* Jane McGonigal has become an ambassador for video games
* Says games create positive emotions, social connection
* "SuperBetter" stemmed from her own brain injury
By Liana B. Baker
NEW YORK, March 16 Best-selling author Jane
McGonigal is on a mission, spreading a message that playing
games, whether electronic or physical, is not a waste of time
but can improve lives and solve real world problems.
She has been viewed as a kind of ambassador of the $60.4
billion global video game industry since she spoke at the
influential TED Talk conference in 2010. Her book, "Reality is
Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the
World" hit stores in January and by February made the New York
Times bestseller list. And now, she is a regular guest at
seminars and on TV talk shows, such as "The Colbert Report."
"We can use the positive emotions and social connections
that we take from video games to start making a difference in
the real world," McGonigal told Reuters.
McGonigal got into the video game business when she applied
for a game design job off an advertisement on Craigslist in
2001 during her first semester as a graduate student at the
University of California at Berkeley.
She made her name in the industry by helping design a
popular mission-based game that accompanied the launch of
Microsoft's video game "Halo 2."
But her work did not stop at video games. One game she
designed was a futuristic one called "World Without Oil," a
collaborative effort where thousands of people showed how they
would cope with an oil shortage.
A more controversial game is her "Tombstone Hold 'Em,"
where participants play a physical version of poker using
tombstones in cemeteries. Her book argues the game creates a
"social, and more enjoyable way of remembering death," a
universal human fear.
GAMES HELP HEAL
But much of her research focuses on how games make people
happier, and they stem from an idea she used to overcome
challenges in her own life.
In 2009, midway through writing her book, McGonigal
suffered a brain injury that left her depressed and unable to
write. A doctor said her brain wouldn't heal unless she lifted
her mood. So, she did what she knew best and created a game
that helped her cope with the depression.
The game, called "SuperBetter" involves creating a secret
identity as a superhero (her's was 'Jane the Concussion
Slayer') and then recruiting friends and family to play side
kicks in real life. Her sister, for example, became the
"Watcher" and had to call McGonigal each day to check on her
mood, while she had other friends provide comic relief.
"This is a game designed to increase your resilience in the
face of any injury or illness, anything from asthma to diabetes
to losing weight," she said. "SuperBetter" will be tested in
clinical trials at The Ohio State University Medical Center
Initially, McGonigal was worried that her theories would be
rejected by an industry that wanted games to be seen as purely
entertainment or escapist, but the opposite happened.
Sam Houston, who works for Electronic Arts, recently saw
McGonigal deliver a keynote address at the Penny Arcade Expo
East and said he was struck by how she connected with the crowd
and got everyone to take part in a massive thumb-war.
"Jane did a good job of introducing the concept that gamers
can change the world without getting preachy," Houston said.
McGonigal's next project is called "Find the Future," a
game that will be played at the New York Public Library in May.
About 500 people will spend the night searching for special
items like a Thomas Jefferson handwritten copy of the
Declaration of Independence.
By morning, the winner will have collected enough material
for a book that will go into the library's collection.
"It'll give people the chance to achieve the real life goal
of becoming an author and by doing it through a game, they'll
have the structure and motivation to get it done," she said.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)