this video:

I’ve personally tested this game, and I think it’s worth checking out.  It allows you to pick your personal goal(s) and then gives you lots of options to help you achieve those goals.  Every aspect of the game harnesses positive emotions and social connections to help you improve your life.  I personally tried it for emotional management, and found that on the days when I completed my SuperBetter Power-Ups, Bad Guy battles, and Quests, I felt better able to deal with my PTSD and depression.

(If you’re not huge into the gaming aspect of it, or want to learn more about the science part, check out Jane’s book, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games.)

3. She supports game developers.

Described as “a secret headquarters for world-changing game developers,” Gameful provides networking for game developers who want to collaborate on solving the world’s problems through gaming. They also provide webinars on game design, publishing, theory, and case studies on the impact of games.  Jane founded the network.

Jane McGonigal fiero.png
“FIERO!” Image via

All in all, I think Jane is a pretty badass chick.  She obviously loves gaming – though I’d love to find out what she plays during her downtime.  And she’s using her fame to spread a message that could go far beyond the gaming industry.  By designing and scientifically analyzing games, Jane and her colleagues are proving that games really do have this immense power to change the world — on individual and global scales. She may not have won any tournaments (or that Nobel Prize…yet), but I truly think Jane is going to make a lasting legacy on the gaming industry and on female gaming history.  She proves that girls aren’t just gamers – they’re gamers who have the potential to change the world.



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