The opposite of play isn't work, it's depression

Jane McGonigal

At Constellation's Connected Enterprise 2013  author, academic, and designer Jane McGonigal shared her passion for games. Not only does she think the hours and hours people worldwide  spend playing them are beneficial, she also thinks the techniques used to create multiplayer, on-line games can be applied to real world problems. 

McGonigal gave her talk at Constellation Research's annual Connected Enterprise event at the Ritz Carlton on Miramontes Point in Half Moon Bay. The event attracts about 250 senior business leaders interested in using innovation  to impact their businesses. Some of the people there included Charles Philips of Infor,  Tim Sullivan of the Harvard Business Review, Shawn Price of SuccessFactors, and Jay Vijayan of Telsa Motors. 

The setting for the event is a hotel was built like a castle on a high bluff above the rugged, foggy, brooding coast line of Northern California and its romantic atmosphere which provided a strong contrast to McGonigal's rational, futuristic and contrarian talk.

What is Game? 

As a trained academic, McGonigal takes a discplined approach to games. She defines them as having four traits: goals, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. However she does make a distinction between real world and on-line games. According to McGonigal:

  • goal is a specific outcome all players work to achieve. For example, in soccer the goal is move the ball past the goal line between the goalposts and the crossbar more times than your opponents,
  • The rules place limitations on how players are allowed to achieve the game's goal. In soccer scoring with your hands, even unintentionally, does not count as a goal,
  • A formal feedback system informs players how well they are achieving the goal. In soccer the score provides a feedback system as do the referees. 
  • Voluntary participation requires everyone playing to knowingly accept the goals, the rules, and the feedback of the game.

McGonigal's criterial is fairly rigorous and many activities commonly called games would fall outside of it. Roman gladitorial contests would not be considered a game by her definition because participation in them was not voluntary. Pyschologist Eric Berne's transactional analysis theories of human behavior such as "See What You Made Me Do" or "Let's You and Him Fight" would not be considered games either under his definition not all the players are aware of the rules.

What Good Do Games Do?

Where McGonigal sees the good in games as the positive emotions then evoke in the players. At CCE she listed ten common emotions gamers experience:  

  1. joy
  2. relief
  3. love
  4. surprise
  5. pride
  6. curiosity
  7. excitement
  8. awe & wonder
  9. contentment
  10. creativity

According to her research gaming activates motivation, will power, overcoming difficulties and are more powerful than morphine at pain relief. She has created a web site called Show Me the Science to silence haters and doubters and much of the research is convincing.


McGonigal's talk was based on her best selling book "Reality is Broken" and her research at the Institute for the Future. Although her ideas are hardly new, her work in the field makes her the poster child for the process of gamification - using game thinking and game mechanics to organize people into solving real world problems. 

She gave an example gamers playing against a supercomputer to predict protein structures - and the gamers won! The audience also provided another example of Ground Crew which is a real life FarmVille, recruiting volunteers for help in community gardens.

Although gamification may have started in Ancient Egypt with the game of Pyramid building,  the ability of computer systems to give feedback is unparalleled in human history. Hunger has always been a powerful motivator, but how do you keep people, especially knowledge workers motivated when there is no hunger?  The answer may be motivating people  by making them feel engaged. Perhaps the future of work, or at least knowledge work will depend to some extent on the games we play.