How playing games can be serious for the media world

The games designer Jane McGonigal tells Louise Ridley how gamification makes us the best possible versions of ourselves.

McGonigal: ‘Most people who are trying gamification have a limited notion of how to motivate and reward’
McGonigal: ‘Most people who are trying gamification have a limited notion of how to motivate and reward’

When Jane McGonigal tripped over, hit her head and became severely concussed, she didn’t feel as though she would ever recover. She struggled to read, write and focus, and faced months of dizziness and depression.

So, in a series of YouTube videos weeks after her accident in 2009, McGonigal devised her own salvation and shared it with the world.

Originally a "concussion recovery game" based on the completion of small challenges to boost her optimism, it developed into a free online game called SuperBetter, which has already helped more than 250,000 people recover from problems such as anxiety, chronic pain and traumatic brain injuries. Clinical trials suggest the game could be more effective than drugs in alleviating some symptoms of depression.

McGonigal sees games as a way to solve real-world problems as serious as poverty, obesity and climate change. Oprah Winfrey has named her one of the "20 most inspiring women in the world" and Harvard Business Review recognised her theory of gamifying business among its "top 20 breakthrough ideas".

The games designer and author worked on 2007’s augmented-reality project World Without Oil, which saw more than 1,800 players document their lives online through an imagined global oil shortage. The slogan was: "Play it – before you live it."

For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she helped create The Lost Ring with AKQA for McDonald’s. A mystery unfolded over six months, during which players had to track down real, physical artefacts in 27 cities to discover a fictional banned ancient Olympic sport, which was "revived" to coincide with the Games.

McGonigal defines a game as "an unnecessary challenge that you volunteer for" – a scenario that is inherently bizarre. "When you’re playing golf, the aim is to get a ball in a small hole," she reasons. "If it weren’t a game, you would just walk up and put it in the hole – but, instead, you decide to stand really far away from the hole and use a stick to aim the ball. It’s absurd."

It’s signing up to these rules out of choice that makes people become the best possible versions of themselves when they play games: more motivated, more resilient and more prone to altruism.

McGonigal’s next crisis to tackle is the way we work. "Work is a game so badly designed that you have to pay people to play it. Most workers are traumatised," she says, citing research from Gallup that found seven in ten US workers are not engaged with their workplaces. "Employees are spending half of their lives feeling like they’re doing something that doesn’t matter. The drain on the economy and on innovation and creativity is a huge obstacle."

This led her to PHD. A year ago, the media shop launched Source, a planning tool that turns work into a game and is part-inspired by McGonigal’s past projects. Players earn "pings" for good ideas and helping others, and are ranked on a leaderboard at offices around the world.

It’s easy to dismiss the gamification trend as a gimmick, but PHD’s is a sincere effort that has led to a culture shift: 1,700 of the 3,000 PHD staff are registered players and 690 are active users. Those who are talented in different areas are recognised and promoted: a creatively-minded strategist was recently offered a job in another office because he was a high-ranking "innovator" on Source.

This impressed McGonigal: "Most people who are trying gamification are doing it at a very superficial level, where they have a limited notion of how to motivate and reward. When I make a game, I like the players to feel like they have lightning bolts coming out of their fingertips. They feel empowered to do something they couldn’t have done without the game."

Crucially, she points out, Source is focused on collaboration rather than competition: "The worst thing you could do is turn 99 per cent of your employees into losers."

Work is a game so badly designed that you have to pay people to play it. Most workers are traumatised

She is working with PHD to build new features into the game, including collective "quests". Source will soon measure five strengths in employees, such as collaboration, creativity and courage. But how do you assess someone’s courage?

"We’ve designed a Batman button," she smiles. "Everyone can send out a signal to call in their own individual Batman, who is someone more senior who can take a look at their work and help. It takes courage to use the bat symbol."

McGonigal lives her own philosophy: she is infectiously positive while being fiercely engaged with her theories. She prefers games to reading the news "because news stresses you out and there’s too much snarky comment".

Many people think she is competitive, but she defines her approach as goal-oriented: "If I have a clear goal, nothing will stop me from getting it. If I’m running a race, I have a clear goal for myself, but I’m not competing with anyone else."

Her dream is to see a games designer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She forecasts this to take place in less than ten years, and you sense that, as with her other goals, she won’t rest until it happens.