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Future Games 

She wants to harness the power of the communal cerebellum her games create and put it to work solving real-world problems

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
Jane McGonigal figures that she or one of her colleagues can win a Nobel Peace Prize within a decade.

The Nobel Prize in economics, well, she's giving them 25 years to take home that medal. The prizes for medical science and chemistry are a bit trickier still. "With science awards it tends to take a couple of decades before people say, 'Oh, now in hindsight we realize that was important!'" says McGonigal. It might take, say, 50 years. The out-there possibility, the big stretch, would be to score the Nobel Prize in literature.

Maybe the Nobel Committee could bundle them in a prize pack.

So who is this woman you have never heard of, and what on earth is she working on that could possibly encompass world peace, science, and literature? Is it some kind of highly nutritious manna produced from simple chemicals that could end world hunger and its ravaging effects on developing economies ... um, delivered in the form of edible books?

It's more fanciful than that. McGonigal designs games for a living, and she believes they point the way toward civilization's next step forward. Her games are sprawling extravaganzas that suck in thousands of players and force them to pool their talents to become, essentially, one big networked brain. In the young and burgeoning genre of alternate reality games, otherwise known as ARGs, the players' collective intelligence is applied to cracking codes, solving puzzles, and completing complex tasks doled out by almighty "puppetmasters." McGonigal is one of the people who pulls the strings.

People play McGonigal's games not just to escape or for indolent pleasure, but for the sense of urgent duty they invoke.

In the biggest game she worked on, 2004's international smash hit I Love Bees, she and her colleagues got players to hang out by more than 1,000 pay phones around the world, waiting breathlessly for calls that contained clues. (In San Francisco, gamers staked out a chain of pay phones along Market Street, from the Embarcadero to South Van Ness.) More recently, she convinced hundreds of people to show up at historic cemeteries to play a bizarre and acrobatic form of poker.

The games slowly reveal a fantasy universe that sends tendrils through both the virtual and real worlds — mysterious clues and puzzles are revealed through Web sites, blogs, message boards, voice mails, text messages, and with strange objects that show up in the darnedest places. Because the clues are scattered so widely, and because many of the puzzles and codes are hard to crack, players work together, setting up forums and wikis to pool their resources and coordinate their efforts. With thousands of brains linked by new technology, players become one collective detective, and accomplish remarkable feats.

Thus far, ARGs have been used as a form of guerrilla marketing, to build buzz or give a product a badge of cultish credibility. Before the South Korean monster movie The Host arrived in America, its ARG waded ashore; players successfully wrapped up the two-month-long game Monster Hunter Club at the end of March. Other regular ARG players are eagerly awaiting the game that will herald the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, since the game that accompanied the previous Pirates installment ended with the discovery of a Volvo SUV buried on a beach in the Bahamas.

All that's great if you're trying to sell movie tickets or sensible cars, but it's still major steps away from a Nobel Prize and saving the world. To explain where she's coming from, McGonigal likes to quote one of the inventors of ARGs, Sean Stewart, who works at the Emeryville-based company 4orty2wo Entertainment. Until last year, McGonigal worked with his team on their commercial games. "He said that these games create "a collective intelligence that is unparalleled in entertainment history,'" says McGonigal. "Because it is unparalleled, I believe it would be a real crime to use it only for entertainment."

McGonigal wants to harness the power of the communal cerebellum her games create, and put it to work solving real-world problems. Maybe young folks in warring countries could play games together, and would be less inclined to shed each other's blood. Maybe players could analyze real scientific data in the course of a game, crunching numbers and looking for patterns just as they always do, but with a payoff that goes beyond advancing to the next stage of a game.

Impractical? Far-fetched? Yes. But so is everything else this scrappy young woman has accomplished in this brand-new gaming arena. When McGonigal lays her plans, she's not just banking on what she can accomplish herself — she's also relying on an army of gamers, sitting alone at computers all around the world. They're willing to mess with a code until 2 in the morning or to go out into the streets to make asses of themselves. They've got brains, talent, and creativity. She believes all they need is a few gentle tugs from the puppetmaster to pull them in a more purposeful direction.

McGonigal peers through the chain-link fence at an abandoned gas station. It has been empty for years: The gas pumps are long gone, the building's windows are boarded up, and the weeds have grown high. McGonigal is thoroughly satisfied.

"It's got graffiti, that's good," she comments to her husband and partner-in-crime, Kiyash Monsef. They debate how to frame the photographs of the gas station, and decide they'll shoot the scene through the fence. "Then we don't have to break in, which is always a plus," McGonigal says, smiling brightly.

McGonigal doesn't look the type for breaking and entering. She's a pert and petite 29-year-old with a mass of curly brown hair and a wholesome look. Her cunning nature and exhibitionist streak aren't obvious; those aspects of her personality come out when a game is afoot. In urban settings that are more predictable all the time, McGonigal delights in creating unconventional public spectacles. She and a friend brought flashmobs to San Francisco in 2003, calling people to a certain downtown crosswalk, for example, to twirl giddily in the street for 10 minutes before dispersing.

She and Monsef are in Berkeley scouting locations for McGonigal's next game, which, if all goes according to plan, will soon suck players through a rabbit hole and into a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse. The game, called World Without Oil, launches April 30, when an imaginary oil crisis will shake the alternate reality version of the planet. Players who suspend disbelief will help characters cope with the consequences, whatever they may be — shortages, riots, wars, or surprising technological adjustments. McGonigal and Monsef are spending much of this final month creating convincing evidence of events that will unfold, filming vignettes and taking photographs to tell pieces of the story.

World Without Oil is McGonigal's bold step forward; it's a game designed for the public good, rather than for pure entertainment or subtle marketing. The tagline declares its intentions to be a public service announcement about the world's dangerous dependence on oil: "Play it — before you live it." McGonigal isn't a fanatic on the subject of oil addiction, although, like many people, she thinks an oil crisis is a looming possibility. Letting gamers role-play the scenario now, she says, could result in something like a citizen's manual on how to respond to the crisis.

San Jose game designer Ken Eklund dreamed up the original concept. He had previously created games for corporate training and middle school science classes; this will be his first ARG. It's also the first such experiment sponsored by the Independent Television Service, a little-known wing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that's based in San Francisco. Eklund says the head honchos didn't know what to make of his proposal: "They said, essentially, "this is too far out there for us,'" he remembers. Luckily, they had hired McGonigal to evaluate game proposals, and "she saved it from being tossed," he says. Now they're working together on the game's execution.

It's off to a fine start. The game hasn't officially launched yet, but players already noticed the names of 10 characters on the main Web site (, and discovered that the characters have blogs and photos on sites like LiveJournal and Flickr. Some players even chatted with characters by instant message, although they didn't learn much — the characters just dropped cryptic warnings, and sent links to Web pages about peak oil. One day a character mentioned an article in the Himalayan Times about an oil supply interruption that has thrown Kathmandu into confusion; another day brought a link to an Atlantic Monthly article on the possibility that Iran will stop exporting oil within a decade. The enthusiastic gamers have already created a wiki to keep track of the information.

Their gusto comes as a relief to the puppetmasters. "There's always some concern with gamers that if you're too explicit about the fact that there is some serious angle to it, that they'll say, 'Eh, it's not fun anymore,'" McGonigal says. But the players haven't implied that the game tastes too much like medicine; instead, they're using it as food for thought. "Is it just me, or is this game making anyone else want to get ready for oil to disappear?" wrote one player on a central message board. "Maybe that's the point of the game, but it makes me want to go out and spend large amounts of money on emergency supplies."

McGonigal and Monsef finish prowling around the abandoned gas station's perimeter and hop back in the car. In the background, the stereo plays macabre, minor-key jazz — it's the soundtrack from one of their favorite computer games. McGonigal explains that this is a minor scouting expedition compared to others they've done. For I Love Bees, Monsef flew all over the country locating pay phones that accept incoming calls.

Big games, which use film and audio snippets to tell a story, typically cost a couple million dollars, McGonigal says. World Without Oil, which isn't marketing any consumer product, is a much leaner affair; its budget is about $100,000. They can make it happen at that price because they're expecting the players to do a lot of the work. The game will ask players to document how their own lives are changed by an oil crisis using blogs, photos, films, and whatever else they can think up. "No one person or small group can hope to capture the complex, rippling effects of an oil shock," Eklund says, "but the collective imagination can."

As the game's narrative will build on the gamers' work, its outcome has yet to be determined. It's fully possible that all of the characters will wind up dead, says McGonigal. But an unhappy ending could be useful: "Even if the gamers decide to make it as bad as it could possibly be, as a way of documenting just how bad things can get, well, good," she says. "Let's identify the worst-case scenario, and know what it is." If they thrust the world into nuclear apocalypse or reduce the United States to a primitive place of warring clans, so be it. "We can't wait to see what they do."

Jane McGonigal's fate as a subculture celebrity was sealed when she bought those plastic honey bears from Trader Joe's in 2004. She'd been hired by 4orty2wo Entertainment to help run I Love Bees, a massive four-month game that was played and followed, at least casually, by about 600,000 people. Microsoft financed the game as a guerrilla marketing campaign for the videogame Halo 2, which was probably a successful tactic — not because every player went out and bought the videogame, but because the media glommed onto the Bees story and the ARG phenomenon. McGonigal now calls I Love Bees "the Woodstock of ARGs," because everybody now says they were there.

The company brought in McGonigal to keep an eye on the player community, and to make sure the game was responsive to its needs and strategies. But first she had to bring in the players. The game designers wanted to recruit some hard-core ARG players who would set up the forums and get to work before the clueless Halo fans heard rumors of the game, so McGonigal designed a sticky little puzzle. The game's central conceit was that a beekeeper's Web site had been inhabited by an ailing artificial intelligence program from the future, and gameplay started at the hacked site,

McGonigal rounded up the honey bears and bought small cardboard letters from a craft store, then spent a day pushing letters deep into the honey. A few days later, a smattering of players found the unexpected honey bears in their mailboxes. They promptly dumped out the honey on their dining room tables and in their kitchen sinks to pick the letters out of the sweet ooze. When someone arranged them into the words "I love bees," they were on their way to the Web site that started the game.

Bees was the first ARG McGonigal worked on, but looking back over her life, it's hard to imagine how her skills and experiences could have led to anything else. As a little girl in New Jersey, she and her twin sister never had a Nintendo or a Sega, but they did make up games and learn computer programming. In high school they became theater kids, and Jane migrated to the backstage role of stage-managing. During college in New York City, she got a job with the Parks Department organizing big, free games, like Easter egg hunts in Central Park.

After an unhappy stint at a dot-com start-up, McGonigal's sister suggested she try a self-help exercise to find her purpose in life. Jane had to think of an activity from childhood that she was told she had a knack for and also really enjoyed. She came up with two: making up games and behind-the-scenes theater work. "I thought, 'Well, god, I don't really think there's a career in making up games,'" she says with a laugh. "'So I'll go to grad school for theater.'" But within a year of starting a Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley, she was designing scavenger hunts and missions for the Go Game, which is still played periodically in San Francisco. When she started writing about ARGs in her academic work, the final piece was in place.

These days, McGonigal keeps body and soul together with an assortment of brainy odd jobs: This spring she's teaching a course at the San Francisco Art Institute on game design, she's the "resident game designer" for the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley, and the MacArthur Foundation funds some of her work through its digital media and learning project. Her work — with its civic-minded overtones and embrace of new technology — is the kind of stuff that foundations line up to throw money at. Last fall, MIT's Technology Review magazine put her on its annual list of 35 innovators in science and technology under the age of 35. She made it with five years to spare.

McGonigal, with a freshly minted Ph.D. in performance studies from UC Berkeley, drops some heavy names and concepts when talking about her work. There's the French philosopher Pierre Levy who coined the phrase "collective intelligence" in discussing how Internet technology would allow people to coordinate their skills. We're moving from a time of "I think, therefore I am," he said, to a new world governed by the idea that "we think, therefore we are." McGonigal also mentions a tenet of positive psychology — that people find genuine, long-lasting happiness in being of service to a larger group. Why not use that principle in game design?

It's neither a surprise nor a disappointment to her, McGonigal claims, that many of the biggest video and computer games still focus on shooting people and blowing things up, since those activities stimulate our brains in a very basic way. But as the boys who grew up playing these games age, she thinks they're getting bored with explosions. ARGs, she says, can be both more meaningful and more deeply pleasurable. "It's not just adrenaline, it's not just entertainment," she says. "We're tapping into core psychological aspects of what it means to be human."

McGonigal expects a lot from mankind, and from gamers. But she's talking about the generation that learned to assassinate Hare Krishna monks from the game Grand Theft Auto — whether they'll live up to her expectations remains to be seen.

In early March, McGonigal stood up before a packed hall at the Moscone Center, slides at the ready. She was about to make several different kinds of history. She was the first woman invited to give a keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference, the massive industry event that has been around for 20 years. Hers would also be the first keynote talk to focus on alternate reality games.

Most videogamers know about ARGs by now, even if they haven't played them, but McGonigal still starts her talks with basic definitions and descriptions. These games may have huge potential, but they're far from commanding the current marketplace. The more traditional multiplayer game World of Warcraft boasts 8.5 million players, leaving an ARG like I Love Bees — which had, at most, 1 million people briefly check it out — in the dust.

So McGonigal, the ARG evangelist, began proselytizing. "The central problem I want to consider is, can a computer game teach collective intelligence?" she said to the crowd. "I believe absolutely yes, and it's the single most important thing we can teach as we prepare for the future."

She turned to the I Love Bees gamers as her shining example, her star students. At the game's outset, the players stumbled on a set of 210 GPS coordinates, paired with time codes. There were no further instructions other than a date — something would happen on Aug. 24th. Fascinated, thousands of players started theorizing about how to interpret the numbers. Maybe the numbers should be used to look up Bible passages, which would reveal a written message? Or could they be transposed onto a star map? The players organized into groups to pursue different leads, and finally, the most literal-minded group won out. That group had sent scouts to the listed locations in almost all 50 states, and had them report back with descriptions and pictures. When they realized that all the locations had pay phones, they knew what to do on Aug. 24th — show up at the phones at the listed times, and wait for a call.

McGonigal doesn't seem to get tired of explaining the promise of ARGs — in the last two months, she gave six talks on the subject. But she must be looking forward to the day when she can skip the half-hour of her talk that shows that she's not crazy, and get straight to what she wants to do next: Make sure a game designer wins a Nobel Prize by the year 2032.

McGonigal has been thinking about the deeper meaning of ARGs since Sept. 11, 2001. The very first ARG, a game called The Beast that promoted the movie A.I. , had recently ended. On that day, when gamers turned on the news and saw smoke bellowing from the Twin Towers, they flocked to the forum where they had spent so much time during the game. "One of the strongest responses they had was, we can probably do a better job solving this than the authorities, because we have been trained as this collective detective," McGonigal says. "I actually thought this was great."

After an intense debate, the players decided it wasn't appropriate to "game 9/11," and opted for more traditional ways to help. But the impulse to apply their skills came up again and again. They talked about getting involved in the hunt for the Beltway sniper in 2002, and also proposed an investigation into government waste in federal spending.

None of those projects got off the ground. Straight reality, it turns out, is less dependably fun than games. There are no puppetmasters to dole out clues, keeping players interested and on track. Players aren't guaranteed a stunning conclusion. Players might not have access to the information they need. Still, the gamers' urge to use their collective power remains. McGonigal gets e-mails all the time, she says, with former players basically begging her: "Help us use our brains!"

That's her intention. Right now she's looking for scientists who are amenable to an unusual collaboration with a game designer. She has high hopes for artificial intelligence laboratories — she can imagine designing a game where players need to interact with an artificial intelligence program, and would teach it language skills or common-knowledge facts in the process. Or the players could be taught how to look for patterns in real scientific data on nearly any topic, from mammograms to sunspots to genetic sequences. Their success in the game couldn't be dependent on real scientific breakthroughs, McGonigal points out, because they might never happen.

Those projects could eventually take care of the prizes in chemistry and medical science, but while she's waiting McGonigal is weighing the other Nobel options. She points out that the economics prize is often given for game theory, which studies how people make decisions in the marketplace; game designers have a ready-made population for testing theories. Even the literature prize is increasingly possible, she believes. Games have already replaced books as the most popular and vital form of media, she says, and the storytelling is improving all the time.

As for the peace prize, that's the one she considers a lock. In the next few years, she hopes to get a massive game going that involves India or China as a first step toward creating a global youth culture that understands collaboration. It sounds an awful lot like hippie idealism, and everyone can see how well "Give Peace a Chance" has worked out so far. But McGonigal swears she's already seen how human behavior may change, just on a small scale.

During the 12-week symphony of ringing pay phones that brought I Love Bees to a close, gamers scrambled to answer all the phones and collect clues. One team in Missouri made it to a ringing pay phone at an Applebee's restaurant, only to be told that the phone would ring again in three hours, when they would have already moved on to another task. In desperation, they convinced a waitress to wait by the phone, and taught her what to say when it rang. When the puppetmasters called back, they talked to Mallory the waitress.

Learning to reach out to strangers is one of the benefits of ARGs, says McGonigal. "When you start projecting that out to bigger scales, that's when these games start to look like a real way to achieve, if not world peace, then some kind of world-benevolent conspiracy, where we feel like we are all playing the same game."

On a warm Friday evening at the beginning of March, two small mobs of people rushed toward each other through Yerba Buena Gardens. When the leading edges of the two groups were within three feet of each other, members on both sides yelled out, "Welcome to beautiful downtown San Francisco!" This passionate salutation was quickly followed by groans of disappointment on both sides; then both groups turned on their heels and raced away.

McGonigal's theories were being played out in microcosm with a game called Cruel 2 Be Kind that she created with a like-minded game designer friend, Ian Bogost. About 200 people showed up on the designated blocks in SOMA and started playing as the clock tolled 6. You captured players and won points by using one of three weapons of kindness. You could welcome another player to "beautiful downtown San Francisco," you could point out something "amazing" in your surroundings, or you could proclaim, "You look gorgeous tonight!" If two teams used the same technique at the same time, they had to run away and wait 30 seconds before trying again.

The only catch was, you couldn't tell which of the strangers streaming by were players. That evening, lots of innocent people got caught in the crossfire. Unsuspecting women waiting for a bus were all told how gorgeous they looked, and many tourists were assaulted by what they assumed were over-enthusiastic civic boosters welcoming them to the city. A couple of teenagers in the park were shown the amazing moon — which was fat and yellow — as well as an amazing flock of birds that wheeled above the trees.

The simple game was invented as an explicit counterargument to Street Wars, an increasingly popular assassination game that was last played in San Francisco in February. In Street Wars, participants spend weeks stalking other players in hopes of bringing them down with a well-aimed Super Soaker Blast. In the post-9/11 world, this game of urban warfare played with big plastic guns has not gone over well with city authorities. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City made the harshest statement, saying that the game's creators probably needed psychiatric help, while other towns have made noises about banning the game entirely.

That's what worried McGonigal. "I can understand why Street Wars is fun, but if the local police start banning this, it's not a big step to banning all public games," she says. So she and Bogost invented Cruel 2 Be Kind to show the authorities a friendlier, more whimsical side of public gaming. "People might be disconcerted by random acts of kindness, but they won't call the police," McGonigal says.

On that warm Friday evening, a small team was ambushed by a group of players who swooped up on bicycles, shouting, "You look gorgeous tonight!" The captives merged into the victorious group, and people who were strangers to each other began plotting their next move. McGonigal was playing a role in the game, and she was out there somewhere, roaming the streets in a neon pink wig and big sunglasses. There was a bonus prize for any team that successfully attacked her. So the group set off, scanning the surroundings for amazing things.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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