Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 205: Gaming as a Spiritual Practice

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Episode Description:

Leading game designer Jane McGonigal joins guest host Rohan Gunatillake to explore the relationship between games and well-being, and see what clues they might hold for the future of Buddhist practice. Jane starts with a surprising disclose: she is a meditation practitioner and has been studying Buddhism for the last 5 years, since she was a grad student in Berkley. She explains how her work with game design and development ties in with her interest in meditation, explaining the strong overlap between the positive qualities cultivated through good games, and those cultivation through mental training.

Rohan proposes that the Buddha’s own story could be likened to a type of epic video game, and building off of that discusses the likelihood of being able to design a game that actively cultivates the 7 factors of awakening—a classic Buddhist list on the qualities that lead to enlightenment. Jane speaks about enlightenment as an “epic win” and maintains that gaming has the very real potential to cultivate the factors of awakening.

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Transcript:

Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This week we have another interview from Rohan of 21awake.com, another guest interview. So thank you again Rohan for taking the time to do another Buddhist Geeks episode.

Rohan: Not at all Vince. And this time I spoke to Jane McGonigal, you I’ll let her introduce herself.

Jane: Hi I’m Jane McGonigal. I live in San Francisco, California and I’m a game designer. I actually design games that have the goal of making people’s real lives better, or solving real-world problems.

Vincent: Wow, she sounds super geeky.

Rohan: She is. She’s got some great ideas and she’s doing some amazing work. And what I’m really trying to do with the podcast that I did for Buddhist Geeks is to find people who are doing really amazing cutting edge stuff, and explore what the connection with Buddhism might be, and so that’s what we got into today.

Vincent: So what did you guys talk about?

Rohan: Well as you might know Vince her book has just come out called “Reality is Broken” and so we explores some of the themes in that book, which are about gaming and the role of gaming in society. And then we went on a bit further and explored how the connection between gaming and spiritual practice and even the connections between gaming and Buddhism and enlightenment itself.

Vincent: Yeah, and I understand that she’s agreed to come speak at the Buddhist Geeks Conference.

Rohan: That’s right. And I think that is going to be really exciting because she’ll bring a whole new dimension to that conversation. So we’re really looking forward to her contribution later in the year in L.A. Ok, enough preamble Vince. Here’s me with Jane McGonigal.

Jane, when I first got in touch with you I found that you actually are already a Buddhist Geek subscriber.

Jane: Yes.

Rohan: Could you tell me a little bit about it because I was actually a surprise to me because I just I got in touch with you based purely on your work as a game designer. So I’m just interested in how come you’re a subscriber already, and what’s been your interest in Buddhism?

Jane: Sure. Well I’ve been studying Buddhist philosophy for probably about five years. I started when I was in graduate school, at UC Berkley and like pretty much all graduate students I was completely miserable, and overwhelmed, and totally lonely, and hopeless. [laughs] And so fortunately my twin sister had done her PhD at Stanford. She was two years ahead of me in her program, and she had found Buddhism while she was a hopeless, miserable, lonely graduate student. So she introduced me to it. There’s a great Zen monastery center out here in Palo Alto in the Bay Area that I started…

Rohan: Of course, yeah.

Jane: So I started reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of podcasts and starting a meditation practice. And once I started having the experience that one has when you start to practice, and realizing that what a just tremendous thing it was, it started to really influence how I thought about why we play games and how we can design games to end suffering. So that’s where I came into to this. And of course I have lots and lots of podcasts that I try and listen to as often as I can while I’m commuting on the Cal Train, or I do a lot of travelling and I get scared when I fly, so listening to Buddhist podcast helps me not be so scared, so yeah. [laughs]

Rohan: Great we should put that on the tin maybe as a strap line. I’m really excited to be talking to you right now because I know you’ve got a book coming out early next year, the print version at least is coming out in early 2011 called “Reality is Broken.” So I imagine it’s good to get you now because I imagine you’ve got like an epic promotional tour coming up or something.

Jane: I do. [laughs]

Rohan: I was just wondering, if you could bear to it would be great just to give a bit little flavor of what the book is about, not necessarily loads of details but just a sort of, just a bit of flavor before we get into the rest of the conversation.

Jane: Sure, yeah, so the full title is “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.” And the first part of the book looks at the way games provoke positive emotions and how they help us achieve the kind of emotional goals and really basic human needs that we really need out of life; like to do satisfying work and to strengthen our social relationships, and to feel like we’re mastering something, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

And the second half of the book looks at how we can take that amazing power of games to provoke these four positive states, and try and direct it at addressing big problems, like hunger, poverty, climate change, education, and healthcare.

Rohan: Great, and when I first heard about your book called World Without Oil, although the first game I actually personally engaged with was Super Struct. And I guess with yeah, those sort of issues you talked about, sort of education, energy crisis, climate change, there aren’t many bigger things than that. And I’m just really interested with this whole area of using games to raise awareness and explore these sort of serious social issues. Where do you think that type of game can go?

Jane: Well, I think the main role that these games can play now is turning ordinary people into what we call “super empowered hopeful individuals,” and when I say we, I’m also the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, which is a non-profit research group in Palo Alto. And a lot of the games that I’ve made have been with them, like Super Struct. And so we’re trying to take ordinary people who feel like they don’t have a positive role to play in big planetary scale efforts. We’re trying to give them the sense that they can as individuals contribute to changing the world for the better. And there are a lot of games where we’re trying to do real work, where players are being empowered to start their own social enterprises, or to teach their neighbors how to start their own community gardens. So there are like real practical results. But I think the biggest thing is really just awakening people to the possibility that they have a part to play in making the future, and that they can use whatever talents, and skills, and abilities they have to solve the world’s toughest problems. That is something they can do. They don’t just have to save the world in video games, they can save the real world.

Rohan: Sure, I think that’s one of your great messages around, that there’s so much energy and attention going into gaming and how to harness the power of that for good….

Jane: And if I could just say, it’s not just that the time and energy that we spend gaming, it’s the beliefs and the self-confidence that we develop in games. And when we play games we feel like the best versions of ourselves. We feel so smart and capable. And we have all these allies who can help us achieve our goals. And we’re more likely to set really ambitious goals and to stick with them, be really resilient in the face of failure. So it’s a very special kind of energy. If we were spending all that time watching TV I wouldn’t say “Hh, people that watch TV could save the world.” Gaming actually puts us in a state of mind and a state of heart that makes us more likely to do something extraordinary.

Rohan: Yeah, that’s brilliant, and that’s exactly what I want to explore into it, which is that there are a couple of quotes of yours I sort of find really arresting, certain from a sort of Buddhist oro meditation angle. One is what I mentioned before, is how games were designed for the alleviation of suffering.

Jane: Yeah.

Rohan: And then you said something else around it, and I found this really interesting, the way you described game play as being the neurological opposite of depression. So as you just said, that through gaming we’re actually developing qualities and behaviors which are supportive of our well-being, and like you said bring our best skills to the fore.

So I guess the way you use the phrase “alleviation of suffering” is really striking because that’s a real classical definition of how the Buddha himself sort of talked about his own work and his own teachings.

Yeah, and you have this lovely story about this sort of… Is it from Herodotus the story about games being used as a way of keeping a community in ancient Greece happy during difficult times?

Jane: Yeah, yeah. Actually shall I tell a 30-second version of that story?

Rohan: Yeah, sure. [laughs]

Jane: Yeah. I was so inspired when I found this story. I found it in graduate school. And actually the person who dug up the story was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is one of the founders of Positive Psychology. Back in 1976 he said we should start using science to study happiness and well-being. So he actually dug up this Herodotus story as a way of saying you know maybe we should look at games as being a real clue to happiness and alleviating suffering.

So the story that he dug up it’s the first written history of gaming, it’s the first time anybody sat down and tried to explain why human beings play games, where do they come from, who invented them. And Herodotus who was an ancient Greek philosopher, he was writing about people even older than the ancient Greeks, the ancient Lydians. He said that that Lydians invented games, particularly dice games when they were suffering a famine. They had an 18-year famine and the people were suffering so extraordinarily, they were starving, they were fighting over limited resources, that they had this crazy solution, which was to play games. They invented all these dice games. On alternate days they would just spend the whole day playing these really immersive, addicting dice games. They would come together in big groups. It was really social and they would get so immersed in the game play that they would forget how hungry they were and they wouldn’t need to eat. And then on next day they would eat just as normal, and then on the next day they’d play dice games, and they’d be so immersed they wouldn’t have to eat. And of course anybody who plays games today has probably had that experience of sitting down to play a game and realizing you missed dinner, you haven’t eaten for hours because you were so engaged. And so Herodotus says they actually past 18 years that way, being able to come together, band together and really have this state of immersed enjoyment together as a community that helped them not suffer through this really horrible time.

And I just love the idea that that’s why we play games. We don’t play games for fun. I mean if there’s something I really, really can’t stand it’s the idea that the greatest gift of games is fun, which it doesn’t seem to me to be true at all. I mean we can have fun doing anything but the great gift of games it’s to stop suffering. And that’s a lot of what my book is about, is looking at four ways that we suffer in contemporary society, whether it’s feeling like there’s nothing we can do with our own hands that makes a difference, and we have no satisfying work. Whereas when we sit down to play a game we know what our goal is, we are able to follow through with our own plan and we see the results of our own actions, and at the end of the game we feel like we’ve sort of satisfyingly, productive effort that we’ve made. I mean you can trace that through all the other different kinds of suffering that we just sort of have in our daily lives.

Anyway that story has been really influential for me thinking about it. But also to think about when you look at the faces of gamers, there have been some great research where researchers film or photograph the faces of gamers while they’re playing. It’s extraordinary, the state of positive engagement is profound and it made me realize, looking across all the literature, when we are truly playing a good game, when we’ve found the game that we enjoy we’re not suffering. And I think that’s one of the big reasons why we see so many people spending so much time playing games, is because we are suffering so much in daily life, because of how society is designed, because of the voices in our head that tell us that we’re doing it wrong, or we never going to be able to do something that matters. And we’re using these games to alleviate our own suffering. And so of course I want game designers to think thoughtfully about that and think about making games that really do provide something that is real and positive.

Rohan: So when I think of, certainly my own personal meditation training and that in general, I like to define meditation as a development of great qualities, and that we develop the qualities that allow us to navigate the difficulties in life. And I think it’s almost directly analogous to how you’re describing the qualities that come through games, be they engagement, or optimism, or a sort of social relation.

So, on sort of the Venn Diagram of these things it starts me thinking about, Ok, we’ve got games on one side which are supporting our well-being through all these really immersive, and social, and dynamic, and narrative led experiences. And then we’ve got meditation and contemplative practice on the other side, which is the formal training which is developing qualities as well, sort of in a slightly different way. And that started me thinking about how might those two things come together? And I’ve been thinking about how games themselves could develop the qualities directly. So I started playing around… [laughs]

Jane: Cool, cool.

Rohan: So here’s an idea for you actually, here’s something I want to get your feedback on. So, if the great mission of Buddhism is enlightenment or awakening, in practice. And so, looking at that sort of classical myth of the Buddha himself, it’s classic sort of hero’s journey, Super Mario style…

Jane: [laughs]

Rohan: …story. He starts…

Jane: “The Buddhist as Super Mario.” I think you’ve got a best-selling title there. I love that.

Rohan: Well, there’s no princess. Well, there sort of is, but she has a bit of a cameo role rather than a main role. He’s got a big mission. His mission is the end of suffering. He’s sort of really motivated by that, and he goes through a series of challenges—it’s classic hero’s journey—and he trains through the challenges, and then even at the end, in the classical legend, there’s a big boss at the end.

Jane: Yeah. [laughs]

Rohan: So, this personification of doubt arrives while he’s sitting underneath the tree. The final challenge is the overcoming of doubt, and that’s classically personified as a big monster. So it’s really basic sort of game…

Jane: Right.

Rohan: …Game ideas were coming to my mind, and then I thought, “Ok, that’s the myth; that’s the sort of archetypal story, but what’s it like in actual practice?” So I’m talking about what’s known as, almost sort of classical Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism, one of the oldest forms of Buddhism, and that type of Buddhism loves lists. And in one of those lists is what’s called the seven factors of awakening, which are different qualities. The idea being, if we train in these qualities, the natural end when we’re really well trained in these qualities will be enlightenment or awakening. And these qualities are things like joy, concentration, mindfulness, energy, and I hear a lot of those things in how you talk about games, and so…

Jane: I love it. Yeah, well…

Rohan: So, can we frame awakening or spiritual practice as like a multi-level game…

Jane: [laughs]

Rohan: …in which the “epic win,” to use your terminology, is…

Jane: Yeah.

Rohan: …enlightenment?

Jane: I love it. I love it. Ok, so, great. I’m planning the game, I’m designing the game as we speak. So do you have the list of seven…

Rohan: Yeah.

Jane: …in front of you?

Rohan: I do.

Jane: Ok. Quick, quick, what are the seven?

Rohan: Mindfulness, investigation or curiosity…

Jane: Ah, yes!

Rohan: …energy or brightness…

Jane: Uh-huh…

Rohan: …joy, calm, concentration…

Jane: Mm-hmm.

Rohan: …and equanimity.

Jane: I love it! I love it!

Rohan: The last three often are considered—calm, concentration, and equanimity—are very different types of mind state, when you sort of really get into it. So, they’re the seven.

Jane: Yeah. Ok, so this is great. So, well, there are two possibilities here, right? So one, you could frame awakening as this epic win. You could actually make a game where you teach these through it, but I think, to me, the possibility that leaps right to mind is: all of these are skills and ways of being that you practice when you play a good game, right?

Rohan: Yes.

Jane: The kind of concentration; We see people sit down to play, and even people who, you know, have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, really intractable cases, have been clinically shown that when they’re playing a good game, they actually are able to fully concentrate on the game, and suddenly all these medical diagnoses go away because of how much mindfulness and concentration you have to practice to be fully engaged.

When you were talking earlier about the sort of Venn diagram between elements of awakening and game play. For me the really core one is wholehearted participation. That was actually a phrase that I pulled out of a Buddhist podcast—out of Living Compassion podcast, actually. I heard a monk use the phrase “wholehearted participation” to describe a Buddhist way of approaching life, to be fully present to the moment and totally open and curious and joyful about whatever that moment brings, and up for the challenge of that moment.

And to me, that’s what describes being a gamer, that you are open to whatever challenge presents itself. You approach it with curiosity. That you are totally mindful of the environment. You have this brightness that sort of both optimism, but also just a positive energy to what you’re doing. And the joy of being fully engaged with these challenges, and approaching them with equanimity. Gamers fail all the time. Gamers fail 80 percent of the time, and that don’t beat themselves up over it. They just keep making that kind of right effort to achieve the goal. But if they don’t achieve it, they don’t bring their hands and beat themselves up over it. They just make the best effort.

So I think you could really take a whole generation of gamers and show them that they’re actually training along this path already. I really liked the episode of Buddhist Geeks about what do young people want, and sort of where the young Buddhists come from. So your suggestion here about using these seven aspects to awakening it seems to me like one way to think about the young, next generation of Buddhists…

Rohan: I really like that distinction you made between being sort of almost interventionism, you will train in these qualities through this game. Or then being the natural byproduct of the successful game. And I really like this idea of gaming as spiritual practice…

Jane: I love it too! We’ve now defined a new mission. I love this.

Rohan: Literally, those qualities are on my whiteboard because I’m thinking about this all the time.

Jane: Excellent. Well, I’m going to put them on my wall too. I love it. I love the idea that this could be the next book too about games. Because I said the next book I write I want to be even more explicit about suffering and well-being, in this sort of Buddhist sense, than I was able to in this book.

Rohan: That’s really interesting because we’ve seen games and physical health really take off lately, like Wii fit as the way down the road like Nike Grid and Connect just coming out. So my natural idea is from that mental health is the next big thing in games.

Jane: I think so, I think so. We are already seeing that people are self medicating with games. There’s been some great research that shows that people who have symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety are more likely to spend more hours playing MMOs than other gamers. And they increase their hours the more that their symptoms manifest, and they actually use it to treat their own depression and anxiety. And so I really like the idea that instead of having this kind of accidental self-medicating phenomenon, that we could actually look at games and the role they can play in people managing their own quality of life and their own mental well being. So it’s not some sort of accidental fix, but that people can be really conscious about the role that games are played that way.

Rohan: That’s great, I love the idea for the second book. So where is the second book at the moment in your head?

Jane: I don’t know. I told my husband, Bob, when I was writing the first book that no matter what happened, even if the first book is wildly successful, to never, ever, ever let me write a book again, because it was really difficult and made me crazy.

Rohan: I bet.

Jane: But of course now, once it’s done, you forget. You love having got it all down on paper. Of course I’m already thinking what the next book will be.

Rohan: Well there you go, maybe it’s all about gaming and spiritual practice.

Jane: I love that. It’s interesting because for a long time… I don’t know, I mean I’m sure you know how this is, you can’t really infuse your spirituality in all of your professional practice…

Rohan: Agreed.

Jane: But I kind of am dying to just out myself as really showing how much this is informed my work, and I think a lot of other game designers too are thinking about this.

Author

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal takes play seriously. She studies the power of games to impact the real-world -- and she creates games that do just that. A pioneer in the field of "alternate reality gaming", her previous projects include The Lost Ring, World Without Oil, Cruel 2 B Kind, and I Love Bees. She is an expert on applying game design and game theory to real work and real business, and has consulted and developed internal game workshops for leading technology companies in Asia, Europe, and the U.S., as well as more than a dozen Fortune Global 500 Companies. MIT Technology Review named her one of the top 35 innovators changing the world through technology, for her role in pioneering the field of alternate reality gaming, and Harvard Business Review called her theory of "alternate reality business" one of the "Top 20 Breakthrough Ideas of 2008." Her alternate reality games have received the Innovation Award from the International Game Developers Association, the Gaming Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and Year in Review honors from The New York Times She has keynoted SXSW Interactive, the Game Developers Conference, ETech, the Web 2.0 Summit, and has a PhD from UC Berkeley in performance studies. Website: JaneMcGonigal.com