Game Designer Says Video Games Challenge The Mind To Grow

Nov 10, 2019

Jane McGonigal
Credit janemcgonigal.com

Pensacola’s first ever Mini Maker Faire is this weekend, and one of the main attractions is a presentation from inventor, author and video game designer Jane McGonigal. WUWF’s Bob Barrett spoke with McGonigal about her background, and what we can expect from her presentation on Saturday.

It’s pretty easy to attack video games. Lots of people do it. But Jane McGonigal says approaching a video game should be seen as approaching any new challenge.

“The main thing video games do, especially for young people, is they help us develop a ‘challenge mindset’, which means we are confident in our ability to learn new skills, to develop new strategies, to get better at things that we are not good at the first time that we try them. And this makes really intuitive sense. If you think about any game, it’s designed for you to be bad at it the first time that you try it, whether it’s golf, or chess or Fortnight. And playing a game is really about the pleasure of getting better. Of mastering new skills and exploring different strategies. And it builds both the confidence in your own ability to get better through your own effort and attention, but it also builds the neurological pathways that allow your brain to respond to challenge and stress in a more positive way. So that you’re not dealing with anxiety, you are actually feeling energized by the opportunity to do something that is hard and to do something that allows you to get better.”

Barrett: “When you set out to develop a new game, how do you approach it — story or skill?”

McGonigal: “That’s really interesting. So the games that I create are usually designed to solve a specific problem for a player. So the game that I’m most famous for is ‘SuperBetter.' (I) actually developed it to help me heal from a traumatic brain injury. I had a severe concussion that was not healing properly. I was extremely depressed and anxious and had all of the symptoms of vertigo and memory loss and nausea and migraines. So I created a game around the goal of how can I get my brain to fire up all of those optimistic pathways (those) motivated pathways that I used to have in normal life before the injury, so that I can get back out of bed and reengage with daily life, even though it may be harder than it used to be? Can I bring that gameful mindset where I’m not just feeling anxious or depressed by the challenge, but actually feel like I can rise to the occasion?

"So that game started with essentially a neurological skill. What will force my brain to fire up those pathways which tend to shut down when you have a traumatic brain injury or concussion? Because your brain wants you to lie in bed and not hit itself again so that you stay healthy and recover! So for me, when I design a game, I’m really thinking about what’s the end result I want to have on the psychological health of the player, or the cognitive skills of the player, and then using the research literature, and also my own intuition as a game designer, to make sure whatever we’re doing is fun and interesting.”

Jane McGonigal is a bit of a rarity in the gaming world. There are not many women who are game developers. She hopes her appearances and TED Talks inspire young girls to become involved in the design, programming and engineering side of, not just gaming, but all technology fields. But when it comes to playing the games, it’s not just a boy’s club anymore.

“You know, not as much as it used to be. About half of the world’s gamers are women and girls. There are more moms who have kids at home who are playing video games then there are boys under 18. I do think that the media tends to cover some of the boy gaming, the male gaming more than for women, but just from a purely factual, objective basis it’s 50/50, and that’s cool and exciting because it means that whoever you are there is a game for you and people to play with.”

This Saturday at the Mini Maker Faire, McGonigal says playing games will be a big part of her presentation.

“Well we’re definitely going to be playing a game, for sure. I haven’t decided which game we’re going to play yet. But one of my favorite things to do it to try and teach the audience a game they’ve never played before. So they can really have that first-hand experience of the brain being forced to stretch and grow and build new neurological pathways so that you go into that challenge mindset. I’ll be sharing some of the research, showing some imagery of what’s happening in the brain; the blood flow and the regional activations. And we will definitely play a game that, hopefully, no one in the room has ever played before so that everyone has that chance to experience that gameful challenge mindset.”

Jane McGonigal will be speaking at the Mini Maker Faire at the Museum of Commerce in downtown Pensacola Saturday November 16 at 1 p.m. Tickets are free, but you need to register at Eventbrite. The event is presented by the UWF Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering.