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. That's fascinating, because I think there's a perception that gamers are sleep-deprived loners wasting their lives getting screenburn. That's totally not the case. What we've been able to tell from the research is that games are a reliable and efficient way to achieve emotional rewards. Turning to games is not about escaping reality. It's about getting what we need to feel happy and content with our lives.
You write about ways in which gamers are positively affecting the world. Can you give some examples?
There is the positive impact of traditional games, and then there's this second, newer category of games that are engaging gamers to solve real problems. One of my favorite examples is the Foldit game, created by researchers at the University of Washington. This is a 3D game, a kind of really complicated Tetris, that teaches you how to fold proteins, and folding proteins is a way to investigate the causes of diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's. Recently, more than 50,000 players of this online game, Foldit, were credited as coauthors in a scientific article in the journal Nature about the steps involved with curing cancer. These gamers had actually outperformed the most advanced supercomputer algorithm that scientists had been using to try to fold proteins. And these were, according to the researchers, almost exclusively people who were untrained in biochemistry, gamers who used their creativity, their problem-solving stamina, their resilience, and their collaborative skill.
Some great gamers in the U.K. worked to investigate political corruption with a game called "Investigate Your MP's Expenses." These gamers were able to work through government files that had been redacted, scanned in horrible formats so you couldn't search or cross-reference them, and together they transcribed them, did the math, cross-checked different documents, and found all of these examples of corruption. It led to resignations and new legislation.
Publishers are increasingly thinking about the way games compete for the attention of their customers, and it's been said that gaming is a new medium for storytelling. Is gaming affecting the way we tell or think about stories?
That's an interesting question, because a lot of the most popular games today don't have stories in them. But the storytelling you do get is the story of the gamer's experience. It's a story of starting out with nothing, not knowing what to do, figuring it out, working hard, getting better, triumphing, and making something meaningful out of the experience. A lot of game designers, when they talk about storytelling in games, they're really talking about the gamer going through a sort of heroic journey. And I do think the story of the heroic journey is the archetypal story for the gamer generation. So, yes, gaming does affect storytelling. It can change the way gamers choose to tell stories about themselves, and it can certainly affect the kind of stories we are drawn to in other media.
The Frankfurt Book Fair last year made a real effort to reach out to gamers, suggesting there was a natural synergy based around stories, franchises, and content that publishers could work with. Do you see opportunities for gamers and publishers to work together?
Oh, yes. I've been really interested in books that are hybrids with games, where you can go online and join a social network or build a character in the game world. That's been explored mostly in the young adult space so far, but I've always thought it would be really interesting to see in other genres, like legal thrillers, where you could maybe look at the evidence online. I think there's a lot of opportunity to build a kind of immersive story adventure with traditional literature.
And doesn't that make sense? Literary purists might recoil at this idea, but as we are increasingly reading on screens, won't the generations that have grown up with GameBoys, smartphones, and iPads expect more than just staid text on a screen?
Yes, exactly. It makes perfect sense that we should start to go beyond the static page. One of my favorite books growing up was Dear Mr. Henshaw. What if I could have written to Mr. Henshaw and gotten a letter back, you know, like four chapters later? What if with Harry Potter, you could have been sorted into one of the houses? I think that there are lots of ways to make books more social and personal, not just interactive, so that there is another emotional, sort of adventurous quality to them.