Fordham Alum Takes Alternate Reality Gaming to the Next Level


Jane McGonigal, FCLC ’99, is the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future. (Courtesy of Bart Nagel)

Published: February 2, 2011

The stereotypical online game enthusiast is viewed by most as a disengaged loner with little to offer the real world. But Jane McGonigal, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’99 and former Observer news editor, sees potential where most see none. In her new book “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” McGonigal offers an innovative, arguably more accurate, conception of a gamer.

When we play games, she said, “we rise to the occasion; we’re more optimistic; we’re more curious; we set higher goals for ourselves; we’re more resilient in the face of failure; we’re more likely to cooperate with others to achieve a common goal.”

As the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit think-tank based in Palo Alto, Cal., she should know. McGonigal, 33, counts herself among the ever-growing ranks of worldwide gamers, plus she develops alternate reality games (ARGs) for a living.

As McGonigal wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Collectively, we spend three billion hours a week gaming. In the United States, where there are 183 million active gamers, videogames took in about $15.5 billion last year.” In the op-ed, which was adapted from “Reality Is Broken,” she argued that harnessing gamer strengths, including “blissful productivity,” “urgent optimism,” and “extreme cooperation,” has the potential to solve daunting social issues, from depression to global poverty.

McGonigal, the featured lecturer at FCLC’s Industry Leadership Series on Feb. 2, has the utmost faith in the power of ARGs and the people who play them. As a life goal, she hopes to see a game designer win a Nobel Peace Prize. Working in a cutting-edge profession that joins social psychology and technology research with Silicon Valley commercial enterprise, McGonigal’s transition into her field is no less a forward-looking narrative of level-ups, game overs and discovering “START NEW GAME” menus.

“That was a strange path with a lot of unexpected turns,” McGonigal said of the elapsed time since she graduated from FCLC. Her first job out of college was as an editor at a dot-com startup in Silicon Valley, “back when dot-coms were new.” With a BA in English and having studied journalism and writing (McGonigal is a former Observer news editor), she said that the job made sense.

“Jane was omnivorous with everything we had to offer,” taking courses in English, theatre and communication and media studies, said Brian Rose, professor of communication and media studies, and McGonigal’s former professor.

“She even audited classes of mine and had useful suggestions about how to make them better,” Rose said. He still employs some of her suggestions in the classroom, like promoting greater student participation.

“I have rarely seen a student work so hard and so well to push her fellow students to do their best work,” said professor of English Leonard Cassuto, who taught McGonigal in a seminar course. “Even as a student, Jane was an inspiring colleague, and her approach to gaming as a collaborative activity is, for me, traceable to her intellectual generosity.”

A year and half after she moved to California the dot-com bubble burst. Knowing her job would not exist within six months, McGonigal returned to school to study theatre. “I had been working in the evenings off-Broadway in New York, trying to get stage-managing experience,” she said.

Upon enrolling in a graduate theatre program at the University of California at Berkley, McGonigal discovered the Go Game, a start-up company that planned to develop ARGs.

“Your cell phone would give you game missions and you would actually use GPS, go to real places, meet up with real people and have a real life adventure. Just like a video game but real,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh my God.’ You’re going to have actors, sets and props [engaging with the players in the real world platform]. You totally need a stage manager.”

After getting hired to help run the games, McGonigal decided to pursue game research at Berkley. “I had to convince my graduate program to let me study games because I was meant to be studying theatre,” she laughed. “They let me do my PhD on game research even though no one else was doing research on it.” McGonigal invented her course of study, which would evolve into her professional career.

Last year, she worked with applied gaming company Natron Baxter to develop “Evoke” for the World Bank Institute. The ARG ran as a 10-week pilot challenging players with weekly missions that aimed to address global issues like poverty and climate change by teaching collaboration, entrepreneurship and other applicable real-world skills. According to McGonigal, the “crash course in changing the world” engaged almost 20,000 people from 130 countries via an online graphic novel and user blogs.

“Evoke” resulted in the creation of more than 50 businesses, McGonigal said. “Now that a lot of people are hearing about this game and the success of the players who’ve started real companies, they’re like, ‘How do we play?’” In response, the Internet-based game was reopened the week of Jan. 23 so that educators and community organizations around the world can play.

Yet for decades, critics have warned of the evils of video and online games, citing social isolation, mood changes and game addiction. McGonigal acknowledged that recent studies have shown playing games for over 21 hours per week can have negative side effects. But she maintained that up to that point “games are really powerful platforms for provoking positive emotions and building relationships.”

McGonigal is “an articulate defender of something most people see almost no value in,” Rose said.

But the real big question, according to McGonigal, is: “what is it that we’re supposed to be doing with our lives?” People’s lives should be “full of happiness, meaning, social connections, purpose, I think. Positive psychologists think,” she said. “Games are a very good way to spark that desire and build the necessary skills to do that in real life.”

Going forward, McGonigal said she is most interested in games that “partner online experience with real world action.” She wonders, “Why don’t our real-world actions power up our online avatars? Why doesn’t “Nike +” running power my avatar in “World of Warcraft”? When I volunteer at an urban farm or community garden, why doesn’t it impact my “FarmVille” farm?” As technology and social media advance, and awareness of ARGs increases, it seems McGonigal’s questions will be answered, her ideas becoming game realities that help us work toward solving important social issues.

“People think that gamers are totally escapist and they’re opting out. But it’s not true,” McGonigal said.

“I’m very optimistic that people who are awesome at games will be awesome at solving real problems if they’re given a chance.”