I'm not sure McGonigal's on the right track when she talks about campaigning to increase the number of hours people spend gaming each week.
I always find it gratifying to see mainstream media outlets taking gaming seriously, whether it's the Christian Science Monitor running an article on the science of motion gaming or the New York Times dedicating a reporter to covering it as an official beat. That's why it rocked to flip on Comedy Central last Thursday to see Stephen Colbert interviewing Jane McGonigal, games researcher and author of the new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
Serious gamers know Colbert's a card-carrying member of geek nation -- the dude's never been shy about mentioning his D&D roots, and his 20- and 30-something staffers are as dialed in to gaming culture as anyone this side of the G4 network. Even when he's faux-mocking the Xbox 360 or stirring imaginary rage about the latest Rockstar Studios-fueled controversy in Congress, his tongue's all but bursting out of his cheek. I wouldn't be surprised if the guy had several wireless controllers stored under his studio desk.
Colbert's chat with McGonigal was one of what I like to call his "good" interviews -- one where there are enough self-deprecating one-liners and jokey asides to keep the mood funny and light ("You mean gaming doesn't lead to a pear shape and Cheetos-stained fingertips?") but the guest doesn't make the fatal mistake of being combative with the host, or taking his satirical persona too seriously.
McGonigal, who worked on I Love Bees, the legendary alternate-reality gaming promotion Microsoft and Bungie Software used to hype the release of Halo 2, made some solid points about the ways in which games are now being used to model real-world improvements like methods of curing cancer. She also scored points with Colbert by noting how the best emotions we experience playing games -- hope, optimism, confidence -- transfer easily from the virtual to the real world, even if all we're using that confidence to do is flirt with someone in a bar. (Colbert: "So after playing the game, I can pretend I have a thunder cannon.")
I'm not sure McGonigal's on the right track when she talks about campaigning to increase the number of hours people spend gaming each week -- the numbers she dropped suggest there are currently 3 billion gamers spending 21 billion hours per week with controllers clutched in their hands. That way lies backlash: Concerns about the amount of time their kids are playing video games is easily the number-one issue parents approach me about, and they're not always convinced by arguments about the ways in which gaming can increase literacy and problem-solving skills.
Okay, maybe if those extra hours were spent playing Civilization 5 or Evoke, a game McGonigal developed that sought to teach teens in sub-Saharan Africa about social systems and technology. The measurable benefits of bonus hours being dropped on Call of Duty: Black Ops and Dance Central are probably a little less clear.
McGonigal's right: Games can make us better. The key is conveying the "how" to the masses who don't already know.