Perhaps no conference better reflects the pervasive reach of technology than the South by Southwest festival, or SXSW, in Austin, Tex. SXSW began in 1987 as a music festival, but as technology began to change the entertainment landscape, the show expanded and now includes programs for the film industry (SXSW Film) and for "interactive media" (the SXSW Interactive Festival). More publishers, authors, and publishing startups are attending SXSW to hear speakers explore the digital future. One prominent element at SXSW Interactive is of particular interest for publishers: gamers.
In a digital age, where there is an abundance of entertainment available, there is no greater competition for the attention of the traditional publishing customer than from games. But that competition also represents opportunity for confluence. In a memorable 2008 SXSW, world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal told festival-goers that their real product, whether their medium is games or books, is happiness. "You're making things that people experience," she said. "I don't think that we think our primary product is happiness, but we better start."
Last month, McGonigal published Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press; PW starred review). Just before SXSW kicked off, PW caught up with McGonigal to talk about who gamers are (you might be surprised) and the implications of gaming's swift rise for publishing.
You're a programmer and leading researcher on gamers, but what made you want to write Reality Is Broken for a popular audience?
I was motivated by this huge cultural shift that's happening. For all the hours we pour into games, especially alternative reality games, and the emotional investment in these virtual worlds, so many people on the sidelines are saying, "Wait, I don't get it." I wanted to explore what was driving gamers, because you can't have people spending three billion hours a week worldwide doing something without it having an impact of some kind.
Can you help us understand who gamers are? I think the publishing community will be especially interested in some of these demographics.
The average gamer is 35 years old. About 40% of gamers are women. One in four gamers is 50 years old or older. We know that 97% of boys under the age of 18 in the U.S. report playing games regularly, and 94% of girls. And we're really seeing this shift where under a certain age, there's no gender distinction at all. Games are just the medium we live with today, like TV was to previous generations. We're even beginning to see generations starting to bridge, where the over-50 generation, who didn't grow up with these games, connects with games through their grandkids.
You write about how games enhance life satisfaction. Can you talk about what people get for investing their time and emotion in games?
Games provide really crucial ingredients to a meaningful and satisfying life. Games are hands-on and can produce a sense that we've worked at something and made progress. Games are also giving us a chance to connect with people, because the majority of game play is spent playing with people we know in real life, sometimes online, but mostly in the same room, with friends, or family members. Games create a bond, a sense of trust with other people, and they actually help us to strengthen our real-life social relationships. Games also give us a sense of achievement. This sense of resilience-leading-to-triumph is a core part of what it takes to be satisfied in life.
A lot of people think we play games because they're easy, but in fact we play them because they are difficult. All these emotions, relationships, and experiences we get from games can fill our lives with positivity, and that is unique to games. You can take any other medium and find ways to make it social or to connect it to success and triumph, but games do this naturally and inherently.