How Might Video Games Be Good for Us?

Is gameplay good for us? It’s a question I hear daily from gamers – as well as from their parents, teachers, doctors, therapists, and pastors.

There’s certainly good reason to ask this question. Collectively, as a planet, we now spend more than one billion hours every single day playing videogames – a total that’s up more than 50% from just three years ago. Meanwhile, the average young person racks up 10,000 hours playing videogames by the age of twenty-one. (By comparison, they will spend just 10,084 hours in the classroom throughout all of middle school and high school combined.)

The more we play, the more we reasonably want to know: Are we spending our time wisely, or are we wasting it? Are games a “good” use of our lives?

Let me propose three different ways of looking for the “good” of games – three questions that define “good for us” in substantially different ways.

1. Do videogames make us measurably better at anything? Do they improve our skills and abilities? Here, we can turn to scientific research for answers.

2. Are videogames worthwhile, compared to other activities, when it comes to our happiness and well-being? Will we feel better and enjoy life more if we play them? Here, we can ask gamers themselves about their subjective experience of videogames.

3. Do videogames have any meaning or purpose in the very big picture, in the grand scheme of things? Here, we can consider philosophical and moral considerations of gameplay.

What Scientists Say

Do videogames make us better at anything? Do they teach us new skills, improve our abilities, or help us function more effectively in real life?

The research here is increasingly persuasive. Scientists have found a wide variety of cognitive, emotional and social benefits to gaming in recent years, such as:

Gamers of all ages perform better than non-gamers on tests of attention, speed, accuracy, and multi-tasking. (See the research)

Children who spend more time playing videogames score higher on tests of creativity. (See the research)

Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games improve cognitive function among elderly players, and can help stave off age-related dementia. (See the research)

Scary or violent videogames improve children’s ability to manage difficult emotions, such as fear and anger (See the research)

Parents who spend more time playing games with their kids have better relationships with them – and the kids have better moods, higher grades and less behavior problems (See the research)

First-person shooter games improve our vision – so much so, that they can effectively treat cataracts. (See the research)

Playing videogames gives us the ability to control our dreams and stop our own nightmares – and therefore are being used to treat post-traumatic stress. (See the research)

Videogame technology can increase physical activity in children by 60% and decrease physiological risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. (See the research)

These studies are just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next decade, we can expect to see more and more research into how videogames positively impact our real-life skills and abilities. This research will lead to more “results-oriented” gaming. Increasingly, we will play not just for the fun of it, but to become better versions of ourselves.

For many people, this shift toward real-world results will “redeem” gaming. It will take a seemingly pointless, waste-of-time activity and give it a new validity. Indeed, in my conversations with concerned parents, teachers and doctors, this kind of emerging scientific data seems to offer the most reassurance.

But I think it’s just as important to consider how we feel when we play, in the moment of gaming, as it is to look for measurable and objective outcomes after we game. So let’s see what gamers have to say about the subjective experience of gaming.

What Gamers Say

What makes us happy – and can games play an important role in achieving that happiness?

For years, I’ve been fascinated by one particular research project in the gaming industry– a survey of more than one thousand gamers to find out what emotions they seek out when they play their favorite games.

You can see the results of this survey, the top ten emotions of videogames, here – they range from bliss, to relief, to personal pride, to feeling emotionally close to another player, to surprise, to curiosity, to excitement, to awe and wonder.

What’s extraordinary about these ten positive emotions is that gamers have figured out how to spark and feel them whenever they want, no matter where they are, or what kind of day they’re having. It doesn’t matter if they’re bored or stressed or lonely or frustrated or anxious – gamers can change how they feel, just by starting to play. We know that this is true even for gamers in incredibly difficult conditions. For example, children in hospitals prior to surgery are able to control their anxiety by playing a handheld videogame (see the research), while soldiers in Afghanistan are able to reduce psychological stress by nearly 75% by playing videogames for three to four hours a day (see the research, specifically pages 33-34). In fact, recent clinical trials have demonstrated that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety. (See the research)

I’m not sure that we’ve sufficiently valued this subjective benefit of gaming yet. When we ask “Are games good for us?” we should take more seriously the idea that games helps us feel better, in the moment, and that this is important work. Reducing the time we spend experiencing negative emotions and increasing the time we spend experiencing positive emotions is a fundamental good in and of itself. Even if games don’t change anything else in our lives, the power to change how we feel in the moment is a very good thing indeed. Games give us more control over our emotional destiny.

Positive emotions, of course are not the only way to measure happiness. In 2011, Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, proposed a new theoretical framework that encapsulated all of the major findings of scientific research on happiness and well-being to date. He called it PERMA, an acronym for the five things that add up to sustained and lasting happiness:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement with challenging work and activities that require us to use our personal strengths
  • Relationships or strong social connections with friends, family, peers
  • Meaning or a sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves or being of service to a larger group or cause
  • Accomplishment or the chance to learn, get better and achieve


When I interview gamers about the impact of games, I use the PERMA framework as my rubric. I ask not only about if a game provokes specific positive emotions, but also:

  • Do you feel fully engaged by the game? Do you feel a sense of “flow”?
  • Do you play with other family members at home?
  • Do you use online games to stay in touch with distant friends?
  • Do you feel more extroverted, or more likely to interact with others, when you play?
  • Do you feel a part of a larger community?
  • Do you contribute to that community – on forums, or wikis, or by making demo video or tutorials?
  • Are you proud of your accomplishments in this game? Has the game made you more resilient?

These are important questions for every gamer to get a better sense of whether games are playing a helpful role in increasing their overall happiness and well-being. The more a particular game leads to answers of “yes” on these questions, I would argue the better the game is. Indeed, if a game is yielding answers of “yes” to two or more of the five questions, you can confidently say, “Yes, this game is good for me because it improves my quality of life.” Our quality of life is determined by how much PERMA we can create for ourselves – and games can help us create more of it.

I rank the ability to lead a happy, satisfying life as an even higher good than developing new skills and abilities. But there is a third way to consider the good of games that may outrank them both.

This is the philosophical consideration of why we play.

What Philosophers Say

When I was a graduate student in 2003, I had the opportunity to attend the first annual meeting of the newly organized Digital Games Research Association, or DiGRA. Hundreds of researchers from the humanities had gathered in Utrecht, the Netherlands to present scholarly studies of why we play, and what makes videogames unique as an art form and cultural practice.

The keynote session was an interview between Eric Zimmerman, an important experimental game designer, and Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the great psychologists of play from the entire twentieth century, who has studied play since before videogames existed. This keynote interview, it was everyone’s hope, would serve as a bridge between the long history of academic research on non-digital play and the new burgeoning field of digital game design and research.

I’ll never forget the very first question and answer of the keynote. I’m not sure I heard the rest of the interview in fact, because the first question and answer left such an impression on me. As I recorded the exchange in my notes – there is no official transcript – Zimmerman asked,  “What can you tell us about the important of studying game play? Why should we study digital games?” And Sutton-Smith thought for a moment, and then answered in a booming, and slightly cranky, voice, “WHY do we study play? WHY? We study play because LIFE is CRAP. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the ONLY thing that makes it worth living the ONLY thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living is play. Art, and play.” This was a bit of an unexpected answer, and the audience laughed nervously, and I remember Zimmerman having to regroup a bit to continue the conversation.

I’m not sure what anyone else thought at the time, but I heard absolute truth in that answer.

There is something transcendent about playing games that lifts us up and out of the tedium and pain of everyday life.

What is it about games that is transcendent? Perhaps it’s the fact that games are optional, they are obstacles that we volunteer to overcome. Games are what we choose to do. They are what we are drawn to when we have a choice about how to spend our time and energy.  Games are freedom.

Perhaps it’s the social and communal aspect of games, that we must all cooperate together to play by the same rules and respect the same values and stay with each other until the game is done, even if we are losing.  Games bring us, and keep us, together – and the more people who know how to play a game, the bigger a community we become.

Perhaps it’s the architectural and mathematical elegance of games, the structure of their goals and rules and scoring that produce heightened ways of thinking and interacting that don’t happen in our normal daily lives. Games are structure, carefully designed structure, and structure is art.

Being exposed to these things – to freedom, to community, to art – is a transcendent good, a good that, as Sutton-Smith said, makes life worth living.

My favorite philosopher, Albert Camus, begins his most important work, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by stating: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

I’m not sure there are many game designers or game researchers (besides myself) who would argue that games are an answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, that is to say the question of suicide. But that is the big question that I think games are best poised to answer. Not “are games good for us”, but “Do games make life worth living?”

This question can’t be answered by scientific research or by interviewing players. It’s an existential question, and we need a strong philosophy of play to explore it.

Ultimately, I think this question trumps the others. Games don’t have to make us better at anything, or even make us happier, to be good. Games are transcendent.

Indeed, in The Grasshopper, one of the most important scholarly texts on games ever written, philosopher Bernard Suits argues that if by some miracle we ever managed to create a perfectly utopian society, in which we had all the resources we needed, and there was no need to work, and no conflict to resolve, games would in fact be the only reason to go on living. We would have to play, or else we would have no purpose in our lives. Games are the very last thing, Suits argues, that can bring a sense of service and collective meaning to our lives when we solve every other problem on earth.

Even when everything is perfect, games will still be good for us.

Here are a few questions for discussion:

Which approach to demonstrating the “good” of games do you think is most valid or important? Do you prefer the scientific approach (Do videogames make us better?), a subjective assessment (Do videogames contribute to our happiness and well-being?), or a more philosophical approach (Do videogames matter)?

Are videogames a source of “real” happiness? Do the positive emotions, social connection, and sense of purpose and accomplishment we feel when we play contribute to real well-being? Or do you think these positive outcomes are merely “virtual”? Are they too fleeting or too disconnected from our “real lives” to matter?

What research should we be doing to better understand the impact of games? If you could design a scientific study to answer any one question about games, what would it be?

In your own life, what videogames would you say have been “good” for you? How would you describe their positive impacts? On the other hand, have there been games that you felt were “bad” for you? What makes the difference between a game that has a positive impact, for you personally, and a game that has a negative impact?

Do game developers have an ethical obligation to consider the impacts of their games on gamers’ real lives and relationships? Is this obligation any more or less than other creators of media or art? Would you encourage designers to become more familiar with scientific research on games’ impacts, and allow it to influence their design? Or do you think that would that interfere with the artistic process?

Discussion Summary

As we explored the potential positive impacts of gaming together, one idea came up again and again: That gaming is an alternative to something “real” or “productive.” There seems to be a fundamental belief about games – even among gamers – that by choosing to play, we are turning our back on something. We are turning our back either on reality itself, or at the very least, on a productive relationship with reality. And therefore gameplay is defined as a choice that seems fraught with potential peril.

For example, as one participant wrote: “It is easy to get stuck in a game and become completely emerged in it and think of nothing else like any other addict. I’ve been there… So we must look after one another and help each other manage our gaming so that other parts of our lives function as well.” Here, gaming is set up as a discrete part of life that is somehow in opposition to functioning as a productive human being.

Even for those who readily accept there are benefits to gaming, there are still doubts about choosing to play. In fact, most participants in the discussion asked some variation of this question: “But how do we know when it’s too much gaming?” or “When does it become an addiction or dangerous distraction?”

Others argued that gameplay is a choice that is in opposition to potentially more “productive” activities – for example, playing Guitar Hero instead of practicing musical lessons on a traditional, “real” guitar. Therefore, we need to assess “minute for minute, the value compared to other activities.” It seems that we need more evidence to justify choosing to play than choosing to do something “real.”

I think it’s important to identify (and possibly challenge) the assumptions behind these questions and concerns. The assumptions I would say are two-fold: First, that when we play a game, we are doing something other than living “real life”. And second, that activity with a “productive purpose” other than enjoyment or social interaction is at least equally as important to a good life and a good society as play, if not more important and valuable to a good life and a good society than play.

Where does the belief that playing a game is somehow not fully participating in “real life” come from? One participant in the discussion pointed out the similar etymology of words to describe play and things that are not real: “Even more striking are such words as allude, collude, and illusion, all of which are derivatives of the Latin ludere, and all of which refer to a sham, shadow, or simulated reality.”

The fact that games are a protected space, a kind of “magic circle” where we are not punished for doing things we might ordinarily be punished for (think about the violence in contact sports, the deceit inherent in poker, the trash-talking on online videogames) also no doubt adds to this belief. And of course, in videogames, you’re engaging with simulated worlds, rather than physical reality.  But what I want to question is this: Does changing social norms to allow for different kinds of behavior make an experience less real? Or is it just allowing us to participant temporarily in a different reality? Likewise, is interacting with a digital simulation of physical space a less real activity in terms of cognition, emotional engagement and social interaction than non-gaming physical exploration or social interaction? I understand that phenomenologically and ontologically we are talking about very different things – exploring a “real” cave in the physical world versus navigating an avatar through one – and we could certainly argue the relative merits of each. (The physical cave offers more exercise and a richer sensory experience; the virtual cave allows you to experience things that might not be readily available in your local environment and it’s safer.)  But regardless of which is better, are we actually saying that a physical and cognitive experience of a virtual world isn’t a real experience? It’s still embodied, it’s still activating our brains.

It leads me to wonder: Would our discussion of games and their value be improved if we accepted first that games are a “real” experience, and not an alternative to reality? And do we need to have a conversation about what constitutes “productive” activity? Is it not “productive”, for example, to produce positive emotions, or to produce stronger relationships?

I believe this leaves us with Two New Big Questions:

1.     Are games “real”? If so, in what ways? Put another way: Why do we so often consider games “separate from reality” or “opposed to reality” or an “alternative to reality”? Is it actually possible foranythingwe experience during our real, waking lives to be “separate from or “opposed to” reality”? Are we in some sense “dreaming” when we play?  Or can you make the case that gameplay is as “real” an activity and experience as anything else we do during our waking lives? How would you make such a case?

2.     Does having a “purpose” ruin the spirit of play? Is there something fundamental about traditional forms of gameplay that requires there to be no intention or purpose other than engagement, enjoyment, immersion or a desire to win? Or can you “play with purpose” (like self-improvement, or solving a real-world problem) and still achieve the same sense of freedom, voluntary engagement, lack of fear of failure, etc? If so, is there any philosophical tradition that supports this idea of playing with purpose, rather than play being fundamentally defined as purposeless or without meaning?

42 Responses

  1. ibogost says:

    Do videogames make us more at ease with the crap that is life?

  2. Jan Russell Dexter says:

    Jane, I work as a coach in many settings, ranging from addiction recovery to Bored (sic)  Room Executives and recently came across your work on TED talks. I would be really interested to know more about the game you developed while recovering from illness. I like this essay too. I teach coaching psychology, and I like how you have used Martin Seligman’s `strucutre of happiness’ as a tool in your research.  Great mix of creativey and cross discipline work here, love it.

  3. neowiz73 says:

    It’s great to see the positive influence games do make. I’m an old school gamer that started with the commodore 64, and still is a gamer to this day. The most negative I’ve seen people go through is when they are angry or when they take the games to serious. But this boils down to parents not taking the time to explain things. Like my mother and father did for me. 

  4. codingconduct says:

    Jane, thanks for putting these important questions again and again to wide public awareness and discussion.

    To your first question, “Do videogames make us measurably better at anything?”, as you noted, the answer is in various fields, yes, they can.

    The connected and, for most educational and other social interventions, equally important but seldom-asked question is: “Compared to all other means of making us better (at X, Y, Z), are video games the most effective and efficient means?”

    To your second question, “Will we feel better and enjoy life more if we play them?”, I consider this a truly important contribution of yours to the discussion: Beyond the instrumental value we can wring from games, there is genuine, inherent value in an hour of life spent happy. 

    One qualification, though: Playing games has different meanings and functions for different people in different situations. Some players certainly can and do use gameplay to lift their mood, replenish their sense of self-efficacy, competence, and so on, and thus improve their psychosocial well-being. But depending on circumstances, gameplay can also lead to increased post-play tension and lower well-being (,, or be used as a habitual distraction from addressing the root causes of one’s current stress and unhappiness. Despite what players seek out in game play, not all game play is always and necessarily psychosocially beneficial.

    To your third question, “Do videogames have any meaning or purpose in the very big picture”?, I very much appreciate that question being asked. Yet I would say that question necessarily entails the first two. You see, to justify games on the grounds of their learning or happiness value is to already have answered (implicitly) the philosophical question “what life is about.” By appreciating learning and happiness, you imply a moral philosophy, namely utilitarianism/hedonism. 

    (In fact, from a Critical Theory or Aristotelian virtue ethical standpoint, such utilitarist uses of play ultimately devalue it. If the “right life” (Adorno) is to treat the world and each other as ends in themselves rather than means to an end, then play is a utopian vision of the right life. Adorno: “Simply because the child deprives the things with which he plays of their mediated usefulness, he seeks to rescue in them what is benign towards men and not what subserves the exchange relation that equally deforms men and things.” If the “good life” (Aristotle) consists in doing that which we do for its own sake alone – namely, virtuously exercising our unique human capacities or ergon –, then again, play as the voluntary and excellent exercize of an activity for its own sake is the prototype of a good life, and any instrumentalisation of play for other, practical ends or mere bodily, hedonic pleasures a path away from rather than towards the good life.)

    Claiming that freedom, community, art are “transcendental goods,” you imply another morality. And when you call up Camus, you appeal to yet another moral philosophy, existentialism, which goes squarely *against* the idea that there is any transcendental good, any “service and collective meaning.” Life *has no meaning*, *and yet* we cannot help but seek meaning – that is the absurdity inherent in our lot that Camus portrayed. Sisyphos is an exemplary figure because he actively engages in a futile endeavor, knowing full well the futility of it. In this, Camus connects to the moral outlooks of ancient philosophy and non-Christian religions. 

    For buddhism, say, suffering is not a bug, it’s a feature of existence we cannot design or play away. Rather, spiritual maturation means acknowledging the reality of suffering and then dissolving it by ceasing our inner struggle against it. (You may argue that “taking a lusory attitude” is roughly equal to “detachment,” but I’d say that’s a very rough equation ^_^.) 

    For Aristotle, Greek tragedy expresses the fundamental truth of *hamartia* or “tough luck”: Sometimes, life places you in situations that are “just not fair,” and you show heroism in how you fully and consciously embrace these situations. Plato observes in the Laws (7, 803) “that human affairs are unworthy of earnest effort”, because we are “a plaything of God”, and therefore “We should live out our lives playing” – a happy embrace of the ultimate purposelessness and fatefulness of our lot.

    In Hinduism, all of existence is “lila,” literally, play, the playful creation and destruction of the cosmos for its own sake by Shiva, in some stories engaged in a game of Parcheesi with his wife Parvati.

    And that, following Sutton-Smith, brings us to the oldest understanding or “rhetoric” of play, that of “play as fate” most clearly expressed in games of chance: Ultimately, the events of our lives are chance without meaning or control, “just play.” But we may rise by actively embracing that.

    I don’t say Aristotle (or Plato, or the Buddha, or Camus, or Adorno – or John Stuart Mill for that matter) is demonstrably right. (Though just for myself, I tend to come down on the Aristotelian/Buddhist side of things.) I’d just like to point out that there are many philosophical stances toward the morality and philosophy of play – some of them starkly different to the idea that meaning exists and consists in the ‘service to something larger than yourself’ –, that our judgement of play’s (instrumental, hedonic, ethical) value comes down to which stance we adopt, and that utilitarianism, existentialism and “transcendental goods” do not add up coherently IMHO. But I’m happy to be proven wrong, and curious about your thoughts :).

  5. Daedelus says:

    I have been fascinated by video games since the mid-80s, and fondly recall playing Mario 2, Mario 3 and the incomparable Super Mario Bros.  I have stayed up all night long playing Civ more times than I care to remember.  Dim recollections of Final Fantasy VII, Diablo, the delightful Monkey Island series from Lucas Arts, and many others are gathering dust and cobwebs in my mental attic alongside memories of Moby Dick, I Love Lucy reruns, a day spent exploring the Prado, a concert with Hendrix and Canned Heat., and thousands of other cultural fragments.  I do believe that, like most everything else in life, computer games (I include online ecosystems such as ‘Second Life’ in this category) can be be beneficial, but can also be harmful, depending on how they are used.

    I played Second Life as a female avatar (I am male) for about six monhts, and learned more about gender politics, at a visceral level, than I would have from majoring in Gender Studies at a major university.  I was trying to build a replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s FallingWater house, and the guys would not leave me alone.  So, I used my ‘feminine’ wiles to get them to do the mind-numbing labor of sizing and fitting virtual slabs into place.  Becky Thatcher would have gotten that fence painted faster than Tom Sawyer did.   My Second Life experiment ended when I got an urgent email from the father of one of the players offering to pay my way out to North Carolina to meet his son, who was in the terminal stages of Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, and who wanted to meet the woman he had fallen in love with in person (!)  Caveat ludor.  However, I think the opportunity to function in an alternate universe as a person with radically different attributes – to thereby realize the old injunction to ‘walk a mile in another’s moccasins’ – is one of the most promising and potentially beneficial uses to which these online environments lend themseleves at their present state of development.

    One of the problems with the concept of gaming as self-improvement is what I call the Guitar Hero Fallacy:  if the player invested the time and money in purchasing and practicing on a real guitar, they might stand a chance to become a real-life guitar hero.  I am glad that game was not available when Stevie Ray Vaughan was growing up.  It is important, I think, to weigh the potential benefits of leisure time spent playing online games against the benefits of other activities, such as learning a new language, reading some Shakespeare, learning a musical instrument, working out or riding a bike. I am not, repeat not, opposed to online gaming, as evidenced by my opening confessional.  I just ask myself whether, minujte for minute,  I would get more out of that enticing virtual universe or a visit to Khan’s Academy.

    Another caveat regarding massive online multiplayer games like WOW is that not all players are created equal.  If one puruses a map of the world showing the number of WOW players by country, one will notice a large spike over China, and a smaller one over India.  Many of these ‘players’ are actually gold-miners, working for $0.20 per day to supply precious specie to their more affluent fellow players in the U.S. and Europe.  See the link below:
    If we are not careful, online environments can be just as socially corrupt, stress-producing and toxic as the real world we are seeking respite from.  Behind our screens we are, after all, only human.

    I have a difficult time translating the billions of person-hours spent on WOW into real world achievements.  I suppose one could envision an Ender’s Game scenario; perhaps the greatest game controller jockies could be set the task of controlling drones under the illusion that ‘it’s just a game’.  Whether this would be considered a social good or evil would be open to serious discussion.  The online games that do lead directly to measurable real world results, like the protein folding game ‘Foldit’ do not attract the sort of rabid devotion that WOW and Call of Duty elicit.
    Dr. McGonigal’s essay suggests (I hope I am not overstating her intended case here) that the population of online gamers may be considered a virtual civilization composed of self-selected citizens; I suggest that we apply the same criteria for greatness that we do when assessing historical civilizations:  technical advancements; great works of literature, graphic art, theater, music, science, philosophy, etc.; in short, the net positive or negative impact on the quality of life on our planet.  MOG is a social paradigm that is still crawling, and most definitely has not been toilet-trained, so any judgements would be premature.  I, for one, am going to practice my guitar now.

  6. ryan1bowen says:

    First off, incredible post.  You covered a breadth of complex topics succinctly, which is deceivingly difficult.  While I recognize the benefits that you are putting forth in this article, my question is when does gaming as an escape to a better world become an addiction which detrimentally removes us from the “real world”?  How do we strike a balance with regard to getting sucked into a game to the point where we don’t do anything else?

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      ryan1bowen, thank you for raising this important question that comes up time and time again – with good reason! How do we strike the right balance? It gave some statistics in an earlier reply, but let me offer further elaboration… these are pointers from something I’ve shared previously as “Practical Advice for Gamers”. 

      This practical advice — 5 key quidelines, plus 2 quick rules — is scientifically backed, and it can be summed up in a single sentence:

      Play games you enjoy no more than 21 hours a weekface-to-face with friends and family as often as you can; and in co-operative or creator modes whenever possible.

      1. Don’t play more than 21 hours a week.

      Studies show that games benefit us mentally and emotionally when we play up to 3 hours a day, or 21 hours a week. (In extremely stressful circumstances – such as serving in the military during war-time – research shows that gamers can benefit from as many as 28 hours a week.) But for virtually everyone else, whenever you play more than 21 hours a week, the benefits of gaming start to decline sharply.

      By the time you’re spending 40 hours or more a week playing games, the psychological benefits of playing games have disappeared entirely – and are replaced with negative impacts on your physical health, relationships, and real-life goals. So always strive to keep your gaming in the sweet spot: 7 – 21 hours a week.

      2. Playing with real-life friends and family is better than playing alone all the time, or with strangers.

      Gaming strengthens your social bonds and builds trust, two key factors in any positive relationship. And the more positive relationships you have in real life, the happier, healthier and more successful you are.

      You can get mental and emotional benefits from single-player games, or by playing with strangers online – but to really unlock the power of games, it’s important to play them with people you really know and like as often as possible.

      A handy rule-of-thumb: try to make half of your gaming social. If you play 10 hours a week, try to play face-to-face with real-life friends or family for at least 5 of those hours.

      (And if you’re not a gamer yourself — but you have a family member who plays games all the time, it would do you both good to play together – even if you think you don’t like games!)

      3. Playing face-to-face with friends and family beats playing with them online.

      If you’re in the same physical space, you’ll supercharge both the positive emotional impacts and the social bonding.

      Many of the benefits of games are derived from the way they make us feel – and all positive emotions are heightened by face-to-face interaction.

      Plus, research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.

      Multi-player games are great for this. But single-player works too! You can get all the same benefits by taking turns at a single-player game, helping and cheering each other on.

      4. Cooperative gameplay, overall, has more benefits than competitive gameplay.

      Studies show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.

      Cooperative gameplay also makes us more likely to help someone in real life, and better collaborators at work – boosting our real-world likeability and chances for success.

      Competition has its place, too, of course – we learn to trust others and often motivate ourselves to achieve more when we compete. Not to mention, of course, that all games are fundamentally cooperative, even if we’re trying to beat someone — we’re cooperating to play by the same rules and to play the game all the way through without quitting.

      But if we spend all our time competing with others, we miss out on the special benefits of co-op play. So when you’re gaming with others, be sure to check to see if there are co-op missions or a co-op mode available. An hour of co-op a week goes a long way. (Find great co-op games for every platform, and a family-friendly list too, at Co-Optimus, the best online resource for co-op gaming.)

      5. Creative games have special positive impacts.

      Many games encourage or even require players to design and create as part of the gameplay process – for example: Spore, Little Big Planet, and Minecraft; the Halo level designer and the Guitar Hero song creator.

      These games have been shown to build up players’ sense of creative agency – and they make us more likely to create something outside of the game. If you want to really build up your own creative powers, creative games are a great place to start.

      Of course, you can always take the next creative step – and start making your own games. If you’ve never made a game, it’s easier than you think — and there are some great books to help you get started.

      2 other important rules:

      * You can get all of the benefits of a good game without realistic violence – you (or your kids) don’t have to play games with guns or gore.

      If you feel strongly about violence, look to games in other genres – there’s no shortage of amazing sports, music, racing, puzzle, role-playing, casual, strategy and adventure games. (I personally only kill zombies, monsters and aliens in games — or do battle with imaginary weapons, not guns. I just don’t like the way realistic violence makes me feel.)

      *Any game that makes you feel bad is no longer a good game for you to play.

      This should be obvious, but sometimes we get so caught up in our games that we forget they’re supposed to be fun. If you find yourself feeling really upset when you lose a game, or if you’re fighting with friends or strangers when you play – you’re too invested. Switch to a different game for a while, a game that has “lower stakes” for you personally.

      Or, especially if you play with strangers online, you might find yourself surrounded by other players who say things that make you uncomfortable – or who just generally act like jerks. Their behavior will actually make it harder for you to get the positive benefits of games – so don’t waste your time playing with a community that gets you down.

      Meanwhile, if you start to wonder if you’re spending too much time on a particular game – maybe you’re starting to feel just a tiny bit addicted — keep track of your gaming hours for one week. Make sure they add up to less than 21 hours! And you may want to limit yourself to even fewer for a little while if you’re feeling too much “gamer regret”.

      • ryan1bowen says:

        Thanks for the robust response to my first question where you comprehensively covered best practices on how to ensure that you have positive gaming experiences.  I had a second question I wanted to follow up with, which is one that I have been thinking about a lot lately.  

        A lot of life is tied up in the act of giving or receiving stories.  Whether it is through books, oratory, movies, or whatever else you may think of, a lot of our experiences come back to this.  During my work as a community organizer, I have seen over and over again the power of a good story to connect people to something bigger than themselves.  But it seems to me that the narratives within games are deemed illegitimate or somehow less worthy.

        I recently replayed one of my favorite games, Final Fantasy Tactics, just so I could relive that story.  It is a story of politics, morality, religion, and humanity.  There are numerous elements to the story which make it all come together which means that some game designer put a lot of thought into the overall narrative.  To me, the story is literature within a game.  There are many other games like this which tell fascinating stories about the world that we live in if we take the time to analyze them.  Here are some others: Halo, Metal Gear Solid (most of them), Final Fantasy VII, Dynasty Warriors (although this is somewhat historical), Fallout (particularly the first two).

        My question is how much do you think that games are literature?  Why are these stories deligitimized?  How do we promote the legitimacy of these narratives and the lessons we could take from them?

        • Jane McGonigal says:

          Hi Cronopio, I can relate very strongly to your memories of shared accomplishment and thrills growing up! I have simliar memories of gaming with my friends and family. Thank you for taking seriously the idea of PERMA and games.

          Ryan, your follow-up question is an important one, although I must confess, one that I have spent significantly less time thinking about, in comparison with game mechanics. As a game designer, I usually depend on a writing partner to build up the narrative, I contribute only to the concept of the story, but not its detailed development… so I am in awe of the writers who breathe life into a story and understand things like character development, plotting and dramatic reveals.  If I had to guess why the literature of games is delegitimized, it probably has to do mainly with 1) topic/content (thematically speaking there isn’t as much range in stories of games as there is in novels or film, e.g.) — although you could argue that there wasn’t much range in epic poetry of Homer’s time either, by comparison (it was all about wars then too!) and 2) the difficulty of actually encapsulating game narrative for analysis or study. How do you experience the literature of the game without playing it through in its entirely — a transcript of cutscenes certainly would not do it justice! Reading a wikipedia description doesn’t cut it. In game studies’ early days we often talked about how it was much harder to analyze the “text” of a game than a book because you have to do so much damn work to progress through the game to get to see it, whereas a film scholar can just watch a film, or a literature scholar can just flip pages. P.S. I do notice there is a Coursera course on the subject of narratives and online games that looks quite awesome actually, although it doesn’t start until much later in 2013… perhaps something to bookmark!  

          • ryan1bowen says:

            Thanks for the link to the coursera class, it looks fascinating.  As to your points about the deligitimization of games I would contend the first and agree with the second.  When I think of games that have truly wonderful stories, they are the ones that have a wide range of themes being played with.  I mentioned this directly in my last post about Final Fantasy Tactics.  A lot of games have a richer story than I believe we give them credit for.  But, and this is an important but, your second point is where the difficulty lies.  This is also what makes the medium of a game different from a book or a movie though, is the fact that you have to play through it.  While it is very time consuming a lot of the time, I believe that there is an interesting interplay that could evolve in relation to how the playing through the story is literary itself.  Rather than viewing the gameplay as obstructive to the literary process there is an opportunity to use it simply as a unique element of literature through video games.

  7. hipbonegamer says:

    Hi Jane


    I would like to offer you, first, a rosary of glass beads, each one reflecting and refracting the light of play and games, and then to make a brief comment:


    Plato, in his Laws (803), tells us:


    We should pass our lives in the playing of games — certain games, that is, sacrifice, song, and dance — with the result of ability to gain heaven’s grace…


    Plotinus, in Enneads II.ii.15:


    Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man, that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing. All this is the doing of man knowing no more than to live the lower and outer life, and never perceiving that, in his weeping and in his graver doings alike, he is but at play


    In Hinduism, as described by Norvin Hein in The Gods at Play, Lila in South Asia:


    Lila (Leela) is a Sanskrit noun meaning “sport” or “play”. It has been the central term in the Hindu elaboration of the idea that God in his creating and governing of the world is moved not by need or necessity but by a free and joyous creativity that is integral to his own nature. He acts in a state of rapt absorption comparable to that of an artist possessed by his creative vision or to that of a child caught up in the delight of a game played for its own sake


    The game designer Chris Crawford talks about the equivalent Japanese concept of Asobase Kotoba in his essay on Play and Mentation:


    But there is another aspect of play that emerges from this linguistic analysis, and that is play as simulation. In Japanese, the most polite or formal means of expression is called asobase-kotoba, literally “play-language”, and it communicates the notion that those we speak about are so refined that they only play at life. Thus, the polite way to say “I hear that your father died” is “I hear that your father has played dying.” Even more striking are such words as allude, collude, and illusion, all of which are derivatives of the Latin ludere, and all of which refer to a sham, shadow, or simulated reality.


    The European Renaissance too was deeply and seriously concerned with play:


    In order to guide the mind toward the hidden God, Cusanus invented experiments in metaphor, semi-magical exercises which would solemnly entertain and astonish the beholder. These serious games (serio ludere) consisted in finding within common experience an unusual object endowed with the kind of contradictory attributes which are difficult to imagine united in the deity. The motionless eye of God, for instance, is said to follow us everywhere.  But can an eye stay at rest while it moves?


    Closer to our own times Nietzsche, in a celebrated passage in The Parable of the Madman writes:


    God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?


    Carl Jung tells his friend  Laurens van der Post (and Mike Sellers adopted part of this quote as his email tag-line):


    One of the most striking testimonies to the quality of the English spirit is the English love of sport and games in a classical sense and their genius for inventing games. One of the most difficult tasks men can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games and it cannot be done by men out of touch with their instinctive values. The English did it and, by heaven, they even taught us Swiss how to climb our own mountains and make a sport of it that made us love them all the more. And their Wimbledon, did they but know it, is in sort a modern version of an ancient ritual.


    Hermann Hesse, who was at one point Jung’s patient, offer us his own game in his Glass Bead Game in Magister Ludi:


    The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the

    colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.


    Finally, Romano Guardini writes of the Eucharist:


    Such is the wonderful fact that the liturgy demonstrates: it unites art and reality in a supernatural childhood before God. … [Worship] has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art — it has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight — not to create, but to exist — such is the essence of the liturgy


    And Bernhard Lang’s book bears the title, Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship (Yale, 1997)




    It is considerations such as these that lead me to think our games will have their greatest “play” in our lives when they touch on the sacred, the numinous.


    As I understand it, you look forward to the day when a Peace Nobel will be awarded for game design.  Maybe Asi Burak already deserves it, maybe one of your games will win it, or something from Eric Zimmerman.  But we’ve had one Nobel already, haven’t we?  It went to Hesse for his novel Magister Ludi, surely a game design document…


    And there’s always Shakespeare to set our standards for us: “The play’s the thing!”

  8. Jane McGonigal says:

    Already many great comments to respond to in depth tomorrow. I’ll chew on the ideas raised overnight and weigh in, in the morning. But for today, I’d just like to add one more “food for thought”: I was really thrilled when presented with this Big Question, “how might videogames be good for us?” to tackle, specifically because of how it is phrased. I really like that the question ISN’T “ARE videogames good for us?” but rather “how MIGHT they be good?” The reason I’m glad the question isn’t “ARE videogames good for us” is beacuse I’m not particularly interested in debating all the pro’s and con’s, or rehashing the known risks or downsides of gaming behavior that becomes, for example, socially isolating or obsessive, etc. That would be a great discussion for the question “How might videogames be BAD for us?” Thank goodness, that is not this conversation. I’m so excited to have the chance to tackle this from more of a constructive and practically optimistic point of view.  Of course I’m also interested in meta discussion, perhaps, “Why do we ask if video games can be good for us, when we don’t ask this of other media or art forms?” We don’t ask if music can be good for us, or if books can be good for us, e.g. Why do videogames seem to have more of a responsibility to be good for us? I raise these points because I really love this opportunity to take the discussion of games somewhere different than they’ve usually gone before!

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Hi Hipbonegamer, First thank you very much for your playful approach to joining the discussion. I very much enjoyed your provocation in the form of beads of wisdom! A copy of Magister Ludi sits on my shelf of Most Important Books to Me, alongside the Myth of Sisyphus and James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games and Seligman and Petersen’s Character Strengths and Virtues. One thing I have always appreciated about Magister Ludi is the ability to read it is a critique of German intellectuals who were too absorbed in their abstractions (the game of intellectual life) to actively intervene and engage during the rise of the Nazis. It reminds me of Homo Ludens, in which Huizinga seems to say that all is play, all is games, but in fact worries about drawing the line and seems to regard the Nazi Party as taking everything as a game and losing sight of humanity. I wrote about this in my dissertation as a way of trying to work out the question: “Can everything be gamed, or are there moral limits to where we play?” Huizinga is often brought up as making the argument that really everything of human importance is, at heart, a game, and we are most human when we play. But he actually really worried over this.  If you are interested, skip to the last chapter here:   But a few choice ideas for thought here:

      Although Huizinga is frequently cited as one of the first thinkers to take play seriously, 

      Homo Ludens is in fact absolutely fraught with the difficulty, yet urgency, of separating

      play from the serious—at least some of the time. We see this will to proper categorization 

      early on, when he resolves: “It is ancient wisdom, but it is also a little cheap, to call all 

      human activity ‘play’” (i). Huizinga wants us to view “play as a  distinct  and highly 

      important factor in the world’s life and doings” (i, emphasis mine). We must see play as a 

      discrete and separate entity in the workings of culture. Even when play influences things 

      serious, or takes on qualities of seriousness, Huizinga urges us, we must not mistake one 

      for each other…

      Here, we need to pay close attention to Huizinga’s conclusion, which is far less cited 

      than his foreword but at least as important to understanding the stakes of classification in 

      Homo Ludens. In his closing remarks, the author suggests that the ability to distinguish 

      between the two categories of play and seriousness is a moral issue. “We shall find the 

      fixed, unmoving point that logic denies us, once more in the sphere of ethics. Play … 

      itself is neither good nor bad. But if we have to decide whether an action to which our 

      will impels us is a serious duty or is licit as play, our moral conscience will at once 

      provide the touchstone” (213). Huizinga does not specify which circumstances might 

      tempt us to play when in fact a serious approach is ethically required. It is clear, however, 

      that such circumstances exist for Huizinga, and that recognizing them and choosing not to 

      play is just as important as keeping the play element alive where it is “licit”. Furthermore, 

      it seems reasonable to connect this passage to Huizinga’s earlier writings about the rise of 

      fascism and Nazism, which he describes as  “social forces gone wild with power” and 

      which since have been characterized by cultural theorists as a hijacking of the agonistic 

      impulse that Huizinga defines as the driving force of play.

           It seems important at this point  to comment on the historical circumstances 

      surrounding Huizinga’s authorship of Homo Ludens. Just three years prior to its original 

      German-language publication, alarmed by the  rise of fascism and perceiving a major 

      cultural crisis, Huizinga wrote In de schaduwen van morgen (1935), published in English 

      in 1936 as In the Shadow of Tomorrow. The text is worth quoting at length to indicate 

      just how serious Huizinga was about the potential extinction of Man the Player.

      “We are living in a demented world. And we know it…. Everywhere there 

      are doubts as to the solidity of our social structure, vague fears of the 

      imminent future, a feeling that our civilization is on the way to ruin. They 

      are not merely the shapeless anxieties, which beset us in the small hours of 

      the night when the flame of life burns low. They are considered 

      expectations founded on observation and judgment of an overwhelming 

      multitude of facts. How to avoid the recognition that almost all things 

      which once seemed sacred and immutable have now become unsettled, 

      truth and humanity, justice and reason? We see forms of government no 

      longer capable of functioning, production systems on the verge of collapse, 

      social forces gone wild with power. The roaring engine of this tremendous 

      time seems to be heading for a breakdown (12).” 

      Within six years of making this prediction, and after delivering a speech critical of the 

      Nazi regime, Huizinga was arrested by German forces. He was banished to the village De 

      Steeg in Gerderland, near Arnheim, where he died under Nazi detention just a few 

      months before the end of the war.

  9. Jane McGonigal says:


    I like your reframing of Brian Sutton Smith’s remarks. You ask instead: “Do videogames make us more at ease with the crap that is life?” We usually think of games as escapist, as helping us forget the crap that is life; in this essay I suggested it lifts us above the crap that is life (“transcendence”), but you’re proposing a third alternative, which is that games give us a better way to engage with or think about troubling aspects of life.  For other readers interested in an example of how this might work, I think perhaps you would agree that game designer Brenda Brathwaite’s Game Developers Conference talk on designing a game about genocide would be an interesting place to start (the talk can be watched in its entirety here



    Great to meet a positive psychology coach working with game ideas (or at least looking into them!) The best way to learn about the game I created for recovering from my traumatic injury (which I discuss in my TED Global talk is to play the game! It is free and available at and in the iTunes app store. The thing that I think it most important to understand about the game is that in studying our 125,000+ players so far, we are finding that the game has the biggest impact on mental and emotional resilience, most effectively engaging and helping players who are tackling depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and stress reduction. This makes sense to me when I think about the role that self-efficacy and positive emotion and social support can play in all of these challenges; we are trying to really use the transformative power of increased self-efficacy and getting player’s positive emotion ratios above 3:1 (3 positive emotions for every negative 1 emotion), as well  as increased sense of social support. We actually describe all of the scientific literature in the game itself in our secret lab science cards, so if you have a chance to check out the game let us know what research you find most compelling or provocative!



    Thank you for this extremely thoughtful analysis and response. I would start by saying I learned a lot from your comments! And I appreciate your links to the research that suggest where the tipping point might be for gameplay to become a distressing activity rather than a positive one.  In my research, I have found the tipping point to occur most often due to time intensity of play – more than 21 hrs/week for youth and most adults; more than 30 hrs/week for adults in very stressful situations (e.g. active military duty, difficult divorce). That’s just a stat for consideration!


    Regarding all the great philosophers, I would say rather than doing a classical analysis of what has been said by individuals about games and play, I am probably more inclined personally to mash them up for some kind of new insight or consideration. I actually am also a practicing Buddhist and spend a lot of time thinking about suffering and ways to alleviate it, and get into debates with monks all the time about whether games are distracting or actually a way to start down a path toward controlling attention, in the same way that breathing mediation is a practice to control attention. (Gaming is not a replacement for compassion practices, but I am interested in how it can immediately intervene in suffering by stopping thinks like negative thoughts, rumination, perception of pain, fear, etc.) And if, in your words, “ utilitarianism, existentialism and “transcendental goods” do not add up coherently IMHO” that’s totally fair, this is an exploratory essay for me (the philosophical part) and I’m happy to hear ways that these positions might be improved, strengthened or revised! Thank you for adding your thoughts.


    Daedelus, your experiences in Second Life are quite interesting indeed…. Thank you for sharing them. Regarding Guitar Hero, I think the fallacy is to assume that games have to train us for an identical “reality” in order to do good. For example, most people fail a great deal in Guitar Hero (80% of the time on average). Failing and restarting and learning and mastering build a great deal of resilience. This is a skill that would transfer to learning any new skill or ability, whether it’s a musical instrument or anything else. Here is some research literature on this to consider: Games Help Us Tackle Tough Challenges With More Determination

    Brain Changes in Videogamers”; “A Neurologist Makes the Case for Videogames”;  “The Neural Basis of Videogaming”; “Dopamine Levels May Determine Work Ethic


    But more interesting, I think, on the topic of Guitar Hero is this new story just out today – how Guitar Hero led to a diagnosis of Tourette’s, and how videogames proved more therapeutic for calming tics than pharmaceuticals, specifically for the games’ ability to create focused, calming attention at the neurological level. We can debate all we want about whether hours spent gaming would be better spent on something “real”, that’s a losing discussion in my opinion unless you are willing to engage with me on discussion of PERMA (see essay above). Otherwise I am more interested in looking at surprising ways the power of games can be used to help us in our real lives. Here is that story: “Gaming her brain: Tourrettes”

  10. Jan Russell Dexter says:

    I’m a coach and coaching trainer, and a big fan of Martin Seligman’s work, so was intriguted to see Jane using the PERMA approach. It seems to me that there is a bit of a blurry interface between process, content and outcome. If playing a game produces high levels of engagement, then process wise, and within PERMA paradigm, then this is good. However, if at the same time it produces through its content – say a lot of killing in a game, which, it may be suggested, can lead to desensitisation – then the engagement in the moment is being traded for the ability to engage in other ways with real people. As to the ethical areas, a minefield.  I would propose that there is some limit of acceptable content – would it be okay to have games full one gender or ethnic group killing another, and so on.  It seems from my limited knowledge of the more macabre games, age censorship is more liberal than on cinema?  On the brighter side, I would attest to the therapeutic qualities of gaming as well, and hvae known clients of mine who have deliberately engaged in gaming in order to distrct from current state and move firmly into another which may be equivacol to the high performance state claimed to be achieved through N|ew Code NLP games.  From this state, ttraight off the gaming macvhine, it would make sense that clients can go then perform tasks to gerater levels of achievement, and this in turn can incrementally alleviate the state of depression.

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Hi Jan, your followup comment on the content of games is a really interesting one. There has been research to suggest that game content can be desensitizing, which can work for better and worse depending on the player. An ordinary person can become desensitized (at least as measured in lab settings) to graphic images of violence by playing graphically violent videogames. It’s up to us to determine whether this is a negative outcome on a moral or ethical level — I think it’s possible that for the ordinary person, it might be better NOT to desensitize that person to graphic images of violence, because it could theoretically (this has not been adequately studied to say one way or the other) make them less compassionate toward victims of violence, or better able to ignore the costs of war, etc. However we do know from the research literature that for some individuals, desensitization actually has positive impacts — the research I cited in the original essay, for example, on how games help young people learn to deal with difficult emotions like fear and anger (the research from Massachusetts General Hospital) or the way that war games can be used to fight post-traumatic stress in the military and combat nightmares (the Grant McEwan University research cited in the essay, e.g.) So I find it hard to categorically oppose certain kinds of content in games even if I find it personally distasteful — and to be honest, I basically avoid all games now that require me to be violent toward humans because I don’t like how it feels. (I do play games where I have to kill zombies or alients ….) I would be very interested to hear other thoughts on this.

  11. Cronopio says:

    This question makes me think about when I was a kid, when videogames were generally considered “bad” and a waste of time. The truth is that some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing two-player co-op on Ikari Warriors and Contra with my good friends. 

    So now I’m wondering, what was it about those experiences that makes them so memorable. And I think maybe it ties into the notion of PERMA, and the spectrum of shared emotions that playing an intense, challenging game, where both players need to support and watch out for one another, unlocks. There are moments of personal triumph, where you as a player get to demonstrate mastery, and there’s someone else there to witness it. There are moments of shared triumph, where both players can see that their collective efforts led to a win. There are moments of deep engagement, and moments where you are put in the position of protecting/supporting your partner. There are moments where you need help, and you need to ask for it. And there’s a shared goal, one that gets more and more ambitious each time you sit down to play (get to higher levels, increase the difficulty, etc).

    Years and years later, those are still some of my brightest memories from childhood. And while I guess you could look at the “accomplishments” within the game as virtual and insubstantial, the positive emotions they generated, the sense of camaraderie and achievement shared between myself and my friends, were very real. 

  12. hipbonegamer says:

    Hi Jane:

    Thanks for your kind response.  I’m always delighted to find more people with Hesse’s great book and game on their minds — Brian Moriarty is another, as is Scott Kim, and Chris Crawford of course — I was at GDC before it became CGDC and we had a small meeting at CC’s invitation, at which several of us discussed the book.  And another GBG admirer is Alexey Pajitnov, who waved out the window at America and the world when I said I was working on a playable variant of the game, and grinned and said “You hope to build Castalia here?” By and large the game developer community wasn’t ready for the idea back then, the “serious games” and “games for change” moment just hadn’t arrived.

    Anyway, I wanted to thank you particularly for pointing me to your thesis, and to respond specifically to one quote you offered me there, from Huizinga.  My response involved some graphics, so I wasn’t able to post it here, and have put it up at instead, where I can control the presentation to some extent!  I’m a fan of graphical thinking, and layout seems to me to function for written text the way tone of voice does for the spoken word — it gives it clarity, ephasis, and if you’re lucky, beauty.

    It’r really nice talking to you.  I think I saw something about you on Shambhala that finally triggered my intention to make contact, and I’d opened a folder on my desk with a few notes for writing to you just a day or three before I saw this Big Question.  So here I am, here we are — I’d like to keep in contact with you if that’s possible, in particular to discuss a book I’m working on that has a tie in with games.

    My name is Charles Cameron, and I’m hipbonegamer on twitter and at gmail

    Warm regards, Charles

    • hipbonegamer says:

      Heh, I meant to say I was at GDC *while it was still* CGDC (ie 1996/.7 or thereabouts).

      Best, always —

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Wow, Charles, that is quite a wonderful response — I love how you link Roger Caillois’ description of the vertigo form of play to Huizinga’s own whirling, ceaseless spinnings of the mind and then take it to Borges — Borges!!! — I very much encourage others to click on the link and explore your philosophical musings there! (Here is the link again for easier reference: )

      Caillois, by the way, is literally on the shelf right next to Glass Bead Game, so we must be making the same subconscious connections. 🙂 

      To your point: Perhaps what the serious games/games for change movement needs is more vertigo play.  More disruptive, disorienting play — to shake loose old ideas and make room for new paradigms. The serious games movement has been pretty focused on structured play — simulations, especially — while we have this whole other “reality-based game” world (think the festivals like Come Out and Play, Hide and Seek, and IGfest) where most games don’t have a serious game agenda per se, but create highly disruptive, vertiginous play experiences in public settings.  If you don’t know these festivals, you can learn more here:

      • hipbonegamer says:

        Hi Jane:

        Here’s a quick response, while I’m prepping a longer one — posting this bit separately will make the longer one just a tad shorter, eh?

        Bryan Alexander, who wrote the “Antecedents to Alternate Reality Games” section of the Alternate Reality Games SIG Whitepaper for IGDA, and also the book, The New Digital Storytelling, liked my Zenpundit post too, and commented (re: the vertigo I presume) “Might help explain some of the fear of games.” That, and fear of the digital in general, is a big and troubling issue for Bryan, and ties in nicely with your point about “More disruptive, disorienting play — to shake loose old ideas and make room for new paradigms…”

        I’m very much with you on that, and tend to think that games, like movies or books, are best composed for the joy of the format — reading, or movie-going, or game-play — by people whose juices flow into those forms naturally.  From my POV, we need game designers who have  serious interests and concerns to make games that happen to educate, rather than educators asking for specific curricular needs in game form.

         I love your story from Herodotus via Csikszentmihalyi, about the Lydians, when they were starving, alternated eatings with playing games of dice every other day — it worked for them because the dice games were such terrific games they forgot how hungry they were, not because they were “games designed to teach dieters not to feel hungry”.

        Anyway, I have a longer response about vertigo and constraint (and Wayne Gretzky and complex problems) coming up soon — talk with you then…

        • Jane McGonigal says:

          I agree with your sense that if lifelong gamers and professional game developers don’t become more engaged with the idea of worldchanging games, or alternate reality games, or games for good, that the concept may wither on the vine. I’d love to see a kind of “pro bono” practice in the game industry akin to the legal profession. Big game development companies could receive tax incentives for example to devote a percentage of team hours to pro bono game projects, commissioned by the city/state/U.S. government. I do admire the new partnership between EA and the state of California for educational games — see the Games, Learning and Assessment Lab  This is a great example of what’s possible when major game companies take games for change seriously.

  13. RunningGeek says:

    Hi Jane,

    Your work and especially your book, Reality Is Broken has been a great inspiration to me in continuing my education.  I am very interested in how media and technology influences and changes the customs of a culture.  Video games have always been a part of my life and they are the one medium that excites and stimulates me enough that I want to communicate and share their positive potential to everyone.  

    With that said, I am currently looking for doctoral programs that would best suit my interests in researching the benefits of video games in our every day lives.  I have had many conversations with my professors and peers about this topic and there is always genuine excitement, curiosity, and encouragement to further pursue this field.  Yet video games are still an unknown entity for many people in academia and I have basically had to make my own path regarding courses and subject matter for research papers.  

    As you state, there are different approaches to this topic but do you have any advice or wisdom for those of us wanting to continue to research video game technology as an important part of our culture through universities and their programs?  The questions you pose in regards to the “good” of video games create the type of discussions that I want to be a part of and share with others through educational channels.  Any guidance you can provide based on your experiences with universities and colleges would be greatly appreciated.

     Thank you very much for your time!       

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Hi RunningGeek, I can very much relate to your experience, as I also needed to bootstrap my PhD by creating a committee and collection of advisors who didn’t have any direct experience researching games yet! The good news is that intellectually curious individuals from virtually all fields and disciplines are pretty easy to engage with around the subject of games, given how important a cultural medium they have become and how much leading-edge technology is associated with them. In my personal experience, identifying games and gamers as an “object” of research within a more traditional academic field/methodology is a really fruitful approach — whether you’re situating yourself in philosophy, clinical psychology, education, performance studies, computer science, rhetoric, English literature, or economics. Of course, more and more this isn’t necesssary — there are so many research professors doing great work on games, whether it’s at USC, NYU, Georgia Tech, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carnegie Mellon, University of Washington… or research labs developing games as interventions in health, education, etc, from UC Berkeley to Stanford. And that’s just in the U.S.! I hope you’ve found the Digital Games Research Assocation already (DiGRA, at ) — if not, they’re a great resource.

  14. DaniloBR says:

    Great article, but I would like to know if games may or may not help future professionals with their creativity. I mean, would gave help future engineering to create new devices that could help humanity? Publicists to create more effective campaign based on games knowledge (as tactical knowledge, know-how of a certain culture or even group working together for a better purpose)? Maybe something else like Physicists descovering non-destructive solutions for space traveling? or someone in the chemistry area to creat a new element that could generate energy to feed buildings?

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Hi DaniloBR, thank you for joining this discussion! I hope you won’t mind if I ask you a question in return. I’m curious about whether you think games need to lead to new solutions to problems to qualify as “good for us.” As in, they have to be good for the world, to be good for us? I ask this out of personal interest — when I first started talking about the positive impacts of gaming, I found that some people were only interested in objective outcomes. They would ask me: Can you point to a game that has concretely solved a problem, come up with a new solution, etc? They weren’t interested in happiness, health, relationships, resilience. They wanted practical results. I can certainly can point to practical results (consider the examples FoldIt, Investigate Your MP Expenses, Breakthroughs to Cures, EVOKE among other examples — if you’re not familiar with any of these games, you can find them online with a quick search; they are games that do in fact lead to scientific breakthroughs, political change, new enterprises, etc.) But I  find it frustrating to skip right to the “objective outcome” and ignore the more subjective and personal positive impacts. I think you can see the evolution in my thinking about this in my two different TED talks. The first focuses more on getting gamers engaged with solving real-world problems. The second focuses more on whether games will help us lead lives that are happier, braver, longer and ultimately truer to our dreams. (You can see the two talks here and here: First talk Second talk: ) I think it’s good to think about practical outcomes as well, but I also want gamers to know that they are already doing good for themselves by playing their favorite games, they don’t have to cure cancer to be good.

  15. VonMillion says:

    I believe that video games are benficial in many ways. I also believe in the guideline prohibiting screentime for children less than 2 years old. What are ways I can play with my 9.5 month old son to deliver the benefits of video games without video, and prepare him for intelligent video game play when he is old enough?

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      VonMillion, what a fabulous question! I wonder if we will be lucky enough that an expert in early learning will join the discussion quickly and help us. 🙂 The first thing that comes to mind are games that build self-efficacy and trust in others, so that the child is building the foundation for delayed gratification. Have you seen the recent updates to the classic marshmallow experiment? It’s worth a look:   The upshot is that for kids who have low expectations of reliability — “Sure, you say I’ll get 2 marshmallows if I wait, but I don’t believe you, so why should I wait?” — exhibit inability to delay gratification, but it may actually be an adaptive response to unreliable environments. So there must be some version of simple parent-and-infant games that builds trust and sense of reliability. Clearly this is a new area of thinking for me, but what do you think? Could simple games helps here?

  16. katiecwilkie says:

    A classmate of mine just introduced me to your TED video, and I became more and more intrigued by your idea. And I’m hooked, slightly. I got all inspired and wrote a blog post about it and stuff ( I’m not a gamer, or at least never have been. But I love the idea that optimism, motivation, and powerful thinking can come through game-like structure in real life. I’d love to invent a little game to get me through this last semester of college, for example! Or to help me launch the business idea that I’ve wanted for months to get off the ground. As a kid I loved constructing game worlds and I feel like this is something I have lost coming into adulthood. Are there other success stories of people creating game-structures in their lives to bring about positive personal change? I’d love to hear about it. Frankly, I’d just love to try it myself. How do you get started creating a game like that? 

    Katie (Twitter: @katiecwilkie)

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Hi Katie, This is a round-up of some “gamify my life” apps (including SuperBetter) that should give you some idea of what’s been tried and what’s out there. I think perhaps my favorite example ever is Shower Complex, a game created by someone whose hot water wasn’t working for a very long time in a very cold winter, and he created a stealth game to sneak into working showers in other locations in his city. I highly recommend you read his write-up, it’s quite hilarious. 

      Here’s a sample — I”m sure you could be inspired to create a similar game for your last semester of college! I hope you do — and tweet me about it. @avantgame

      Your objectives are simple:  Sneak in and out of the city’s most closely guarded showers. Avoid detection at all costs. And if there’s time, shave.

      The rules are simple:


      • You start as a junior agent, carrying a utility belt (or dopp kit) that can hold onlyone item at the start.
        • Shampoo
        • Soap
        • Body wash
        • Shaving cream/razor combo
        • Loofah
        • Pomade
        • Other item
      • You must designate a friend or family member as your Q, someone that you can trust with your life!
      • As a spy, you need a secret code word that is more than 9 letters and can be shared only with your Q or as otherwise indicated (see below) 
      • Play is measured in infiltration points.
      • Every time you shower at a place other than home, you earn +1 infiltration point.
        • If it’s your first-time infiltrating a place, you get a bonus +1.
        • If you make it from the shower back to a designated “safe place” — either outside of the location or at your desk (if you’re at work like I have been… gross) without being seen, you get another +1.
        • If you are able to infiltrate a shower AND get a gym visit out of it, give yourself another bonus +1 for deep infiltration.
        • Up to +3 Style Points can be awarded for extra-sneaky maneuvers or clever alibis.  Run these by your Q to determine if you have earned them.
  17. GTG_Lab says:

    Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games improve cognitive function among elderly players, and can help stave off age-related dementia. (See the research)

    Senior author of this study here, we did not find that playing a MMO can help stave off “age-related dementia.”

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      GTG_Lab, thank you for joining the discussion and offering a correction. Since you didn’t elaborate, I wanted to include the text from the university press release so that I be sure to accurately represent the study. Here is the official description, which hopefully shines a better light on your valuable research:

      For some older adults, the online video game “World of Warcraft” may provide more than just an opportunity for escapist adventure. N.C. State researchers have found that playing the game actually boosted cognitive functioning for older adults – particularly those who had scored poorly on cognitive ability tests before playing the game.

      “We chose ‘World of Warcraft’ because it has attributes we felt may produce benefits – it is a cognitively challenging game in a socially interactive environment that presents users with novel situations,” says Dr. Anne McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology at N.C. State and co-author of a paper on the study.

      Researchers first tested the cognitive functioning of study participants, ages 60 to 77, to set a baseline. The researchers looked at cognitive abilities, including spatial ability, memory and how well participants could focus their attention.

      An “experimental” group of study participants then played the game on their home computers for approximately 14 hours over the course of two weeks, before being re-tested. A “control” group of participants did not play the game, but they were also re-tested after two weeks.

      Researchers found the group that played “World of Warcraft” saw a much greater increase in cognitive functioning, though the effect varied according to each participant’s baseline score.

      “The people who needed it most – those who performed the worst on the initial testing – saw the most improvement,” says Dr. Jason Allaire, an associate professor of psychology at N.C. State and co-author of the paper. Read the paper at

      Read more here:

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      For each of the points in my original essay, I wanted to provide one link to relevant research — there is so much research in gaming and its potential positive impacts that a single study doesn’t necessarily give the entire picture. Perhaps a better study to point to games staving off age-related dementia and cognitive decline would be this study, which found that exergames led to a 23% reduction in cognitive decline. 

  18. bender00 says:

    I feel like it’s difficult to answer the question because I go back and forth on what my frame of reference is for “gameplay” as you refer to it. 

    I feel like one frame of “gameplay” is sports/athletic competition, which is the fun of competition and the joy of getting better at something.

    But sometimes I think the better gaming/gameplay descriptor is a new medium–the written word, theater, film, etc.–and it’s simply a new medium that hasn’t yet birthed its own Shakespeare, so everything feels vapid and escapist. In comparison to genre-defining greats, I mean.

    In my mind, the sports-analagous gameplay is good for the player (as good as playing a sport can be), but the gaming-as-medium feels more distraction than substance, and doesn’t yet feel good for society in the way I think it will one day. That said, maybe this is the phase of the medium where fun and exploration will begin to define the genres enough for some artist to find his/her voice with it and begin to establish the medium’s “classics.”

  19. Halfenthusiast says:

    I have been asked on far too many occasions to count, why I play video games so much. For me, the answer is simple. Dreams. I know full well that in the real world, I’m never going to crush Hamilton’s dreams of winning a British Grand Prix, nor am I going to rescue the planet from dark forces. But with games I can do all those things. I can fulfill every single dream I had when I was a kid. I wanted to be a cowboy, saving the Wild West from villains who must have stumbled across wile coyotes book of explosives, well leaving in urban England, in the digital age, there is 0.1% chance of this happening (I still have hope) instead of letting this dream fester away as lost, I just go pick up my much loved copy of red dead. It’s hogtie time! 

    i wonder if this can be used to enrich the life’s of those that are not as able. could a gamers life give joy to those who shave given up on their dreams?

    • Jane McGonigal says:

      Halfenthusiast, I love reading about your experiences as a gamer living your dreams! One thing I love about videogames is that they can even let us live dreams we couldn’t even imagine. For example, the PS3 game Flower, which lets us play as the wind blowing flower petals across a meadow. It’s a very particular and totally unfamiliar experience of joy… to embody nature. It taps into our biophilia (our innate human love of nature and desire to be near nature), but also to have a firsthand experience of something that is totally impossible in reality! This access to positive emotions that have no correlary in the real world is one of the great unexplored possibilities in gaming, definitely one of the most exciting aspects of the art.

      • Halfenthusiast says:

        Thank you for the term, I’ve never come across it before. Makes sense though, what with people’s obsessions with photographing landscapes and dragonflies and such. Could that be why such companies ie Square Enix put a whole lot of resources into the landscaping of their games? Especially water?

  20. LordSillion says:

    Life is a game!
    As a lifelong gamer of boardgames, role-playing-games, cardgames, collectable cardgames and videogames I can only say that games do make my life. Many of my lifelong friends I have and meet regularly I have through games. These days we mostly play boardgames together because it fits together with having a family. But one of the reason that is so is because the constructed norm of how families should live by the mself in the western world. 
    As we constructed a new sustainable network society I can only see games as an important role to bring people together and bring meaning to life. 
    But I also agree that as games trigger most or all parts of PERMA they do feel like they are the perfect activity  to engage in. It is easy to get stuck in a game and become completely emerged in it and think of nothing else like any other addict. I’ve been there… So we must look after one another and help each other manage our gaming so that other parts of our lives function as well.
    Civilization comes to mind where it is impossible to get away from the game until it is finished without outworld intervention 🙂
    We should also stay away from and manage the “Toxic” form of playing games online. Wil Wheaton says “Don’t be a dick” with good reason.
    I think that playing games is an essential part of what it is to be human!
    Besides boardgames I also play online competetive games like League of Legends, Hero Academy, Starcarft 2 on a daily basis as it gives me a daily challange for my gamer soul 🙂
    Let’s play games together and let’s live long as a civilization to become a essential and everlasting part of the universe! 
    World without end!


  21. Jane McGonigal says:

    Thank you everyone for this great discussion of games and their potential positive impacts. If any more comments come in during these final hours, I’ll be sure to address them in my final wrap-up and reflection, which will be posted in the next few weeks! In the meantime, gamer that I am, I’m pleased to see that this discussion now ranks #4 on the Leaderboard of all-time “most commented” discussions. 🙂 Good job, everyone, that’s not a bad achievement — especially when there are so many amazing games to spend our time playing, I appreciate everyone spending a bit of their screentime this week discussing them and not just playing them. (Now go finish that level/mission/quest/puzzle/match! ^_^)

  22. Jane McGonigal says:

    Hey, that’s an even better achievement — now we’re officially #2 all-tme most commented discussion! I knew gamers would be able to score a big win. 🙂 Congratulations to all the players. 🙂

  23. Laurel says:

    Jane– Love the idea of promoting pro bono practice in the videogame industry.   No reason to have such a big either/or dichotomy between for-profits and non-profits.  Would also help change perceptions of the industry–  if parents start to associate brands with something positive in the community, they may have less resistance to letting their kids play.