Jane McGonigal is an author and game designer who wants to change the world through gaming. In this second part of a presentation recorded during the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference, she shares the details about games where people are going into the world and using gamer virtues for real life good. From better community organizing, to solutions for regional famine, to possible treatments for cancer, McGonigal and her gamers are changing the world one epic win at a time.
She concludes the presentation by inviting to the stage her twin sister Kelly McGonigal. Together they give the audience an inside look at the ongoing conversation the sisters have had about the possible convergence of gaming and Buddhist practice.
This is part two of a two part series.
- Awakening is an Epic Win (full video)
- Jane McGonigal
- Reality is Broken
- Fold It
- Ground Crew
- Living Compassion
Jane: What I talk about a lot in my book is what the state of eustress really brings out in gamers. There’s lots and lots of science on this and just to summarize it for you: gaming seems to unleash our natural ability to be more curious, more optimistic, more energized, more joyous, more focused, more determined yet open to failure, totally okay if we fail. And then I put in parenthesis because I think this one is a little bit controversial, this is not as much in the literature, the scientific literature. This is just something I see so I put in parenthesis: to be fully present. When we’re playing games we don’t ruminate on anything else. We don’t have other stories going on in our mind. And there is something about gaming in that way that I think is similar to meditation. A lot of people play games during difficult times in their lives to avoid ruminating on it which can make depression worse or make anxiety worse, and just to be fully present to the moment.
But of course games in that sense are distraction, so it’s not exactly being fully present to our lives. It’s like being fully present to a different life. And that’s why I have it in parenthesis. It’s not exactly mindfulness, but there’s something there, that sense of being fully present to the challenges in front of us. They just happened to be unnecessary challenges, fictional challenges. Now what I think is interesting about this list is how similar it is to the kind of virtues that we associate with trying to become enlightened, with trying to reach that insight, right? So this list here, the curiosity, and the brightness, the joy and concentration, the idea of right effort, really determined but okay with any results, the sort of equanimity that we aspire to. If you think about a good gamer, a good sport, has equanimity whether they win or lose, right? And then of course mindfulness. I think there’s an interesting overlap between these techniques that are supposed to bring you to enlightenment, and the techniques, the skills that gamers are actually developing. I don’t know what this means. I’m just giving it to you as something interesting that I saw.
Possibly it means that Super Mario is a Buddhist. Maybe? Maybe? I don’t know. Who wants to take a picture of that slide? You guys know you want to tweet it. I’ll give you a moment before I go on. Okay. So maybe that’s what we’re really saying.
I think that gamers and Buddhist practitioners are super empowered hopeful individuals. They are people who have built and brought in themselves to be open to challenges, to be able to rise to the occasion, and participate wholeheartedly in the world around them with all of those traits that we’ve mentioned the curiosity, the brightness, the determination.
And the fact that young people today, if you’re born after 1980, the later after 1980 you were born the more likely this is to be true, that these young people have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice at gaming by the age of 21. That’s something interesting to think about. Imagine young people accumulating 10,000 hours of Buddhist practice by the age of 21. And it turns out that this kind of practice in gaming does make you better able to go out into the real world and tackle incredible challenges, to be part of social engagement and social impact wholeheartedly in ways that we’re just starting now to see with game design. I kind of ask this question: what are we practicing for? What are these kids spending these 10,000 hours if gaming is a practice? What’s the actual outcome? And of course, actually I don’t know. I shouldn’t say we all agree on this. I had an interesting conversation with practitioners of mindfulness meditation this past week who said that they felt that you practice meditation in order to be going out in the world and be more loving and to practice love everywhere you go.
So here are a couple of games where people are going out in the world and using their gamer virtues, their skills that might lead to awakening for real life good. This is a game called Foldit. It was created by researchers at the University of Washington who thought that gamers might like to help cure cancer in their spare time. And so these are biochemist who are working on something called protein folding which looks at how different proteins in the human body fold into more or less stable configurations. And everything that happens in our body biochemically happens through protein folding. And if proteins fold up in an unstable shape, we get diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. So scientist want to look for all of the most stable configurations. But it turns out that there are so many different parts to each protein and so many different ways that they can twist and bend that it takes supercomputers more than a year to test all of the configurations for just one possible protein for one disease. And there are countless proteins in our body.
So what they did is they decided to make a game because maybe gamers would be better at this than supercomputers. So they created an interface. It’s a little bit complicated, but not more complicated than that world of World of War Craft interface that we were looking at earlier, and it teaches the gamers to look for stable protein shapes. Well it turns out that after just six months of 50,000 gamers playing together in their spare time, the players were able to co-author a paper for Nature Journal, the most prestigious scientific journal, publishing the findings that they had actually beat supercomputers on 5 out of 10 challenges in just 6 months of training, and one team of players actually stumbled upon a protein shape that no scientist, working professional scientist, had come up with before. They’ve actually started manufacturing it in the lab to test it as a possible medicine for cancer. And 99% of these players, they did a survey, had no training, formal training in biochemistry. So I think this is pretty cool. These are just gamers, ordinary gamers who decided to use their virtues of curiosity and optimism and determination to try to cure cancer instead of just saving the virtual world, maybe save the real world.
So we’ve talked about Farmville a little bit and how you have to help your friends in the game by going to fertilize their crops and feed their chicken. Well a friend of mine was wondering if we’re so willing to feed each other’s virtual chickens and water each other’s virtual crops, would we be willing to do that in the real world? So here’s a platform called GroundCrew and you set it up in your phone and you tell it when it can bother you, maybe only on weekends, maybe only on weekdays after 5 p.m., and it looks for where you are and it gives you social impact missions including possibly a request to water some crops or feed some chickens. But they’re real crops because you’re walking on the street and there’s a community garden around the corner. Or you know it’s a real chicken because there’s an urban farming project in your neighborhood. So you can actually play Farmville in the real world.
So this is pretty cool. It’s working. GroundCrew is working with a group called Garden Angels and they’ve set up these test garden centers and they’ve increased by a factor of more than a 100x the number of volunteers participating in the gaming gardens since they set up this platform. So gardens that used to have four volunteers suddenly had 400. You can imagine in a local community what that increase in scale of participation could do for this really important social action, right, trying to feed ourselves healthier locally and sustainably.
The last game I want to show you is called Evoke. It’s actually a game that I made. We made it with the World Bank Institute and the goal of this game was to teach young people, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, how to start their own social enterprise: so how to start a business that would not only allow them to make a living but also to tackle a social challenge like hunger or poverty or climate change. The problem was that most of the young people in Sub-Saharan Africa did not see themselves as being in a real position to actively engage with these challenges. They certainly did not see them as unnecessary obstacles and they really doubted their own ability to do anything that would really matter. By the way, the URL urgentevoke.com the game is still live if you’re interested on getting a group together to play it. What we did is we put this trailer online. We shared it with some schools around Sub-Saharan Africa. We also sent out a text message that said “free job training in the job of inventing the future” to mobile phones across Sub-Saharan Africa. And when they came to the site, which you could use on your mobile phone or on a typical computer, they found this world set 10 years in the future. You can see here its February 13, 2020. They’re in Tokyo and there’s a famine in Tokyo and who have they reached out to for help? They reached out to this underground network of kind of superhero problem solvers located in Africa. Because it turns out that the people who have spent the past decade tackling problems on the ground in Africa where the challenges are so intense and the resources are so scarce, that they’ve actually become the superheroes of the future through the creativity they’ve developed, through the determination and resourcefulness that they’ve developed. So you can follow this online interactive graphic novel to see stories about people coming out from Sub-Saharan Africa to help the rest of the world, to help Rio de Janeiro deal with the disruption of the energy grid. Rio loses its power and these heroes to come set up more sustainable energy sources. Or when there’s an outbreak of cholera in London, it’s these innovators who come to London and teach them about clean water access. So you would come to the site. You would read the story. And since it is about superheroes, we asked you to imagine yourself in the year 2020. How would you go from who you are today to being somebody who would be the Spiderman, the Superman of tomorrow. Every superhero has an origin story, right? So Peter Parker got bit by the radioactive spider and that’s how he became Spiderman. Over 10 weeks, we asked you 10 questions to help you imagine yourself being this sort of super empowered version of yourself. What’s the motivation? What’s the spark that fuels your heroic effort? Who are your dream allies? Who would you team up with if you can team up with anyone in the world? Who are the bad guys? What is it that you really worked up to try and an address and confront and help overcome.
So if you completed all 10 questions you actually had this really interactive kind of online resume or calling card that could help you attract mentors in the future. But mentors for what? Well we also had weekly missions that were tied to the story where we ask you to go out in the real world and actually try to solve one of these problems today. So the week that we looked at the power shift for example in Rio and the disruption of the energy network, we asked you to change how you power something that you use in everyday life to a more sustainable energy source, so solar power for light bulb or kinetic power for your cellphone. And then you would document what you were doing with social media, blog post, photos or videos. You have to show us you were actually doing this in reality. So for example here is a player who the week that we look at the food, the famine in Tokyo decided to set up an urban farm in his community. He’s actually a player in Mexico City. This was the player who the week that we looked at new energy sources decided to set up, offer his neighbors and friends to power their electronics with his bike, so converting his bike into an electronic powering station so he can submit a video so other people could learn how to do that.
Other players would give you feedback positive feedback on what you’d submitted by giving +1 just like in a roleplaying game: +1 courage or +1 entrepreneurship or +1 sustainability. So this would represent one players total skill level over time. If you completed all 10 quests and all 10 missions the World Bank Institute actually certified you as a social innovator. So you had this sort of outcome. And we managed to enroll just under 20,000 students from over 130 countries for our first 10-week pilot study. And you can see that it was really global audience. One thing we found, we were really asked to focus on South Africa in particular but it turned out that there are a lot of young people in the United States unemployed after graduating from college or having a hard time in this economy who not only wanted to start their own businesses but actually wanted to save the word so that was really interesting to see. So at the end of the 10 weeks, if you’ve completed all of the missions, it turned out that you’d actually created a business plan for your own social enterprise. So it’s actually a tangible outcome. And if you wanted to you could actually put this business plan up online, on a website called “global giving” where you could raise money to start the business for real, where you could attract mentors to support the business for real. So we had more than 50 teams actually go forward with this process and actually start real social enterprises in India, in Nigeria, Uganda, China, Jordan even in the United States. Just to give you my favorite example. The group of gamers, actually based on the United States, who decided to work with players in Africa to start something called Libraries across Africa. This is the kind of creative idea that you can only have I think from really opening yourself up in a game environment. They decided to make libraries more like McDonalds. So McDonalds has this great franchise system. I don’t know how much you’ve traveled. McDonalds are everywhere. There’s basically not one square mile on the planet without a McDonalds. So the gamers were like how can we make libraries that ubiquitous and spread like McDonalds? So they decided to set up a franchise for libraries. If you wanted to make a living in Africa you could do it by setting up a library. And they would show you exactly physically how to set it up. They would help you get the books. They would encourage you to loan the books for free obviously. To be in the franchise you have to loan the books for free, but you can also make money by selling snacks at the library or by charging people’s cellphones. So it actually raised enough money to start this program, put it into practice. They have their pilot libraries up and running and they’re studying this and they are going. You know more than a year after the game this is their job now, players of the game, so not bad for 1o weeks of playing a game.
When I look at Evoke I see the outcome is really what I’m trying to create in the world which is wholehearted participation, really bringing all of our selves optimistically with curiosity, with a determination towards a goal that we want to help, we want to be there for others, but we’re open to failure, we know that’s a possibility, and so we’ll try anyway. And I think that this is what games are doing.
So let’s see if we can answer some of these questions. Do Buddhist and game designer share goals? I think that we do. I do think that many game designers, particular people working in the space where games and reality are blurring, are trying to end suffering, are trying to help people wake up and be the best versions of themselves and then to bring those virtues and abilities to the world around them to help others.
Do Buddhist and game designers share methods? I think they do. I think that we broaden our perspective to be more aware of others, to be aware of the world that we’re part of, and to build skills and abilities that allow us to be the best versions of ourselves.
Now could Buddhist and game designer share practices? Well I hope they will and in fact they already are. One more game to show you. This is actually the center that I spend the most time listening to podcasts from and reading books from and going to meditation sessions with. And they made a game. They just started a game. You can actually play this if you are interested to go online and see what a Buddhist game might be like. They called it a Sangha-wide Participation Game. They’re participating together to raise money for Africa. They’re going to play it from June to October of this year. And their goal is to collectively earn 10,000 points. And people are pledging to support this effort if you reach 10,000 points I would pledge a penny for every point or I’ll pledge a dime for every point. And the way you earn points you can do things like you can listen to the podcast. You can call into the radio show and talk about your meditation practice. You can make a donation. You can participate in a bridge walk to raise attention. You can even just tweet an idea for awareness practice. So that’s how people are raising points and I think it’s just kind of a fun way to see a little bit of gaming brought into the Buddhist practice.
The last thing I want to do is, you know I told you I have lots of question marks around here, I don’t have a lot of answers but I do think that this could be an interesting conversation. So I thought in just the last couple of minutes just to sort of let’s practice what it would be like to have Buddhist and geeks share more of our goals and our methods and practices.
In our family I think Kelly would be a little bit more of the Buddhist and I would be definitely way more of a geek. That’s me dressed up like one of my favorite video game characters in case you’re wondering. [inaudible] super awesome game. So Kelly would you come up and join me. And we’ve been having a lot of interesting conversations in the last month or so leading up to this. Let’s give them a little inside peek. By the way, we were thinking about this idea: in every generation there are conservers and adapters that Jack shared with us this morning. And Kelly turned to me and said “That’s what it is! I’m the conserver and you’re the adapter.” She also said to me over lunch that we’re identical twins born 6 minutes apart. I’m younger. And she said “That’s what it is. It’s the generation gap.” [laughter]
Kelly: We have the whole generation gap.
Jane: So why don’t you share some of the things you were challenging me with and raising this question.
Kelly: Well the first thing I wanted to say is that, and this is the first time I’ve gotten to hear Jane’s ideas fully expressed relating now that she’s been outed as a Buddhist. And so for the first time I was thinking about this question about this question of awakening as an epic win. And I had to think back in my own practice: has there been a time in my practice where I felt like I was putting in effort in something that I had little faith that I would succeed at? But because a trusted teacher told me, “hey do this practice, I think this is going to help.” And it reminded me of some practices that I began maybe 10 years ago in order to improve some difficult relationships. And to think of these difficult relationships as benefactors and to do gratitude practices for these people and these relationships.
Jane: I hope I wasn’t one of them. [laughter]
Kelly: You were not. I won’t say if it’s anyone we’re related to. [laughter] But you know I found that it was very much like the process you describe of epic wins where a trusted teachers told me to do this, I did it, it was difficult. It was uncomfortable but I had some faith. And the end result after some sustained effort really transformed the relationships in a way that did feel like an epic win. Like this was not the way the relationship evolved is something I did not think was possible.
Jane: That’s cool.
Kelly: And that is my only epic win because even though we’re supposed to have the same genes she got both of the gaming genes. So I never had any game actual epic wins. So one of the things we were talking about and was inspired very much by Ethan’s talk this morning, I’m fully onboard with the idea that gaming can be a practice that supports a lot of really great qualities, positive qualities. But more often than not I hear people interested in turning mind training into a game and that games might actually replace the mind training practices that are more traditional including those that I teach. And I was thinking about how the dharma always goes along with the teacher and the sangha. And when I look at games like this and some of the other games I’ve seen developed to support mind training I see where the sangha is. I see that there’s a lot of social interaction. And so my first question to you is where is the teacher in the games?
Jane: Yeah. This is something I’d been trying to give a good answer to because it’s difficult. In some ways I think that the game designer is like the teacher in that they are sort of prescribing a practice. When you sit down in front of a game you’re going to do what the game designer has asked you to do. So there is a sense of leading the student/player through the activity. And there’s also maybe the opportunity for other players to become teachers. So to see games not as something ever that you play alone but that it’s something that somebody brings to you and leads you with. So for example one of my favorite games is Portal and it’s kind of challenging. By the way if you guys are gamers and not gamers and you want to play a good game that will help you build up the gamer virtues, you can download the game called Portal for your computer and play it. You don’t need special gaming equipment so Portal.
But Kiyash played it played first. My husband played it first and he sat down next to me while I played and like a very good teacher he didn’t tell me exactly how to do it but was there to make sure I had support and guidance. So maybe other players serve as teachers or teachers serve as other players? Maybe? Something like that.
Kelly: I’m glad that you said this idea that gamers are never playing alone. Because, you know, one of the things that we say is you shouldn’t leave people alone with these practices. And those who have a practice have probably had some really important instrumental support from teachers where when you hit certain difficulties in your practice, it is so important to be able to articulate out loud what is going on in your mind, what is going on in your life, and to get some sort of guidance on that to receive that personal guidance. And it is true that on retreat or in teaching sometimes when a Sangha comes together and shares what they’re experiencing in their practice and in their lives, sometimes in just hearing what other people are experiencing even not mediated by the teacher that there can be a lot of support for the practice.
Jane: Yeah. And that’s what gamers do, gamers are prolific members of discussion forums where if you’re stuck in a game you go on the forum and people give you help. They create wikis to share their experiences and sort of buildup collective knowledge about how to face these obstacles. So it would be interesting to think about how those practices might support. You know could you support a Buddhist practice the way the gamers support each other in these games?
Kelly: Now one of the things that I found intriguing that you suggested is that you could remove the teacher from a lot of settings and have some sort of technological platform that that would serve the role of the teachers. And that you might have similar experiences or outcomes taking the human out of the student-teachers interaction.
Jane: We were talking about a dance video game like Dance Central where if you wanted to learn how to dance I suggested that maybe you were too shy to go to a class or you were too anxious to go to a class and be seen dancing in public, which we can imagine potential Buddhist practitioners don’t want to be seen at a Buddhist class yet or they’re too scared to go. But you play this dance game. It teaches you the moves, inspires you. Encourages you to do it as sort of introduction. Granted the game is only so good at making sure you’re doing it correctly. I mean it knows if you’re stepping at the right way or time, but it’s not a skillful teacher. But it might serve as like the baby step teacher so that you feel the confidence to show at a real dance class or dance club later on down the line to get the real wisdom maybe.
Kelly: Yeah. Cause one of the things I was thinking about is how you know when you are learning something from someone who is modeling that to you, and I think those of you who have had influential teachers in your life, my guess is that you had the sense that you learned a lot through kind of a direct transmission of seeing how these teachers are in relationship to you and in relationship to others. And that’s true in a dance class too, a lot of ways that we learn, new movement, new ways of being in our bodies, is that we see it modeled, and seeing it modeled in real life not only activates mirror neurons that makes it then easier to replicate that behavior, that skill, but it also increases rapport and empathy and a sense of similarity with the person that we see modeling that. Although there’s more research on that with physical movement, my guess is that its true with the things that we are training ourselves in whether it’s compassion or attention or other virtues that when we see that modeled in a human being and in relationship to us it not only makes it easier for us to find that new way of being in the world but that it gives us a sense of being like that thing that we aspire to which would create the kind of confidence that you are referring to that we need for persevering in the face of challenges.
Jane: Right. So here’s a field of research that I don’t anybody is working on yet but if they are it would be at Stanford which is: do avatars ever create mirror neurons? That would be an open question. But what I hear you say that I think is an important sort of take away is that there needs to be a role for a teacher, a face to face teacher.
Kelly: And not just because I don’t want to be put out of a job.
Jane: No. But because the practices requires wisdom and requires empathy and being in person can really help. And I’m totally onboard with that because the kinds of games that I like to make involve physical location and co-presence and share.
Well that was awesome. Thank you, Kelly my sister for being my awesome geeky counterpart. We’ve reached the end of the session. If you’re interested in chatting about these ideas more, maybe thinking up a game for Buddhist Geeks 2012 that’s my email address, that’s my twitter address and I hope that these questions were intriguing for you. And if nothing else I hope that you will play massively multi-player thumb wrestling with your sangha and try and spread that a little bit more. Thank you.