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Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal is a prominent figure in the field of game design and a leading advocate for the positive potential of video games. Born on October 21, 1977, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, McGonigal has established herself as a visionary in using gaming principles to address real-world challenges. She earned a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where her research focused on the psychological strengths developed through gaming and their applications in the real world. McGonigal's work extends beyond academia into practical applications. She is best known for creating alternate reality games (ARGs) that combine digital technologies and real-world tasks, aiming to improve individuals' health and well-being. Her notable projects include "World Without Oil" and "EVOKE," games that encourage players to develop solutions for global issues. An accomplished author, McGonigal has published influential books, including "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" and "SuperBetter." These works explore how games can enhance human resilience, motivation, and collaboration. Her innovative ideas have earned her a place as a thought leader in both the gaming industry and in discussions about the future of interactive media and its societal impact. McGonigal's TED Talks and public speaking engagements further disseminate her ideas, inspiring a broader audience to consider the constructive role of gaming in society.

Books Mentioned on People I Mostly Admire #76 with Jane McGonigal:

The Transformative Power of Gaming: Insights from Jane McGonigal


In episode 76 of “People I (Mostly) Admire”, host Steven Levitt interviews Jane McGonigal, a visionary game designer and author. McGonigal, known for her advocacy of the positive impact of games, discusses how games can enhance our abilities, aid recovery from injuries, solve social problems, and even predict the future.

Jane McGonigal: A Trailblazer in Game Studies

Jane McGonigal, who earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley in performance studies, is a pioneer in examining the societal implications of computer games. As Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, and an author of several influential books, she has significantly shaped the conversation around gaming’s potential.

The Philosophy of Gaming

McGonigal advocates a broad definition of games, encompassing everything from video games to traditional sports like golf. She highlights the unique challenges games present, fostering a mindset that embraces learning, experimentation, and resilience. This mindset, she argues, can be applied to real-life challenges, from personal development to tackling global issues.

The Gameful Mindset

The concept of being “gameful” means approaching life’s obstacles with the playful and exploratory attitude we often bring to games. This approach can be particularly effective in educational settings, suggesting a shift from punitive systems to ones that encourage mastery and continuous improvement.

Video Games vs. Traditional Games

While traditional games like golf evolved organically, video games are meticulously designed to optimize the player experience. This design often focuses on creating a broad spectrum of positive emotions, not just excitement or motivation.

Applying Game Principles to Real Life

McGonigal’s research suggests that the key to leveraging games for positive real-life outcomes lies in recognizing the skills and strengths developed in-game and applying them to everyday challenges. This perspective counters the notion of games as mere escapism, instead positioning them as tools for personal and societal improvement.

Case Study: SuperBetter

“SuperBetter”, a game designed by McGonigal, illustrates this principle. Initially created to aid her recovery from a concussion, it has since helped many others tackle a variety of personal challenges. The game encourages players to adopt a proactive and hopeful approach to overcoming obstacles, mirroring the strategies used in game-playing.

The Social Aspect of Gaming

While gaming is often considered a solitary activity, McGonigal stresses its potential for fostering social connections, even for introverts or individuals with social anxieties. Games provide structured social interactions, making them more manageable and enjoyable.

The Evolution of McGonigal’s Career

McGonigal’s journey into game studies began at UC Berkeley, where her initial focus shifted from science communication to the emerging field of gaming. This transition was driven by her realization of the potential of games to blur the lines between digital and real-world experiences.

Jane McGonigal: Expanding Gaming’s Potential

McGonigal’s enthusiasm for gaming’s possibilities extends beyond individual growth. She envisions games as platforms for large-scale cooperation and problem-solving, pushing boundaries of traditional gaming experiences.

The Role of Cooperative Gaming

Highlighting the evolution of cooperative gaming, McGonigal notes the unprecedented opportunities presented by modern video games. They enable large-scale collaboration, allowing players to bring unique strengths and skills to collective goals, a phenomenon relatively new in the history of gaming.

Psychological Benefits of Gaming

McGonigal argues that games offer a variety of emotional benefits. These range from fostering social connections in cooperative settings to providing a sense of accomplishment and a community for learning and teaching. The diverse positive emotions elicited by games are as crucial as the more discussed aspects like dopamine release.

Gameful Mindset in Real Life

The concept of a ‘gameful’ mindset extends to real-life challenges. McGonigal emphasizes the importance of approaching life’s obstacles with the flexibility, curiosity, and openness typical of gaming experiences. This mindset is particularly relevant in adapting to unforeseen future challenges, like pandemics or climate events.

Educational Implications

In education, McGonigal advocates for a system that mirrors gaming’s emphasis on mastery and continuous improvement. This approach contrasts sharply with traditional methods, suggesting that allowing multiple attempts at challenges can better foster learning and growth.

The Power of Reflection

McGonigal stresses the transformative impact of reflecting on the skills and strengths developed in gaming. This process helps bridge the gap between in-game experiences and real-world applications, countering the notion of gaming as mere escapism.

SuperBetter: A Model for Life Challenges

“SuperBetter,” McGonigal’s brainchild, exemplifies how game principles can effectively address real-life issues. The app has helped people cope with various challenges, from health issues to personal setbacks, by applying gameful approaches to recovery and growth.

Social Aspects and Gaming

While gaming can be solitary, McGonigal points out its inherent social nature. Games provide structured social interactions, beneficial for introverts and those uncomfortable with unstructured social settings. This structure can make social experiences more manageable and enjoyable.

Career Path in Game Studies

McGonigal’s entry into game studies began at UC Berkeley, initially focusing on science communication. Her interest shifted towards the potential of games in blending digital and real-world experiences. She became a leading voice in examining how games impact our sense of self and our ability to tackle real-world challenges.

Gaming and Future Challenges

McGonigal’s vision for gaming extends to preparing for future global challenges. She believes in using games as a medium to explore and rehearse responses to potential future scenarios, such as pandemics or climate crises. This proactive approach can foster adaptability and resilience.

The Role of Games in Anticipating the Future

Games, according to McGonigal, can be powerful tools in helping people visualize and prepare for future events. They enable players to engage with possible future scenarios in a safe, controlled environment, cultivating a mindset ready to tackle real-world challenges.

Educational Paradigms and Gaming

Reflecting on educational systems, McGonigal advocates for a shift towards models that embrace the principles of gaming. She suggests allowing multiple attempts at challenges, akin to gaming’s emphasis on mastery and improvement, which contrasts with the often punitive nature of traditional education.

Personalized Gaming Experiences

McGonigal emphasizes the importance of choosing games that align with individual needs and personalities. Just like a personalized diet, the right games can contribute positively to one’s emotional and experiential well-being. She suggests considering one’s emotional state and desired outcomes when selecting games.

SuperBetter: A Tool for Personal Growth

“SuperBetter”, McGonigal’s innovative game, has been validated through clinical trials for its effectiveness in aiding recovery from various challenges. Its principles, grounded in gaming psychology, demonstrate how gameful approaches can positively impact real-life recovery and growth.

The Social Dimension of Gaming

McGonigal reiterates the importance of the social aspect in gaming. Games provide structured social interactions, beneficial for introverts and those who find unstructured socializing challenging. This structured interaction makes social experiences more manageable and fulfilling.

McGonigal’s Career Path in Gaming

Her journey into game studies began with a focus on science communication, evolving into a passion for the potential of games in blurring the lines between digital and real-world experiences. McGonigal became a prominent figure in exploring how gaming influences our sense of self and ability to address real-world challenges.


In this concluding part, Jane McGonigal offers a forward-looking perspective on gaming. She highlights the potential of games in preparing us for future challenges and emphasizes their role in personal development, social interaction, and educational reform. McGonigal’s insights underline the transformative power of gaming, not just as entertainment but as a tool for societal and individual improvement.