The next time your friend, child or spouse tells you gaming is a good use of time, don’t laugh. It may very well be true. So says Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., author of Reality is Broken.  

It sounds counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t you be exercising, helping out around the house, reading a good book, or even getting some much-needed sleep?

McGonigal suggests that alternate reality gaming (ARG) can go a long way toward building resilience and increasing a sense of wellbeing. “When we play games, we feel more successful, motivated to do something that matters, collaborate, stick with a problem, get up after failure,” she says.

Playing games can help people overcome unnecessary obstacles, make failure fun, build stamina, strengthen social connections, learn to find creative solutions to vexing problems, act in more likable ways, and improvise, she explains.

What is an alternate reality game? It’s interactive and networked, and uses the real world and storytelling to provide a story that is altered by what players do. For example, there is “Tomorrow Calling,” which focuses on environmental activism, “Traces of Hope,” which deals with conflict mitigation, and “World Without Oil,” a simulated situation where players brainstorm to avoid a global oil shortage. “EVOKE” challenges players to address a wide range of problems, from poverty to climate change.

ARGs are designed for players at many levels of ability to share data and solutions in real time, gaming experts say. While an ARG might initially attract a small group of participants, as players come across new challenges, they will reach out and draw in others with the knowledge they need to overcome the obstacles.

Rather than offering players an escape from reality, ARGs aim to make reality more engaging, McGonigal explains. Players often use the real world as the game’s stage.

McGonigal, who is the Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., says alternate reality games are reinventing our real-life experience of everything from commercial flying to public education, from health care to housework, from fitness routines to social lives. In fact, in her view, the impact of gaming can be so far-reaching that she says her top goal in life is to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize.

The big question is how do games achieve all these laudable things? What is it about ARGs that make us feel we can accomplish goals? McGonigal offers ten key characteristics:

  1. Unnecessary obstacles: compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.
  2. Emotional activation: compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy.
  3. More satisfying work: compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work.
  4. Better hope of success: compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success.
  5. Stronger social connectivity: compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks; the more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as “prosocial emotions.”
  6. Epic scale: compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.
  7. Wholehearted participation: compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing.
  8. Meaningful rewards when we need them most: compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best effort.
  9. More fun with strangers: compared with games, reality is lonely and isolating. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch.
  10. Happiness hacks: compared with games, reality is hard to swallow. Games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits.

To sum it up, McGonigal says it’s not smart to dismiss games as child’s play. She says gamers are learning to leverage the collaborative and motivational power of games in their own lives, communities and businesses. The future, she argues, will belong to people who understand, create, and play games.


Learn more:  Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. By Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011.

Article Topics

Discover More