Future Games

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

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, www.ilovebees.com.

Another team retaliates.
James Sanders
Another team retaliates.
Players show off their prizes in front of the carousel.
James Sanders
Players show off their prizes in front of the carousel.

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?

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