boy's face lit by the light of a video game -- sense of urgency, a little bit of fear, but intense concentrationJane McGonigal’s TED talk “Gaming can make a better world” has some highlights from her research on what games make us good at. She talks about the “epic win,” an extraordinary outcome that you didn’t believe was even possible until you achieved it — almost beyond your threshold of imagination, something that teaches you what you’re truly capable of.

“Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now.”

What capabilities does gaming create? what are their superpowers?

  • Urgent optimism The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
  • Tight social fabric Playing a game together builds trust and cooperation. Playing creates strong social bonds. “We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, stay with the game until it’s over.”
  • Blissful productivity Humans are optimized to do hard and meaningful work. The average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week hours per week — that’s like a part time job. Gamers are willing to “work” really hard, given the right kind of work.
  • Epic meaning awe-inspiring missions, planetary scale stories. World of Warcraft has the 2nd largest wiki in the world, with almost 80,000 articles. McGonigal describes this as building an epic story.

10,000 hours

The average young person in a country with a “strong gamer culture” will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. This is an interesting number:

  • 10,080 hours of school from 5th – 12th grade (with perfect attendance)
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of success based on cognitive science research that with 10,000 hours of effortful study anyone could become a virtuoso by age 21

She challenges us to think about what we might do with this incredible human resource. At the institute of the future, she has invented a few games, which have been played by thousands of people, focused on solving serious real, world problems. I wonder how a new generation with these problem-solving skills and ability for extended focus will transform our society. With any luck, we’ll successfully game-ify the real world, rather than creating ever-increasingly delicious virtual escapes.

An Epic Mission

I love the way she describes the elements of online games that make it so compelling:

  • Lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away.
  • You get a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game
  • They never give you a challenge you can’t achieve.
  • You are challenged with what you are on the verge of what you’re capable of, so you have to try hard.

“There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft; no sitting around, wringing your hands — there’s always something specific and important to be done. There are also tons of collaborators. Everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.”

How can we apply these ideas to make our real lives and real challenges more engaging?

Watch Jane McGonigal’s whole talk: Gaming can make a better world

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