See Jane Game

Keynote speaker Jane McGonigal wants to change the world

Jane McGonigal
Jane McGonigal

Born in 1977, before cell phones, e-mail, iPods, and Bluetooth, Jane McGonigal was a prototypical geek. She still has fond memories of banging out her own computer games with basic programming on her Commodore 64, with admittedly "lame" ASCII art. That in itself might have foretold her future as a game designer, except there was another childhood experience that was just as defining.

"When I was younger, I went to a Quaker school. We played these large games that required collaboration among the kids. They were 'hippie' games in that there was not one winner or loser. Either everyone won or everyone lost."

On the surface, those two experiences would appear diametrically opposed – the solitary child plugged into her computer vs. the plays-well-with-others kid. On the contrary, the confluence of those experiences was necessary to make McGonigal what she is today – a respected and sought-after alternate-reality-game designer and researcher. McGonigal has had a hand in several high-profile ARGs (see sidebar), and in doing so, has broadened the scope of gaming. For her role in pioneering ARGs, she was included in 2006 in the TR35, an elite group of technologists and scientists under the age of 35 selected by MIT's Technology Review. She is currently a researcher with the Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, Calif., specializing in collaborative forecasting games. As if that weren't enough to keep her busy, McGonigal wants to change the world – and she wants gamers to join her.

"Reality is broken. Why aren't game designers trying to fix it?" she asks at her website ( That question is the crux of her keynote address at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival.


For those who don't know a joystick from an avatar, alternate reality games are multiplayer games that start with a well-defined premise. The evolving narrative relies on player responses to given situations and elements, like game-specific characters, created (or killed) by the game designer (aka puppet master/s). Depending on the game, the goal may be to overcome a series of challenges or to solve a mystery or a puzzle, following set ground rules. The game designer is key in ARGs, as is the game website where players go to check in. However, unlike role-playing games, ARG players are themselves. They do not have avatars or assume character roles. Players react to the fiction of the game as if it were real. ARGs are also not limited to online participation and often multimedia, as well as real-world interaction among its players.

It all sounds like good, clean, highly immersive fun, but what does this have to do with changing the world? According to McGonigal, plenty.

"Games are a perfect medium for transforming knowledge into action," she says. "I spend a lot of my time figuring out how the games we play today shape our real-world future," she writes on her blog. "And so I'm trying to make sure that a game developer wins a Nobel Prize by the year 2032."

To do this, McGonigal looks toward "large-scale, collaborative communities to improve players' real quality of life and to solve real-world problems by overlaying game systems and content on top of everyday reality." Not exactly taking-it-to-the-streets-type activism, if you're more familiar with traditional, grassroots organizing. But McGonigal thinks gamers and old-school activists have a lot in common when it comes to their dedication to a cause. Like grassroots activists, gamers are typically very devoted and willing to do their part to help an ARG evolve. The biggest difference, particularly in terms of the World Without Oil game on which McGonigal served as participation architect (active from April 30 to June 1, 2007), was the massive, multiplayer approach to a very credible scenario.

The premise of World Without Oil was simple: A sudden and extreme oil shortage has sent the world into a crisis. Players were asked to imagine how their city, state, and neighborhood would be affected. How would they live their day-to-day lives? What were their coping strategies? What changes would they have to make? Players responded to the premise with their survival stories through blogs, video, phone messages, and e-mail. The most innovative or provocative stories rose to the top, allowing players to feed off those ideas and revise and create new ones. According to the World Without Oil website (, 1,900 players signed up for the 32-day game, drawing more than 50,000 active observers from 12 countries.

"The World Without Oil game let people use any means necessary to drive the story, to test the limits," McGonigal said in a interview shortly before the game launched. "The idea is that when you start to play, you join as a puppet master. In that way, it's sort of the first collectively puppet-mastered game ever." The game asked players to imagine living in the crisis but, more importantly, to come up with real solutions. "It's not just about thinking about change, but making change," McGonigal says. The change comes in many ways, the most immediate being players' determining what they can do in their real lives now to avert the crisis. This includes immediate, personal changes (public transportation instead of driving) to perhaps inspiring more active citizen participation in crafting new or existing public policy and, most importantly, by developing better case scenarios. Or, as Stefanie Olsen of CNET says, "The best way to change the future is to play with it first."

"Games give us responsibility and powers," McGonigal says. "Skills and ideas you develop in game worlds can solve real-world problems."


In the Commodore 64 days, geeks were not chic, and online culture was relatively unknown outside what used to be called computer science labs. Now, the power to get online can be in the palm of your hand. So, it's no surprise that "real world" culture has seeped into the cyber world, as much as the cyber world is more accessible to the average person with enough money for something as simple as a cell phone with Web access. McGonigal, among others, wondered how much the cyber world, which started with a strong, egalitarian bent, is being affected by the offline world. This is especially true when one looks at how the cult of celebrity has gained space online (e.g., American Idol, Facebook, MySpace). In spite of these intrinsically self-serving sites, McGonigal believes that games and gamers can create a more proactive public citizen. "In an ARG, it's not about 15 minutes of fame; it's about 15 minutes of service," she said in her interview. "It's the culture of celebrity vs. the culture of contribution."

And perhaps a better quality of life. In game culture, McGonigal says, most gamers would agree that their sense of self is better in the virtual world than in the real world. There is more personal satisfaction, stronger social networks, less boredom, increased happiness, and stronger feelings of cooperation, often with fellow game players they might not ordinarily seek contact with. And if more people, from divergent backgrounds, experiences, and locales can be brought together to "play well with others," shouldn't that be encouraged?

"I think we're at a crossroads," McGonigal says. "We can either start making more games that are absorbing and addictive, or we can make reality work more like a game. Everything we've learned about the game world, we can apply in real life."  

Jane McGonigal gives her keynote address on Tuesday, March 11, at 2pm.

ARGs go mainstream

Most casual spectators have at least heard of one ARG even if they haven't played one, thanks to TV. Lost (ABC), for example, has an ARG to augment the existing series and give fans the opportunity to delve deeper into the show's mythology. Last year, The Ocular Effect, the companion ARG for ABC Family's Fallen won an Outstanding Creative Achievement Award in Interactive Television at the 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2007. Expect more of the same in the future.

These are a few of Jane's favorite games ...

Jane McGonigal has been producing ARGs since 2001. Here are some of her favorite projects:

World Without Oil (2007): The world suffers an oil crisis. How do players survive? Ken Eklund was the creative director and producer, but McGonigal was so inspired by the idea, she joined the team.

Cruel 2 B Kind (2006): Teams of assassins kill other teams with random acts of kindness in public places.

Organum (2005): Players use their voice to "travel" up a projected, 3-D "trachea" without choking or becoming self-conscious. Participants must work collaboratively, making all manner of goofy sounds into designated mics.

I Love Bees (2004): An A.I. from a distant galaxy lands on earth and ends up tending bees. This game had a thick narrative with multiple characters and was highly popular in its play day.

Tele-Twister (2003): The Sixties game takes on a new twist (he he) when moves of the physical players on the Twister board are directed by teams that watch the game online and must direct by consensus.

The Go Game (2002): Team-building scavenger hunt for corporate types. Teams get missions via Web-enabled phones and must come up with the most creative solution, thinking outside the box while playing outside the office.

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Jane McGonigal, alternate reality games, ARGs, World Without Oil

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