Future Games

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

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.

Players took over Yerba Buena Gardens to play one of McGonigal's games.
James Sanders
Players took over Yerba Buena Gardens to play one of McGonigal's games.
Jane McGonigal believes that games can do much more than entertain.
James Sanders
Jane McGonigal believes that games can do much more than entertain.

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 Caribbeanmovie, 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.

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