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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
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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.

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.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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