How fun and games can make a better world, and a better you

Among the most common comments about people who like playing video games is that they are wasting their time. In fact, after her first TED talk, in which she argued that video games can make a better world, Jane McGonigal started receiving this comment, in this form or another, repeatedly:  on your death-bed, are you really going to wish you’d spent more time playing angry birds?

Even gamers sometimes feel that they are wasting their time playing. This might be common in cases where gaming addiction has developed and gaming doesn’t provide a positive experience anymore, but rather serves as an escape from overwhelming everyday stress and negative emotions. Society also plays a role in making gamers feel guilty, as video games are still commonly referred to as a waste of time.

Over the last few years, however, what was previously a mostly negative perception of video games by scientists, teachers and society in general has switched to a more positive, intrigued and enthusiastic stance. Studies, which previously focused on possible negative outcomes of playing games, often focused on violence, gaming addiction and social ineptitude, either as a topic or a conclusion, now explore the great potential of video games as tools of learning, socialization, improving resiliency and optimism, and changing the world for the better.


I have written about the great potential of games to teach people important attitudes and life-lessons (see My Life Playing Starcraft: or at least 14 years of it). I also presented my own experience of getting (briefly) hooked on WOW and approached the topic of gamification (see Living life in video games and living life like a video game).

The followinf four TED talks focus on the great potential of video games, gamification and the importance of play. These are talks by gaming industry experts and scientists: I guaranty they will not only teach you a lot and cut down on you gamer guilt, they will also make you feel surprisingly good.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world

My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.

McGonigal’s argument is compelling: she states that in order to make a better world, people should spend more time playing better and bigger video games.

Her research and work as a game designer has led her to see gamers as optimistic, hopeful empowered people. They are resilient and very good at working collaboratively. The challenge, she feels, is to make people feel equally challenged, engaged and motivated by facing real world problems as they are in games. Video games are so rewarding, in fact, that some people choose to spend more time playing them that living their life.

She gives three fascinating examples of how video games can be used to give people the means to tackle real life problems.

Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life

When faced with serious depression due to a concussion, McGonigal created a game to help herself get better. Later, when she transformed the game (SuperBetter) and made it available online, she received incredible feedback from people all over the world who were using it to deal with health problems like cancer, depression and terminal illness.

Exploring the top 5 regrets of the dying and the top 5 comments from people playing SuperBetter, she noticed that they were almost exact opposites.

Gabe Zichermann: How Games Make Kids Smarter

Zichermann talks from the perspective of a gamer and gaming entrepreneur and author. In this video, he talks about the potential of video games to provide a fun and motivating learning experience to children. He uses examples that demonstrate that children specifically appreciate the social aspects of games and that playing can help them increase their skills at reading and solving problems.

He also talks about gamification, a process that uses game thinking and mechanics to engage audiences to solve problems and build strong communities. He advocates for the intensification of gamification and suggests that actions people take should be rewarded as they are in games, and that collaboration in particular should be encouraged.

Stuart Brown: Play is more than fun

Dr. Stuart Brown is a psychiatrist who has worked with murderers to document the relations between play deprivation and disorders and behavior. He studied human and wild animal play and is the founder of the National Institute for Play. His studies have led him to argue that play is essential to human and that play deprivation can lead to violent behavior and limit personal development.

In this video, he explains how play contributes to personal growth and success and advocates for a more serious consideration of plays in scientific studies as well as in society.

About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations!

There are 7 comments

  1. nomicstudios

    Thanks for a great round up here. While I’m intrigued, I confess to being suspicious of Jane McGonigals idealism — overly simple. But great conversation starters. Gamification is certainly the topic of the moment.


    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Thanks for stopping by, your blog is interesting! I agree McGonigal sounds idealistic and makes gamification sound simple. However, part of this is probably due to the fact that she simplifies information to communicate it to audiences that aren’t initiated to the various sciences from which she gathers inspiration and data. As for her idealism, it’s one of the reasons why she is so interesting as a speaker. She communicates enthusiasm and the sense that we can tackle any challenge.

      The reason why I added the last video is that I feel that the current gamification trend hides the fact that there is something deeper than challenging, keeping engaged and entertaining people at work in this process. There might be tighter links to the quest for happiness, a meaningful life and a sense for community than what is suggested. Dr. Stuart Brown, much like McGonigal briefly does in her first talk, mentions that play has always been an important part of social life and the socialization process. He states, however, that he feels something has been lost in contemporary Western societies, and that play is not considered seriously enough and devoted enough time to. One of the reasons why watching these videos make people feel better, is that it focuses on being happy, and living a rich and meaningful life. These are just thoughts of course, as I am no gamification expert. I look at these videos through the eyes of an anthropologist who studies healing movements. That influences my perception a great deal.


  2. Tyler Murphy

    Very nice write-up with a lot of good materials to sort through.

    I don’t think I could agree more. I absolutely loathe when people look at games and gaming as a waste of time, and then turn around and discuss the latest football game like it is somehow absent from being a game.

    Playing games is something that as far I can tell, humans have always done. Games can function as great tools for learning, for community-building, and simply for passing the time. Video games may be new and radically different from other, more traditional games – but they are still games. They can still do all of the things that regular games do, but in some cases better.

    Saying games is a waste of time is virtually equivalent to saying that being human is a waste of time.


    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Sadly video-games are still looked at as the material of deviant people, or violence inducing. Have a look at this Kotaku article. How often do we hear that people who are responsible for shootings played video games? It was the case for the shooter in Connecticut as well as the shooter in Dawson College in Montréal. As Gabe Zichermann mentions, research seems to indicate that although violent games can enforce violent behavior in people who already display such problems, it won’t make stable individuals more agressive.


      1. Tyler Murphy

        Yeah, I have followed the news closely with relation to gaming. It does always come up with these issues. There seems to be a human tendency to blame new things for more complex issues, and games are no exception.

        I did a lot of classes on the origins of the novel in college, so I remember a lot of the early hatred for something so crass and blasphemous as the simple novel!


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