Innovation & Design

Jane McGonigal's Brave New Worlds


As director of games research and development at think tank Institute for the Future, Jane McGonigal is bridging entertainment, research, and business

Major corporations, including Procter & Gamble (PG), Electronic Arts (ERTS), and National Semiconductor (NSM), have given some of their employees an unusual assignment: play a free online game.

Admittedly, it's not a typical entertainment video game, with sophisticated 3D graphics, fantastical characters, or shoot-'em-up plots. And the corporations aren't just allowing workers to have fun on the job. Instead, the game, called Superstruct, asks players to imagine the world in 2019.

They're asked to consider a series of future scenarios, including a respiratory disease pandemic, a global food shortage, or a refugee crisis. Then they write blog posts, upload videos, and enter discussions on social networking sites such as Facebook to paint a picture of life in those conditions. For the players, it's an exercise of the imagination. For the supporting firms, it's an experiment with the idea of future-scenario planning using the game as a collaboration tool.

Bridging Entertainment and Business

Superstruct is the brainchild of Jane McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Palo Alto (Calif.) think tank. Her idea was to bridge entertainment and business in a very direct way. The scenarios imagined by Superstruct players will be folded into a 10-year forecasting report for IFTF clients (which the Institute declines to name) to help them create new services and products.

"We're using games to help people focus. The quality of engagement in games is more intense than in real life," says McGonigal, whose voice bubbles with an infectious enthusiasm. "Plus, games offer metrics and feedback, and they push people to action." For instance, players earn "survivability badges" when they demonstrate that other players are paying attention to their online posts.

Superstruct players like Colleen Macklin, an associate professor of communication design at Parsons-The New School for Design in New York, feel comfortable with the everday tools, like blogs and e-mail, that the game uses to get people playing. "Superstruct aspires to do more than offer engaging game play. It creates a platform to address issues set in the future," says Macklin. "Superstruct is like a big, fun brainstorming session."

Hard to Imagine the Worst

"It can be hard to get people to think of worst-case scenarios. They feel fear and anxiety. In entertainment, we have a comfort level with crisis," says McGonigal. Certainly, the game's themes are hardly heartwarming, but the medium and design encourage serious consideration and focus in an engaging format.

McGonigal, 31, is a high-profile advocate of "alternative reality games," or ARGs, as a business tool. She's written about their potential for corporations to plan for the future and train staff in publications such as Harvard Business Review. Her forthcoming book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy, started a bidding war, according to Publisher's Weekly and will be published in 2010.

The daughter of two public school teachers, McGonigal played computer games as a child, and even wrote her first software code at the age of 10. She assumed that games would remain a passion and a form of entertainment, but in 2001 she joined Wink, a company that created the Go Game, a series of real-world games for corporations. The games involved employees solving mysteries using cell-phone messages with instructions, and were used for team-building exercises by companies such as Cisco (CSCO).

A World of Bicycle Thieves

In 2004 she received attention for creating, with the marketing company 42 Entertainment, a promotional ARG for Microsoft (MSFT) called "I Love Bees." The Webby-winning game served as part of a viral advertising campaign for the popular video game Halo 2. Another ARG, "A World Without Oil," funded by the Center for Public Broadcasting, asked players to write reports from the future on how to cope with dwindling petroleum resources, presciently imagining gas prices reaching a then-unthinkable $4.07. The game's Web site is still online although the game ran for a finite time in 2007. It's still an intriguing resource for innovative products and services. For example, one player envisioned more bicycle thefts, suggesting a need to redesign locks and even bikes themselves.

Now, McGonigal splits her time between IFTF (she became director of its games department earlier this year) and her own game-design company, Avantgame, which she founded in 2003. For Avantgame, she designs commercial ARGs like "The Lost Ring," sponsored by McDonald's (MCD) as a marketing vehicle to run during the 2008 Beijing Olympic games.

"To get companies to realize games can work as business tools, we need businesses to change the way they think about games," says McGonigal, who is evangelical about how ARGs can build employee competencies in collaborative, creative thinking. She knows some executives might balk at the thought of using games as a business tool, but points to P&G's support of Superstruct as a sign that corporations are catching on. "They're not escapist entertainment—that's underselling them," she says of ARGs. "They are engines of creativity."

Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.

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