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janeMany may think playing video games is a waste of time.

Jane McGonigal disagrees. In fact, she wholeheartedly believes games can help people solve the world’s biggest social problems.

McGonigal, an esteemed game developer and author of the New York Times bestselling book Reality is Broken, keynoted the University of Washington’s School of Social Work’s 4th Annual Scholarship Breakfast Wednesday morning.

She touched on the past ten years of her work, which has been dedicated to designing alternative reality games, where players engage in collaboration to solve personal challenges.

How big can this space grow? McGonigal says enough to disrupt an industry as big and influential as pharmaceuticals.

Yes, one day games could replace pills.

Jane McGonigal's best-selling book, Reality is Broken.
Jane McGonigal’s best-selling book, Reality is Broken.

“If anybody needs to be scared of games, it’s definitely the pharmaceutical industry,” said McGonigal, who has done several TED Talks. “People are working on games that work better than morphine for pain relief, games that work better than medicine for depression, games that work better for weight loss than diet pills.

Being able to play a game to improve your health is really big space, absolutely. Who wouldn’t rather play a game than have side affects from medicine?”

With one billion gamers worldwide now playing an average of one hour per day, McGonigal’s talk focused on how this is great news — for social work, for innovation and for “anyone who wants to help tackle some of the world’s most urgent problems,” as she put it.

She understands why some think video games are a time-suck, but has a plethora of information proving otherwise. Heck, she’s even tried convincing Stephen Colbert.

Among her data points, much of which is in her extensive research:

  • 92 percent of 2-year-olds are now playing games. “This sums up next generation of games,” she said. “It’s inevitable — soon we’ll be all gamers.”
  • Gaming creates 10 positive emotions: joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe and wonder, contentment and creativity. “If you experience three positive emotions over one negative emotion, you dramatically raise your chance of success in life,” McGonigal said. 
  • Games spend 80 percent of the time failing. “It’s extraordinary,” she said. “In our spare time, gamers are choosing to do something we’re so bad at. In real life, we avoid situations where we are constantly failing. In games, we have enough stamina and optimism to fail. It’s a very interesting form of mental resilience that gamers are developing.”
  • In clinical trials, casual games are outperforming pharmaceuticals for anxiety and depression with a dose of just 30 minutes per day.
  • Children who play video games are more creative, testing higher on Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

It’s for these reasons and others that McGonigal sees incredible potential for cities that can establish research and game industry partnerships — like Seattle.

McGonigal invented "SuperBetter," a game that builds your real-life resilience. More than 120,000 players have used it to tackle challenges like depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and traumatic brain injury.
McGonigal invented “SuperBetter,” a game that builds your real-life resilience. More than 120,000 players have used it to tackle challenges like depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and traumatic brain injury.

“The game industry wants to understand what the impact games that we’re making have on people’s brains, bodies and relationships,” she said. “In cities with great research institutions, you can work with a scientist to try to really understand what we’re doing and make games that are better for players and better for society.”

McGonigal, who is currently an adviser and affiliate researcher with California-based Institute for the Future, said that game companies need to make their data available so universities can crunch the numbers in interesting ways. For example, a company like Zynga could share data about how often people are playing, the size of the social networks, etc.

The School of Social Work’s scholarship breakfasts have raised more than $380,000 in the past three years, providing need-based financial support to talented students. Bill Gates Sr. and Connie Ballmer, wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, were in attendance Wednesday.

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