“Learning is an Epic Win” – Jane McGonigal

The last speaker of the conference is the one for whom I’ve been most excited to watch speak: Jane McGonigal. As a gamer (and a female gamer at that), it’s a direct connection and inspiration for me. One need only speak to me for a few minutes to know that I’m an avid player of World of Warcraft and an owner of all current gaming platforms.

She is one of the most profound game developers and theorists in the world. If you really want to see what she is all about, check out her TED talk:


She is also the author of the book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and how They can Change the World. Her argument is that games help children to develop the skills and concepts necessary to solve real world problems. Games are not a distraction from reality, but rather help us to engage in the world.

“The opposite of play isn’t work – it’s depression.”

When students engage in game play, they don’t fear failure or concern themselves with their abilities (or inabilities) to master new concepts and abilities. In fact, gamers have a number of positive emotional reactions to game play:

  • joy
  • relief
  • love
  • surprise
  • pride
  • curiosity
  • excitement
  • awe & wonder
  • contentment
  • creativity

Most game play today is social and cooperative – it requires us to interact positively with those around us. Games provide us a creative agency in the virtual world. Those of us from the ‘gamer generation’ realize that games have evolved into more than just the ‘button mashing’ elements of previous generations. They now engage the user, require creativity, collaboration, thought, and multi-tasking. To demonstrate this to us, she had us get together and do a massive group thumb-war! Check out the video posted by my blogging colleague Chris BigenhoTeachers Playing Thumb War

She spent a good chunk of her talk discussing the myths and realities of game playing. That gamers (even those playing violent video games) scored much higher on the creativity quotient than non-gamers. Gaming provides “positive stress” – you’re engaged, invested, determined, persevered, immersion, etc. When it comes to games, users fail… all the time (no one sits down and wins right away). However, they stay engaged and invested – sometimes for hours.

Games provide to their consumers:

  • Blissful productivity – we stay determined and work on a task even if the goal is far off
  • Urgent Optimism – we keep going even if we fail (80% of the time)
  • Social Fabric – playing games with others forms relationships (games with strangers, friends, & family)
  • Epic Meaning – desire to do something that matters, be a hero, be of service, be involved with a goal

She asserted that gamers who play ten hours of games or more a week ultimately bring these qualities into their real lives – they want to be of service to others, objectively plan, an be involved in something greater than themselves.

She highlighted the program: Quest to Learn, a school designed around the concepts of game development. The children do not play games all day (rather much the opposite). Instead, the theory, concepts, and ideas are based around game development theory. The focus becomes mastery and competence rather than performance.

This changes the focus from rote memorization and achievement and rather on mastery of content and development of skills.

Another example she provided is an online game called “Fold It” that focuses on the concepts of protein folding. The game allows users of all levels to intricately fold proteins to help to develop ideas and solutions pertaining to ailments related to protein folding. The gamers were so successful, that they published an article in Nature.

“When Scientists fail, it’s time to call in the gamers!”

She ended by demonstrating how gamers have been engaged to solve real world problems around the world. For example, she helped develop a game called Evoke that focuses on solving world water shortage issues:

You can check out the game online here. This game (and others like it) required that individuals think about how to solve these issues and present real-world solutions. It also included real-world tasks that you had to complete in order to progress in the game. She spoke about the fact that as the game grew – they brought in gamers from around the world. Thus, the players started to engage and play with individuals from around the world. Additionally, a number of children actually developed (and received funding) for various ventures that they developed in the game.

The last game that she spoke about was one that she had developed for the New York Public Library. The game preview is here:

You had to engage in eight levels of game play to achieve victory and left a lasting (physical) impression at the library itself by writing a book in the process. You could be in the library to play the game, but anyone can play the game from anywhere in the world. 500 young people stayed up all night and actively engaged, collaborated, and competed to complete this game. At the end of the night, they completed a book with over 1,100 declarations of how they would make the world a better place.

So, “Can games teach us to save the real world?” The answer – YES! If you want to get more information on this talk, drop an email to: slides@avantgame.com and you will get “10 practical ways to bring gamer superpowers to the classroom.”


5 thoughts on ““Learning is an Epic Win” – Jane McGonigal

  1. Robert Connolly

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Very cool. I like McGonigal’s book a lot. Coincidentally, I just got a one hour Freshman honors course approved for the fall that i am going to teach at the University of Memphis, that goes like:

    “Realty is Broken

    Are you ready to play? Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal argues that the solutions to hunger, disease, global warming, and military conflict can be discovered through video, online, and board games. In this course students will read and discuss McGonigal’s book, investigate the wide array of games currently available that address critical needs of our culture, and play some of those games. For the class project students will create the framework for a game that helps address a pressing social issue in Memphis.”

    Now I really don’t know that much about gaming but I see the class more as an opportunity to empower and provide a setting where Freshman can get together grow their existing skills.

    I have focused primarily on board games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and the like and look forward to the more digital end of things.

    Thanks for posting about this.


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