Jane McGonigal is an author and game designer who describes herself as “23% Buddhist, 77% geek.” She begins the presentation, originally given at the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference [http://conference.buddhistgeeks.com], by asking three questions:
Do Buddhists and Game Designers share goals?
Do Buddhists and Game Designers share methods?
Could Buddhists and Game Designers share practices?
She then shares some fascinating insights into the measured benefits of gaming, after which she has the audience join her in a game of “massive multiplayer thumb wrestling.” Jane closes her talk by drawing some striking parallels between the goals and benefits of gaming with the goals and benefits of Buddhist practice.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Listen to part 2 (airing next week).
Jane McGonigal: Well I am Jane McGonigal and I thought I would help you out a little bit by representing for you numerically exactly what kind of Buddhist Geek that I am. I thought a lot about this on the plane ride down, did a lot of numbers, and I came up with 23% Buddhist and 77% geek. I was just doing the math to make sure it would add up to a 100, that would be really embarrassing. Yeah. So on average I’d say I’m about three times as geeky as I am Buddhist. My geek credentials are really good. I’m a game designer. That’s how I make my living. That’s super geeky. I have a PhD which I earned for studying the impact of games on how we think and act in real life so that’s super-duper geeky. And even my husband and I we have the GPS coordinates where we met engraved on our wedding rings. I’m latitude and he’s longitude. That’s really geeky.
And then in terms of my Buddhist practice I discovered Zen Buddhism when I was in graduate school and I was very stress out and lonely and miserable and depressed and anxious such as if any of you have been in graduate school you’ll know that’s a typical experience. And my twin sister, Kelly who you hear this morning, introduced me to Zen Buddhism and so I started a daily meditation practice. I have literally more than a thousand podcast on my laptop as we speak from series like Buddhist Geeks. And I’ve read you know probably about 20 books on Zen Buddhist practice. So I’m getting there. If this is the spectrum I don’t know if I’ve gone over the tipping point yet. There is a tipping point also for geeks if you were curious. It usually involves the first time you play World of Warcraft. So how many of you have that. Okay. So I’m here to talk about the idea that awakening is an epic win.
And how many of you will now out yourself as gamers and know what epic win is. Okay. Cool. Right. So an epic win is when you not just do well. You know there’s a positive outcome but it’s a positive outcome so extraordinary and so unlikely that you never thought it was possible until you were right on the verge of achieving it. So you really shock yourself with what you’re capable of. And usually you get to an epic win by failing a lot again and again and again and again. You keep trying and you stay in there and you stay in there and then you achieve this epic win. But I actually am sorry, with all apologies to Rohan and the great people of Buddhist Geeks. This is not the title of my talk. It’s actually that’s a mistake. Sorry. The actual title is “Awakening is an Epic Win???” I’ve never given a talk that even included the word Buddhism before. So I don’t want you to think that I’m super confident up here about to impart to you some great wisdom that is absolutely 100% true and awesome.
These are just things that I’ve been thinking about and actually what I hope is that as I spend most of my time talking about game and the way I see game design that you will make connections yourself and help me figure out if awakening is an epic win. And if you’re being really honest I would say the actual title of the talk is that just to really underscore how many questions I have about this idea, three big questions actually. So those three question marks represent three actual questions. The first question is do Buddhist and game designer share goals? And I don’t want to leave you in suspense for an hour so I’ll just preview my conclusion now. I think so. I think that Buddhist and game designer share goals. The second question is do Buddhist and game designer share methods? Are there similar ways that we go about trying to achieve this goal, whatever the goal might be? And again to preview the big surprise dramatic ending I think that we do.
And the last question is could Buddhist and game designer share practices. Is there some future form of Buddhism that we play together? I hope so. That is the conclusion that I hope maybe we’ll all reach together by the end of the talk. Okay. So just to give you a little bit more insight into where we’re going. This is a book that I wrote earlier this year Reality is Broken which kind of sound Buddhist a little bit. It has that sort of puzzling sound to it. The subtitle is really important why games make us better and how they can change the world. I do look at gaming as a practice that changes the way that we think, changes the way we approach our real lives, and changes the way that we treat other people as well.
And so that’s what I looked at. I look at research that support that idea as well games that we can make to intentionally provoke those changes, changes for the better. And so the first thing I want to do is share with you a little bit about games and why I think games are a practice in the way that Buddhism can be a practice. This doesn’t really look like a computer video game which we’re going to talk a lot about computer and video game but this is still really important to think about gaming as a practice. These are actually sheep’s knuckles that have been carved into dice, ancient gaming dice. So these dices are thousands of years old and gaming is actually a very old practice, right. Gaming is an ancient tradition. We’ve been playing games for thousands of year. And I thought I would share with you this pretty interesting story about why we even have games at all.
Many of you are probably familiar with the Greek historian Herodotus. He sort of invented as we know it. And one of the histories that he wrote was the history of how games were invented, who made the first game, and why did they make it. And what I love about his history is that the story has nothing to do with fun or entertainment which is how we might think of games today. His history of why we have games has to do with suffering. So he writes about an ancient kingdom called Lydia and the fact that they were suffering a terrible famine, the famine that lasted for years and years and people were suffering greatly as you would imagine during a famine. And so the king brought together the smartest people in the kingdom and asked them to come up with the solution to the suffering. They couldn’t do anything about the famine. Historian and geologist have actually shown now much more currently that there is a global climate change that was causing the famine. So there was nothing they could do about it.
So they decided to invent games. They invented dice games according to Herodotus. And what they did was they taught everybody in the kingdom to play the same games and then they brought people together and would have them play games for the entire day. And they would get so caught up in the playing of the games that they would forget to eat which is something if you know gamers or are gamers you know that still happens today. So they would forget to eat and then they would end the day happy but not having eaten. And then the next day they wouldn’t play games but they would eat. And then on the third day everyone would play game again and they wouldn’t eat and then the fourth day they would eat. And Herodotus writes that they actually past 18 years this way surviving the famine, not fighting over resources and most importantly not suffering, coming together as a community and having this positive experience.
When I first found that story it was while I was in graduate school and it really resonated with what I felt about games that games at their heart are about not suffering, about coming together and not suffering, which is not something you hear game developers say out loud a lot until I started trying to get people to think about it. So gaming is a practice. It’s a social practice. This idea that we can come together and practice these games together and it’s an important to know that it’s not just the ancient Lydian and it’s not just us today. There’s a really cool dissertation published earlier this year where scholar looked at a hundred years’ worth of archaeological excavation in the Middle Eastern region of the world. And he looked at the catalogue of all the objects that have been dug up over the past century and it turned out that one in ten objects that had been dug up over the past century all over the ancient world were game artifacts so game boards, game token, one in ten. His dissertation is actually asking why we’ve ignored the centrality of play in these ancient kingdoms for so long but digging objects just like this.
And then the other thing that they found is that the locations of these objects were in really densely populated parts of the city, really the center where people would come and they would shop and they would come together. So there’s seems to have this really gathering effect, the game centers were always kind of the center of urban life in these ancient locations. So gaming is an ancient practice. It’s a social practice. It’s a community practice. Now it’s also a practice that we spend a lot of time doing. We practice a lot today. So right now as a planet we actually spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. I’m mostly interested when it comes to electronic games, the games that are connected to the Internet or connected to a network or mobile phones or PC, console games that are connected. And that’s 3 billion hours a week. It’s a lot of time.
So it’s an ancient practice. It’s a social practice. It’s a community practice that we spend a lot of time doing and there’s a lot of us practicing it. So when I first started tracking gamers around the world a few years ago this was a number I came up with more than 5 million people globally who spend at least an hour a day playing online games. That’s a lot of practitioners and you can kind of see where on the map that these folks are practicing. So just in the past couple of years to give you a sense of how many more practitioners were getting everyday this number is actually bump up to 800 million global gamers. You can see in the US we got another 10 million but looking over at China were gaming has really exploded over the last couple of years they’re up a 145 million practitioners of gaming. And India has exploded 96 million now practitioners of gaming. So that’s a lot of people involved in this practice. Particularly in the younger generation we are moving towards the future where it seems to be everybody will practice gaming.
In the US currently 99% of boys under 18 and 94% of girls play games regularly so there’s no gender divide anymore with gamers, right, and who practices. For boys it’s over 13 hours a week and for girls an average of 8 hours a week. So there’s a little bit of an intensity gap. The boys do play more but virtually everyone plays which led one famous media critic to say famously it’s inevitable, soon we would all be gamers. And I would like to tell you that your time has come, your day has come. If you’re not a gamer yet, you are going to be gamer in the next 5 minutes. We’re going to play a game together and it’s going to be awesome. Because I thought if we’re talking about gaming as a practice we should practice it a little bit. So I’m going to teach you a game very few people know how to play. In fact, I’m pretty sure none of you have played it before. Does anybody ever played massively multiplayer thumb wrestling before?
Kiyash Monsef: I know I have.
Jane: Wait a minute. Can I see your name tag?
Kiyash Monsef: Yes.
Jane: Kiyash Monsef! Oh my god, would you please stand up. Oh my god, this is very shocking. I have no idea what you’re doing here. This is the current reigning world champion of massively multi-player thumb wrestling. Are you a Buddhist geek? What are you doing here?
Kiyash Monsef: I heard this was going to be a massively multi-player thumb wrestling here. And I came to defend my title.
Jane: Oh my god, well that is really up the ante a little bit. Okay. Why don’t you join me on stage to help me teach people and maybe I could implore you to come as well. I have to say I’m very impressed. So let me just unpack for you a little bit.
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at this point Jane leads the group through massively multi-player thumb wrestling. The audio pics back up after the conclusion of the match.
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audience member: Who won?
Jane: Well let’s find out. So let me unpack for you a little bit about how game designers think about game design so you can start to see maybe how game designer and Buddhist share the same goals, maybe some of the same methods. So what I think about as a game designer is I think about productivity in a kind of a weird way. We usually don’t think of game as being a productive way to spend our time but it really depends on how you define productive. You know what is it that you actually want to produce more of. So I have a set of four things that I tried to produce when I create games and let’s see how we did with playing this game together. So the first is positive emotion, right. Games produce a lot of positive emotion, a lot of excitement and joy and that sort of thing.
And I would have to say based on the smiles and the laughter and the energy level that I saw I would give a check that massively multiplayer thumb wrestling produced a little bit of positive emotion. Game designers also think about strengthening relationships. So did we do any good relationship work here? Well since this is a geeky Buddhist Geeks conference I can share with you science hack. Game designers like to use science to build in a little bit of proven scientifically backed activity into their games. So many of you are probably familiar with oxytocin which is the hormone chemical in the body that makes us like other people more, makes us more trusting of them, makes us feel more bonded to them when we have high levels of oxytocin we’re more likely to help somebody else. And one of the fastest ways to increase the oxytocin in your blood stream is to hold somebody else’s hand for 6 seconds.
So we were all just holding hands for way more than 6 seconds which means if you met somebody and you kind of wanted to ask them for a favor or something at this conference it’s a really good time in the next hour to do that. So we strengthen our relationship a little bit. We got oxytocin going. Meaning is something that we think about a lot as game designers. You know again games we often think of as being trivial maybe a waste of time but gamers are very interesting in meaning. They’re in the sense of having of a heroic purpose of being a part of something that is bigger than themselves that they can see their humble role that they play in some grander scheme. And you see that in games that involves you massively multiplayer communities so there are millions of you playing together or that have this really all inspiring environment.
So a lot of video games are very similar to cathedrals or sanctuaries and how they’re designed to create goose bumps and choke you up to make you feel small in these vast architectures. One of the things that I think is kind of meaningful about massively multiplayer thumb wrestling is that right now they’re only about 25,000 people in the world who know how to play this game and so now it’s up to you if you would like to be sacred guardians of the secret and protect it. You can do that. You’re one of the few who know or maybe even choose to pass it on and share and teach others and see about spreading this to a larger community. That’s how the meaning you find in that is up to you. And then finally accomplishment. We know gamers and this something that you know when my sister and I talked about Buddhism and is it like gaming and are gamers sort of on the path to awakening, this is the one that’s really stickiest I think and maybe is the least like Buddhist practice which is the idea of accomplishment.
You know the sense of pride when you learned something new and when you master it. I think there is accomplishment in Buddhism in that we have to learn something new and we have to master new skills so that we can actually do the practice. So let’s see if we actually got some accomplishment here. How many of you successful participated in this practice the massively multiplayer thumb wrestling. All right. Well done. That’s great. So we have some accomplishment. How many of you are like me I never win either thumb. All right. Good job. You’re now accomplished massively multiplayer thumb wrestlers and you successful completed a game together. So well done. There are only 25,000 of you on the planet that’s pretty impressive. How many of you were able to win one thumb? Nice. All right. You guys are now master massively multiplayer thumb wrestler so wear that badge of honor of pride. Did any brave soul manage to win two thumbs?
Wow. So you guys are legendary master of massively multiplayer thumb wrestler. I was going to ask if anybody beat [Kiyash] so we could crown a world champion but you won both thumbs again. All right. I’ll guess we’ll see. Where is our next stop? We’ll see you for the next 2012. You’ll come back and defend your title. Okay. So that’s how game designers think about what we’re creating in games right. So we’re not just trying to make entertainment. We’re trying to produce these four things that have a special role in our lives. If you try to remember this by the way it’s spelled PERMA. So it’s a useful acronym for positive emotions relationship meaning and accomplishment. And there’s a great book if you’re really geeky like me and want to read more about the science by the founder of the positive psychology the science of happiness Martin Seligman has a new book out where he talks about the PERMA framework in relationship to real life and how these four things positive emotions, relationships meaning accomplishment are actually what help us lead a life worth living and to be as Ethan might say it decent human beings.
So that’s something that game designers think a lot about. But I thought that you could do a Buddhist read on massively multiplayer thumb wrestling. You know I think it’s a pretty cool game because trying to wrestle two thumbs at once I think is like come on. Like just live with that for a second. How do you wrestle two thumbs at once? It’s kind of puzzle. If you actually try to do it it’s pretty much impossible and if you would try it again and again and again keep trying to wrestle two thumbs at the same maybe you would actually get to some mini enlightenment. I think you would. And I also like the fact that that the most important thing is not how you do in your individual node but that we were all connected in one big node and that we were actually, you might have been really focused on the game that you were playing but if you can actually zoom out and see the bigger picture what was really happening is that we were all playing together. And everyone one of us in the room was connected to every other in the room.
So I think you could also do a kind of fun Buddhist read on that too. Okay. So what it is about games that produce PERMA and let’s just think about them as possibly ending suffering. Well I would like to share with you my favorite definition of the game which has nothing to do with some things that we associate with video or computer games. It’s not about graphics or special effects. It’s not about points or achievement badges or even winning. Really the games are unnecessary obstacles that we choose to tackle. And I would add to that they’re unnecessary obstacles that we choose to tackle and the outcome doesn’t matter to us, that we are okay with any outcome. So let me give you an example here to sort of see how this definition works. Let’s take golf. Golf is a great game to look at as an unnecessary obstacle, right. I think you see where I’m going already.
So in golf you have a goal. What’s your goal in golf? Get the little ball in the little hole. So imagine you’re not playing a game. Imagine this is real life and you have a goal of getting a little ball in a little hole. How would you achieve this very goal? You pick up the ball and you will wall over to the hole and you would very carefully put the ball in your hole. Yeah. I did it. I’m so productive. And maybe you would like make a machine that would bring all the balls to you and strap them in the hole for you and that would be great. That’s what we do in real life, right. We try to make everything easier. But in games we try everything harder. So even though our goal is to get a little ball in a little hole we do something really stupid. We stand really far away from the hole which is very not useful for trying to get in the hole. And then to make it worst we for some reason decide to use a stick to aim the ball. It may be a lot easier if we could at least just throw it or something. So we put these two big obstacles in the way of the goal.
And then what’s funny is as you start to get good at getting the little ball in the little hole standing really far away with a big stick, you don’t just celebrate how good you are at that now. Instead you make it harder. You start putting sand tracks and obstacles and hazards. And the better you get the harder you make it. So that’s the definition of the game. That’s how we know we have the heart of the game. It’s something that you want to be challenging for no good reason. And what is it that we like about them? You know we like that it provoke curiosity. Can I do that? I kind of want to try. I want to see if I can do that. I’ve never tried that before. And it provokes a sense of mastery or learning. We have a chance to get good at something that we’re really bad at. We have no idea how to do it and we get better over time. And usually these obstacles are social in nature. We can watch other people tackle them and we can learn from them. We can share ideas and we can kind of work together to get better at it and then over time as a community we actually do better at it together.
So imagine how bad golf players were when they just invented golf compare to how good someone like Tiger Wood is today. Sort of collectively move forward our understanding of this game. So when you think about it that way, one good way to describe games is that playing games is hard work. So we think of work as usually the opposite of play. But in fact playing games is hard work. And one idea that I just like to throw out here for the future of Buddhism and games is that games might be very interesting working meditation because we are working when we play games. So let’s fast-forward to computer and video games. Here’s a great unnecessary obstacles that many people are tackling today. This game is Angry Bird if you don’t know it. They had been more than 200 million downloads of this game to different people and on average three people play each download. So we’re talking about 600 million people who have played this game in the past year.
Talk about the number of people you could possible reach sneaking a little compassion into a game. Okay. You will probably think I’m going too far here. But this game, there is a little compassion involved. So for those of you who played it, you might see where I’m going here. They are these poor birds and they are angry because these pigs have stolen their little baby eggs and your job is to basically obliterate the pigs which is not very Buddhist but because these poor little birds and they’re so sad and they’re angry and you’re going to get in there and you’re going to help them out. But you could see how you can make an even more compassion version of that but 600 million people playing this game, doing a little bit of hard work in their spare time. So imagine Angry Birds the working meditation.
I’m just throwing out here. I don’t actually have a good solution to that just you know think about it. Farmville is great. Farmville is actually a game where you can go to any player’s farm. So Angry Birds is just my birds and my phone, your birds on your phone. In Farmville if you’re playing and I’m playing we can go to each other’s farms. So, Farmville max out a 132 million players all playing in the same virtual world. Now that is the most number of people we ever have playing the same game at the same time in the history of humanity. So you know thinking about the scale of people that we can reach and engage. This is really where it’s at. And Farmville is interesting because it’s a game where you help other people right. The fundamental game mechanic, it’s a social game and you have to go to other people’s, your friend’s farms and you have to feed their chickens for them and water their crops for them and give them nails to build their barn. Like this sort of barn storming that happens in this games.
So it’s actually, it’s all about helping and cooperation. And then there are games like World of Warcraft which are really interesting in terms of how much hard work they are. The average World of Warcraft players spends 22 hours a week playing this game. It’s basically a part-time job. And what’s interesting is it takes on average 500 hours to reach level 80 which is where if you ask any well player will tell you that’s where the fun really starts. So this is a game where you have to play for 500 hours before the fun starts. That’s crazy. That’s really crazy. And you have to think about why that is. It’s because of the essential nature of game play that what we’re actually there for is to be engaged in hard work and to be striving to make ourselves better, right. That’s what’s going on in these games.
It kind of makes you think of the old Noel Coward, the dramatist Noel Coward. He said work is more fun than fun. And what’s really going on when you play these games tackling these obstacles is that we are whole heartedly engaging with difficult challenges with work. But why is work more fun than fun? Now first some more geeky numbers for you. If you add up all the time that we spent playing just World of Warcraft for example, it’s 5.93 million years. We can put that number in context. 5.93 million years ago the first human ancestors stood up. So by that measure players have been tackling unnecessary obstacles in [Azrajar] for as long as we’ve been walking the earth. And it’s not just that game, you can actually think about other games in this framework. I contributed at least a year to the halo years I want to say and probably a year and a half to rock band which I’m very proud of. And you know the reason why I made this visualization is because I do think that the games we play together do change us as a society. And maybe make us better prepare to survive the future.
You know I’m not saying that we evolved genetically. Gamers have different DNA but what I’m saying is the species when we have 800 million people spending an hour a day playing online games, and we have 600 million people playing the same game it does sort of change our make up as a society and what we’re capable of. Okay. But why are we spending so much time tackling unnecessary obstacles. I mean does this engage us more than anything else. And one of the things I was thinking in preparing this talk was you know how hard it is even for myself to keep a daily meditation practice. And when I have that spare time what do I want to do. You know what I want to do is I want to engage the 600 million picking up their phones to play 5 minutes of Angry Birds they could easily meditate in those 5 minutes. But instead they decided to tackle this little task, this little work and what is it about wanting to engage in hard work.
And by the way I should say I think meditation is hard work and I think that the practice is hard work but we don’t necessarily communicate that to others particularly when you see somebody meditating, picture of the meditation it looks like you’re kind of passive and it looks like you’re opting out. It doesn’t look like actually what we know, what we feel, how engaging it is and how focus you have to be. That’s one of the, [Rohan] is going to talk about how the aesthetic of meditation is broken. I actually think one of the things that we can do to fix the communication of the aesthetic of meditation is to convey how engaging it is. Because when people are tackling on those obstacles is because they want to be engaged. This is a quote from theories of plays, psychology of plays. He’s been studying plays since before there were video games. Brian Sutton- Smith is his name. And he wrote that the opposite play isn’t work. It’s depression. And here we get back to the idea of suffering. When you’re depressed there are really two major elements.
The first is that you have a despondent lack of energy, right. You just don’t feel like engaging with the world. You withdraw into yourself. And the second is a pessimistic sense of your own capabilities. You don’t think that if you make effort that you’ll find success. So if you were to reverse these two traits you would get something like an invigorating rush of energy and an optimistic sense of your own capabilities and I’m not sure there’s a good clinical word for that in psychology. Some of you might be able to suggest one. Flourishing may be to use Martin Seligman’s term. But I think it’s the perfect definition of how we feel when we play a good game. We feel energize. You’ve seen the energy in the room lifted a lot when we did our massively multiplayer thumb wresting. And you can see when somebody will come home from a long day of work or a long day at school, tired exhausted. They started playing a game. Suddenly its 4 hours, 6 hours later. It doesn’t matter how late it is. They could keep going. They’re wide awake. They’re ready to go.
There’s this energizing effect of game play. And then there’s the optimizing that comes with gaming. One thing that I like about gamer is you’ll never see them sit down in front of a game they’ve never played before and then say something like I don’t know why I’m playing. I’m going to be the worst player ever. I’m totally going to fail this game. Instead what you see is new game. I’ll totally going to figure this out. I’m going to totally get this. And then you see once they started to get it you see I’m getting good at it. I’m going to be the best player ever. I’m going to get the higher score. I’m going to get the fastest time. And you see that sort of leveling up of optimism the more gamers play. And that’s actually been measured in labs that playing games actually makes you measurably more optimistic even for 24 hours afterwards. So why does this happen? You know what’s going on. Let’s geek out a little bit. There’s a great word that I think summarizes what’s happening in our minds and bodies when we play a game, when we tackle unnecessary obstacle.
The word is eustress which is the positive form of stress. So think of it as the opposite of distress. Normally we talk about stress as the negative kind as pressure from us externally to do something that we feel like we can’t do or we don’t want to do. We don’t have the time or the resources or the talent or we just don’t care. And when we have that kind of external pressure then there are things that happen in our body. Our adrenaline can start racing. Our heart rate may go up. Our breathing rate might quicken. The blood flow in our brain might change to really go to the parts of the brain which Kelly will know the term for it and I won’t where attention happens, where focus on a treat happen. And when we experience these things because of an external pressure then we have anxiety. We have resentment. We’ve angered all these physiological changes.
But what’s really interesting is when we play a game or we do something in our real lives that we’ve chosen to do. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s a challenge but we wanted to do it. We have all of the same physiological reactions. You know our heartache might go up. Our breathing rate might quicken. We might get some adrenalin going. The blood flow is going to change in our brain. But instead of experiencing it as anxiety or anger or frustration, we experience it as excitement, as motivation, as drive and we have a positive feeling of the same physiological response. So it’s a different story that we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening in our bodies. Now this is just interesting obviously from the Buddhist perspective that you can take the same physiological set and relative same activities. You know doing something that’s challenging for us, doing something that we might fail at and one story tells us to feel angry and frustrated and anxious and the other story tells us to feel excited and motivated and we’re totally going to win.
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