How Computer Games Make Us Better People

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Computer games can make us better people, argues renowned futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal.

In an impeccably researched and delivered presentation at the 2010 London Nokia World Forum, McGonigal spoke about how computer gaming can positively impact the world, turning people into “super-empowered, hopeful individuals”.

Gaming is mainstream. And if there is anyone who doubts this, the figures speak for themselves. By age 21, an average person in a developed economy would have spent more than 10,000 hours playing computer games — this is comparable to the total time we spend at school.

McGonigal says the world, on average, is investing upwards of three-billion hours a week playing online games. Gamers have so far spent a total of about 6.93-million years playing the massively popular multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. This is in fact the equivalent amount of time it has taken man to evolve.

The bottom line is that we are spending more time than ever engaging with online and offline computer games.

The Palo Alto-based McGonigal spoke about how games can instill “a sense of productivity and purpose” in people’s lives. Games can work to build “social fabric” and create a sense of “epic meaning” in society, making us feel we are part of a bigger picture, much like a game.

McGonical cites five studies that shows gaming is influencing reality for the better:

  1. Games bring out the best in us: Research shows that if people play games where they do good things, it can influence them to do good things in real life. In an experiment, children aged 4-9 played Super Mario Sunshine where their tasks included cleaning up litter and pollution. The research found that, after playing this game, these kids were three times more likely to help out around the house, clean up spills etc in real life. (However, could the converse be true for children who play violent games?)
  2. Games are a positive gateway to real-life: A study was conducted amongst people who played games which involved playing a virtual musical instrument, such as Guitar Hero. The study found that gamers who owned musical instruments were more likely to play them in real life after playing a related computer game. Those that didn’t own musical instruments were more likely to go out and buy a musical instrument and start playing.
  3. Games can change who we think we really are: Studies have shown that having an attractive avatar in a virtual world game, such as Second Life, can make “you more confident in real-life”. The findings show that this improved a person’s self-image — and their chances of starting and building a successful relationship.
  4. Games can protect us from real harm: Another study looked at US soldiers in wartime who used computer games to cope with the stresses of war. Playing games for 3-4 hours a day had the most dramatically positive impact on their mental health — more than any other activity (such as reading a book or walking etc). In fact, the only other activity that had as much positive benefit as gaming was doing exercise — but this only achieved similar positive effects when working out for as much as six hours a day.
  5. Games give us real-life super powers, make us feel in control: McGonigal cited a Canadian study that showed lucid dreaming was highest amongst gamers. The Canadian psychology researcher found that gamers reported lower instances of nightmares, and they had the ability to control their dreams.

McGonigal mentioned that gamers on average spend 80% of their time failing in a game. Only 20% of their gaming time is spent achieving by, for example, going to the next level, cracking a code or beating a boss. Despite this, the game is still enjoyable, the gamer remains optimistic and productive — and this has positive spin-offs in real life.


McGonigal at TED:

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