Jane McGonigal on the good and bad of video game escapism

Game designer Jane McGonigal began her GDC talk this year with a quote from author Jack Finney: "It seems too bad — this universal craving to escape what could be a rich, productive, happy world." Finney was writing about the ‘40s, but McGonigal said the trends he was talking about are magnified in our modern culture, especially in gaming.

McGonigal pointed to statistics, such as that people spend 300 million minutes a day playing Angry Birds or 170 hours per year per player in Call of Duty. These numbers help make sense of why some people are concerned that gamers only want to escape reality, she said, noting that psychological studies link escapism to suicide, anxiety, eating disorders, alcoholism and addiction.

While that sounds dire, McGonigal clarified that all is not lost. There are actually two forms of escapism: self-suppression and self-expansion. She described self-suppression as running away from unpleasant thoughts, perceptions and emotions; self-expansion is actively seeking new skills, stronger relationships and positive experiences. According to McGonigal, the difference between these two is comparable to the difference between saying, "Everything sucks, so I'm going to go play games," versus "Life is better when I have time to play games."

McGonigal said it can be difficult to tell the difference between self-suppression and self-expansion because the actual activity of playing games is exactly the same; it's a mental difference. To illustrate this, she highlighted a number of seemingly contradictory headlines about different studies on games. One study showed gaming increasing depression, while another showed it leading to more happiness. One study said gamers get lower grades while another said they get higher grades. According to McGonigal, all of these studies are valid — they're just looking at different people who are playing different games for different reasons.

As an example of video games being used positively for self-expansion, McGonigal referred to Snow World. This game was created for burn victims to play as their wounds are being treated. It turned out that playing Snow World reduced pain by 30 to 50 percent for the most severe cases and worked better than morphine.

In the second half of her presentation, McGonigal explained some of the ways in which games can have a negative effect, focusing around two key problems: aggression and sitting. McGonigal cited studies showing that violent gameplay is okay, and co-op violent gameplay can be great, but competitive violent gameplay — especially against strangers — raises aggression. Scientific studies have shown that defeating someone you don't know in a competitive game causes testosterone to surge, urging players to show their dominance over that person. On the flip side, beating someone you're familiar with in a game causes testosterone to drop and makes it more likely that you'll be nicer to the person in question.

The "sitting disease," as McGonigal said it has come to be referred to, is a more complicated issue. McGonigal pointed to studies noting a severely increased likelihood of death if you sit for more than six hours a day. She said the solution isn't as simple as taking games away from people; studies show that taking away screen time doesn't actually encourage kids to be more active, for example. Better solutions offered by McGonigal included shorter games and games with an element of physical input such as Kinect and Wii titles. She also pointed to a Kotaku article about the value of playing traditional games while standing.

Criticisms aside, McGonigal was clear that a wide range of popular games can be a great, healthy addition to peoples' lives, including games like Call of Duty, Skyrim, Battlefield 3 and World of Warcraft. McGonigal showed off a popular YouTube video of a grandson introducing his grandfather to Call of Duty (above) as an example of games building relationships as well as helping the elderly age gracefully. She also referenced evidence that action games increase attention span, that games can enhance social skills for autistic youth, and that kids can learn to manage difficult emotions like fear and anger through age-appropriate scary games.

Ending her talk by addressing developers looking to make healthy, self-expansion-focused games, McGonigal gave a number of direct recommendations to consider:

  • 30-minute play sessions
  • co-op
  • fast-paced, complex action
  • long-term goals and challenging gameplay
  • age-appropriate intensity
  • diverse avatars

McGonigal said that developers do a disservice to players by thinking of games as escapism alone and urged them to do a better job of connecting games to real life. You can find links to much of the research and sources that McGonigal used for her presentation as well as a PDF of all of the slides from it on this blog post.

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