Future Games

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

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.

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.

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.

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