Online games save the world IRL


Jane McGonigal takes her gaming very seriously.

A world renowned video-game developer, McGonigal spoke at last night’s Sophomore Symposium, entitled “Epic Win for the Social Good,” on the ways that video games are a great way to help save the world.

(LUIS AGUILERA/The Stanford Daily) Jane McGonigal speaks at Sophomore Symposium on online gaming.

“We try to center the Sophomore Symposium around an interesting, deeply relevant topic of our day,” explained Julie Lythcott-Haims ‘89, Dean of Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) Office, which organizes the event each year. “This notion of using online games for social good seemed to be just that.”

The UAR chose to invite McGonigal after watching her talk for Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), a non-profit devoted to promoting buzz-worthy ideas. But Lythcott-Haims admits that she was skeptical of the idea that online games could change the world, until McGonigal’s presentation changed her mind.

“Many people think it’s a ridiculous goal, and I understand why,” McGonigal said. “People think games are separate from reality. But games have a profound impact on what we think and how we go about our lives.”

During the presentation, McGonigal brought up several real-world examples as evidence of the benefits of online games.

Gamers who bought music-based games, like Rock Band or Guitar Hero, were more likely to either pick up the instrument in real life or play the instrument more often if they previously had experience with it.

A separate study also found that people who played with highly attractive avatars, digital online characters, were more confident about their odds of success with attractive members of the opposite sex in real life.

“You actually think you have a shot after playing with an attractive avatar—which is great,” she said. “Games are actually improving our self-identity.”

In addition to observing the positive effects of games, McGonigal has also taken an active role in producing socially beneficial games. One of her projects, a game called Evoke, was created for the World Bank Institute to teach kids how to start their own business. With a special focus on Africa, the program has 20,000 kids enrolled in over 130 different countries, and so far 37 organizations have been made in real life after being invented in the online game.

While only half of the expected amount of students actually attended the event at Toyon Hall, it appealed to a diverse demographic and even piqued the interest of non-gamers.

“The stuff she came up with was incredible,” said Elahe Popat ’13. “I wouldn’t say I’d start gaming now, but I’d be intrigued to get more involved in how gaming works and how it can be used for an ‘epic win.’”

McGonigal hopes to harness some of the 3 billion hours people spend playing video games each week to help out in the real world.

“We can learn from games to make schools better, and flying on a plane better, and more entertaining—that’s my goal.”

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