"Games are Unnecessary Obstacles that We Volunteer to Tackle" - Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal, PhD, is a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future and the author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, a New York Times Bestseller. She also has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company and one of the “Top Ten Innovators to Watch” by BusinessWeek. Lastly her TED talks on games have been viewed more than 10 million times.

In her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane says, “games are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle”. She points out how when people play games, they’re trying to achieve a feeling of “eustress,” a kind of positive stress that motivates us to perform our best. 

We’ve all played games where we lose a challenge and have to start over. A simple example is the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. When you hit a mushroom and Mario falls off the screen, you instantly hear sad tones and the level restarts. When that happens, you don’t just give up and do something else, do you? You immediately press X and play over and over again until you beat the level. Then you advance to the next level, learn how to beat that challenge and repeat the process.  When you finally win you feel a huge sense of accomplishment because YOU did that. You beat the challenge! 

Why don’t we approach life the same way we do video games? In school, for example, when we fail a test, why do we give up? Why don’t we try again? Why isn’t our mentality “I lost, but how can I be different and better next time”? If we had this mentality in school (and in life), we would learn so much more. 

Jane wholeheartedly believes that we can use games to change people’s behavior to help bigger problems we face in the real world. She has done exactly this by creating the game World Without Oil, which is aimed at getting people to reduce their oil use and the research shows it works! 

“Proteins are large complex molecules made of long chains of amino acids that can fold into over a million possible shapes. In 2008, researchers were trying to determine all of the 3D structures of proteins, but it was very time consuming and expensive. David Baker, however, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington created a game called FoldIt, where people can grab, poke, and stretch a 3-D model of a protein to help determine its 3D structure. In the game, you score more points by minimizing the protein's total energy since that would replicate how the proteins act in the human body. 

Over a hundred thousand people have downloaded and played the game and it led to them determining the actual structures of proteins! (The structures were then confirmed by experiments.)

In college as a biology major, when we studied proteins, I also played FoldIt. I saw firsthand how the gaming nature of the program makes you want to keep playing. It gives you that feeling of positive stress that motivates us to perform our best which has made it wildly successful. This is an amazing example of how a game was able to help solve a real world issue much quicker and cheaper than guessing and doing experiments which was the previous method”. - Rukmani, Marketing Manager


Ferriss, Timothy, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers HMH Books, 2016.

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