Any game that you love, I don't care if it's like legends, it's fortnights Candy Crush, whatever, whatever you feel drawn to. We know that there is a transferable benefit. The confidence that you can build and I can learn anything I can teach myself. I can get better. I can develop new skills, even if I'm terrible at this. The first time I tried it, any game that's designed to be challenging is going to give you that benefit.
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Check out the Schnitz for a link. My guest today is Jane McGonigal. Jane is a Ph.D. game designer who advocates for the use of video games to help people learn skills that transfer to the real world, heal physical problems like concussions, and improve attitudes and self-esteem in our kids. We're going to talk about video games, how they help you make better decisions, how they help your kids, how much is too much, what to watch out for and so much more.
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Oh, I'm super excited to be talking to you. Thanks for inviting me on the podcast.
Your background is fascinating. You've got a PhD basically in video games and then you got a head injury and you made a game to help yourself recover. Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah, you know, I had been studying the psychology of games and specifically how games change the way we respond to stress and challenge, not just in the Games, but in our everyday lives. I've been studying that for ten years. I was the first person to get a Ph.D. in it. And then I was writing my first book about all of that research when I got a traumatic brain injury that, you know, it started as what seemed like just a normal concussion.
And it just it didn't heal. And it was days. And it was weeks and it was months. And, you know, a year later, I'm still suffering difficulty with my memory and hard to get out of bed and, you know, dizzy all the time, these horrible migraines, depression, anxiety. And I guess I was lucky that at some point in that recovery, it occurred to me that I could use everything that I had learned about the psychology and neurochemistry of gaming and why we feel so motivated when we play, why we feel like we can take on any challenge, why it's easier to ask other people for help right now.
I mean, nobody has a problem asking for tips on a game or resources, any. Could I bring that to my own recovery? And that was the genesis of a game super better that I played for my own healing.
And that has helped more than a million people recover from symptoms of traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, chronic pain and other sort of challenges that we may struggle with and need just a kind of a fresh mindset on to to stay engaged and feeling optimistic. You also did a lot of work on concussions, right?
I remember listening to some of the background material for this. And the first is it three hours or three days or critical and then thirty and then a year.
Yeah. So I'm lucky I was able to get a clinical trial grant from the National Institutes for Health to actually test super better for traumatic brain injury recovery because there isn't a lot of standard treatment for concussions.
It's really just rest and try not to get a second hit, which can be more dangerous. So basically, I call up in a dark room and it is important to give your brain rest during those first three days or first week. I went through a process with my own recovery where I learned that if you don't feel better in a week, they anticipate most people feel better in a month. And if you don't feel better in a month and most of the letter in three months and if you haven't felt better by 90 days, then it will be a year.
And at that point you may be stuck with it forever. So you kind of a lot of people have this really difficult psychological experience of hitting all these milestones and they're still not better, which was also my experience. And when we tested super better in our clinical trial with Cincinnati Children's Hospital and Ohio State University Medical Research Center, we were specifically dealing with people who had this long concussion or post. In Santorum, who didn't recover on time, and then not only do you still have all the symptoms of concussion, now you're incredibly anxious, incredibly depressed, you're losing hope.
Your people who are taking care of you might be getting fatigued from having to support you or getting frustrated also. So you're feeling kind of socially isolated or less supported. So so, yes, it it's kind of the longer it goes on, the more important it is to get some kind of tool that will help you stay optimistic and not fall into the cycle. Because, I mean, I can tell you the one the one big breakthrough that we now know is that concussions make you incredibly depressed because your brain is trying to stop you from getting injured again.
And so it kind of shuts down all the pathways that tell your brain it's worth getting out of bed. And so it can feel and I feel suicidal. I feel like there's no point in going on because your brain literally can't imagine anything good happening again. So it's good for your brain to try to protect you, but it's absolutely terrible for the person going through it. And we have to kind of we can't we have to overcompensate for our brains protective mechanism and start looking for ways to believe that the future can be good because our brain is kind of overdoing it with the protection.
I want to get into more of it super better. And what specifically about it helps you with recovery? But what else did you learn about concussions in general?
I mean, there's a lot of inflammation involved. So it looks like, you know, little things you can do that tend to decrease inflammation systemically are helpful for recovery. So there are dietary things like you can do, like increasing turmeric in your diet, eating things like walnuts or fatty fishes that can help early on in the first year of recovery and meditation kind of things that systematically lower inflammation throughout the body.
Because a lot of the I want to say almost physical symptoms of concussion, the incredible headaches and the brain fatigue and fog comes from the inflammation. So but there's really not a lot known about about how to speed it up. It's like it just basically you you kind of wait and see and there's nothing there are super better has been shown in the in the literature to improve depression, anxiety and recovery faster. But we don't we don't exactly know why. We've some hypotheses that I could chat with you about.
It's so under understood for something that affects so many people. What are your hypotheses like why that is working so well?
I think there's a kind of downward spiral with concussion where, yes, you have these symptoms that are very real and particularly the headaches and the nausea and the the memory issues or concentration issues. But when you start to add depression, anxiety and social isolation or loneliness on top of that, then it creates an intensification of the inflammation that's triggering the physical symptoms. It makes it harder for you to do the things that we know can help you get better. I mean, if you just lie in bed all day, it's actually not good for cover.
You do have to get out of bed. You have to kind of work up to a threshold that's like 10 percent below what triggers your symptoms and keep pushing that. But if you're too depressed or you're too anxious, then you never make any forward progress. Plus you've got all the extra information, all the extra cortisol, the adrenaline. So I think what the researchers that I worked with at Penn and OSU and I believe is probably helping with the concussion recovery is it's take it's basically getting people out of the way.
You know, if you can if you can not make anything worse, don't add any extra problems so that the depression, anxiety don't intensify it. And then you'll have a little more energy to do the things that will help you get better, faster, a little more willpower not to push yourself, because you you have faith in the recovery process. So you're not going to do things that actually set you back two weeks or thirty days because you push too hard.
So it's basically reducing the reducing things that make it worse so that you can have just a little extra bit of energy so that you stay engaged with the normal healing process. That's crazy.
And then so it also gives you something to think about and do that's not too far in the future. Right? It because part of what I understand about concussions is we lose our ability to think about the future.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's really interesting. So one thing that happens is when you try to imagine the future, it loses that vividness the detail. You describe it in a more sort of general or vague way. So there's actually a functional loss in your ability to imagine the future. And then when you do imagine the future, even if you're thinking about things that normally you would get you excited, your brain is basically refusing to fire up the pathways that allow dopamine to get you excited and motivated and paying attention, even when you imagine the future just looks all kind of bleak and gloomy.
What? Super better does is, you know, the first thing it does is it basically tries to trick your brain into believing that something good could happen as a result of your own actions. And it starts incredibly small. I mean, the first four things you do in super better are, you know, stand up and take three steps and no matter how you're feeling, because that gets the blood flowing and it automatically disrupts the inflammation process. So great.
You did one good thing that will actually help your brain and all you had to do is take three steps. In fact, I'm going to just do it right now because I've been sitting at my computer all day and I have a migraine right now. So I'm going to just do a little bit to feel better. But, you know, or you send a text message to somebody to thank them, you know, for for any support that they've given you or inspiration or encouragement or just tell them something that you appreciate about them.
And just that just to remember that even with whatever you're going through, you can still make somebody's day and that gives you power and agency. Yeah, your life sucks right now. But you know what? You have a mom or you have an old teacher or you have you know, there's somebody out there who would really smile to hear some kind words from you. So we're just super at is all about showing you the power. You have the smallest things you can do to feel happy, to feel successful, to feel important to others, to feel hope.
And and every time you do that, you force your brain to fire up those dopamine pathways like, sorry, brain. You wanted to stay depressed and believe nothing good can happen. But I just showed you I just proved to you that something good could happen as a result of your own actions. And so we're essentially like reverse engineering. We're trying to get in there and say, yes, I'm not going to go mountain biking, but I am going to stay engaged with my day.
And it is it is a pretty complex system. There's a lot to do and super better. But that's really at the heart of it. It's just every day wake up, do a few things that remind you of your power and actually measurably, objectively improve how you feel physically, emotionally, mentally, socially.
And that will give you some hope for your future.
I love how you renamed yourself Jane the Concussion Slayer, because I was so mad. And, you know, I mean, I didn't I didn't ask for it. I was dealing with it. And I was just thought of Buffy the Vampire Slayer who did not choose to be the Slayer. They just she was born into that and she just had to accept it and battle those demons. And, you know, I was I mean, I it sounds almost ridiculous because I was also suicidal.
So it's like how does something so ridiculous or so absurd actually help? But I think what a lot of times that we what we've seen with our super better users is that people who are the most frustrated, who have have had had try have tried so many different things. And they're still dealing with whatever it is. It's anxiety keeps coming back. The depression keeps coming back, the pain keeps coming back. That just trying something new and having that open mindedness and curiosity and a sense of playfulness about it is really helpful.
And it's interesting when I first really super better, which it's been almost ten years now, I think there was some pushback or skepticism like how is the game going to help people with something serious and isn't this dismissive of real people's problems? And I was getting letters from people with terminal diagnosis stage stage for me on cancer, ALS, who were using it because what else were they going to do?
I mean, they had sort of run out of conventional treatments or therapy and they just they needed to create meaning for themselves and create purpose for themselves.
So, yeah, it's like super retro may not be for you if you're really happy and totally, like, killing it.
But if there's something that you just can't fix in your life or your brain or your body, then it may be something that's helpful.
Let's zoom in for a second away from concussions and super better.
And what is sort of a video game like people have an aversion to video games, but there's so many useful tools and insights and lessons that we can draw from them.
I mean, people who don't play video games have an aversion to games.
But, you know, I mean, there are two point three billion people on the planet now who regularly play video games. So like one in three people have actively chosen to make games a part of their lives, which is really exciting.
My mom is not one you don't even know. I, I would I, I bet she might be.
I mean, she might be doing something on her phone, like a little cat collecting game or something.
I, I talked to so many people who swear they've never played a video game and they are, they are like on level twelve hundred of Candy Crush saga all the time.
So what is it about games.
Look, I mean, my God, we can have like a twelve hour podcast series at least on this.
But the most important thing is this is my life researching, you know, the potential benefits of games played by the right person at the right time for the right reason. And the number one thing we know, any game that you love, I don't care if. Legends, it's fortnights, Candy Crush, whatever, whatever you feel drawn to.
We know that there is a transferable benefit, which is you get better at learning new things, at dealing with systems that are frustrating and having to adapt. You know, you're learning new rules. You're learning new interfaces. It's designed to frustrate you. And you have to adapt and get better. And you build confidence in your ability to get better. And every game does this. And it's it's something that we shouldn't trivialize. We shouldn't pretend that that games are just escapist or just a pastime, that they actually build this kind of growth mindset.
They build this resilient way of dealing with challenges. And they especially for young people, for kids who grow up learning game after game, a five year old twin daughters who just got their first tablet this year, and they've already taught themselves to play over a hundred different games on this tablet. And every day they come and show me, like, mom, look at this game. I learn what to watch me play this game. And just the confidence that you can build and I can learn anything I can teach myself.
I can get better. I can develop new skills, even if I'm terrible at this the first time I tried it. That's something your whole life until you're like one hundred years old and desperately trying to keep that neuroplasticity going. And how do I keep my brain healthy and active? And where's the gray matter going to grow? You can grow it by learning something new that's hard for you. So from five years old to one hundred years old, any game that's designed to be challenging is going to give you that benefit.
So how should parents think about that with kids? Because there's a lot of questions around screen time and whether I should let my kids play certain video games or not. How do you think about that?
OK, so the number one thing is you have to be in conversation with your kids around what they're playing. And there are three really powerful questions that I ask my kids and anybody I'm trying to get to know better and understand the relationship to games and understand their personal strengths. So you ask them about whatever their favorite game is right now. What does it take to be good at this game? What skills does it require? What kind of personality or temperament does it require?
You ask them, what have you gotten better at since you started playing this game? And you ask, what's the hardest thing you've accomplished in this game and ask them to tell you about how they did it. What did you have to do in order to meet that challenge? Because it turns out that people who can talk about what they've gotten better at, what real skills, whether it's, you know, being able to manage my breathing under pressure, my heart rate under pressure.
If you're a competitive sports player or if it's creativity, maybe it's I don't give up when things are hard. It's communication, stressful situations with my teammates. It's I can get I know where to look whenever I. I don't know what to do. I'm really good information finder.
Whatever it is, people who can talk about that, they tend to bring those skills to their work, too. They're learning to the relationships, to their hobbies. And all you have to do to get somebody to transfer the benefits of games to real life is just have that conversation and you can do it with yourself to just have a little game during all every time you play a new game, you're like, well, what am I getting better at playing this game?
What's the hardest thing that I have achieved by one? I've been playing this game and what did it take to do it? And so if you're having this conversation with your kids, I don't care what they're playing. I don't care if you're playing for it. And I for twenty hours a week. And that stresses you out, by the way. Twenty one hours a week is like the tipping point where you start to see it can get in the way of physical health or mental health.
So like less than twenty one hours a week. But other than that it can be anything that killing zombies, but it's stuff that you don't understand why they enjoy it. You can still ask those questions and you can still have that conversation and you can reflect back to anybody. Like when I watched my husband play a game, you know, I can I can tell them what I think, what strikes I think he's showing and I can show him that I see all of those great things and those great qualities in him.
Games are just a great way to tell each other, you know, what we're good at and what we want to be appreciated for and what we value in each other. And so we should just have more of those conversations.
Are there better times a day for kids to play? Yeah, so there's a really counterintuitive study that parents always like.
Oh, when I tell them about it, because it's it show the opposite of what most parents assume is true, which is if you want kids to retain what they study better, you should have them play video games first and then do their homework and then study before they go to sleep. Because if you study first and then as your reward, you get to play games. When you go to sleep, your brain is going to focus on the most salient problem it was recently trying to solve.
I'm sure I don't know if you've ever had this experience. You go to sleep and your brain starts. Like it's working on whatever you were just really fixated on, so you want that brain to be fixated on, you know, the calculus or, you know, whatever, the foreign words you're studying are not on the level that you were trying to solve in a game.
So actually, reversing the order is is a really good tip. The key is just to setting a hard time limit so that they play for 90 minutes and they switch to work or whatever it is.
But, yeah, you don't you don't want to have the game right before bed unless you've recently been traumatized, which is this is like can we do a PSA public service announcement?
If you're having flashbacks of a traumatic event or you're ruminating on something that it's making you crazy, like you can't get this bad experience out of your mind. You can't get this. You're replaying this conversation over and over again because you you feel like you said the wrong thing and you just feel fixated on it. Playing a game right before bed will essentially hijack the attention center and especially the visual centers. If it's a game that's very visual. I mean, Tetris is like the golden game.
And in clinical trials, when they study this effect, it's like Tetris is the best option because it literally hijacks your brain. Like you close your eyes and you see the falling Tetris blocks. But any game that can really focus your attention will make it less likely for you to be then lying in bed, trying to fall asleep with all these negative thoughts or having nightmares and flashbacks that you can't control.
So, yeah, you should play the game right before bed if you're if you're dealing with that problem. But otherwise, you know, do something else like you're learning or you're whatever your growth stuff is read do that before bed. Instead it'll stay in your brain better.
Is there a difference between the benefits we get from single player games versus multiplayer games?
Yeah, I say right game, right time. Right person. You know, if you're trying to control your attention, you might have an easier time with a single player game if you're trying to manage anxiety or you want to slow your heart rate down or you need some, you need a positive emotion because you're having a hard day.
You know, just pull out your phone or your switch or whatever and do a little solo gaming that gets you in the right frame of mind.
And then social gaming. I mean, we know that people who spend a lot of time playing the same game with the same people report getting more social support in their everyday lives. So even if it's a game like Pokémon go where you might not see the other player, you might not be speaking to them. Maybe we're doing remote raids together. We're just sending each other virtual gifts every day. You're more likely to text somebody that you've had an interaction with in the game or pick up the phone and ask them for help with a problem or just feel like you have a rich network of support if you need it.
It's sort of that safety net that you feel like you have in your life that makes us less anxious to feel less alone. If you play the same game with the same people, league legends, whatever it is. And so, yeah, you know, I try to have a balance in my life. If I'm super anxious, I'm not going to. And I'm trying to like, focus my mind.
I'm not going to do Pokemon go because that's not quite stimulating enough.
I might need to do something little more challenging, but you you start to learn and curate a set of games in your life that plays the right role for you. And I think the more that you can articulate this game gives me this benefit. And I play this game because it helps me in this way. We don't see people like that developing pathologies around gaming. They're not the people who are feeling overwhelmed. They're playing forty hours a week, six hours a week and taking over their lives.
You know, the people who run into the problems tend to be escapist gamers who just feel like games are the only thing that keeps them saying they want to avoid reality, but they're not thinking about the benefits that it can give them to make them stronger in real life or more capable of meeting those challenges.
It strikes me that in some of the multiplayer games, like leading a guild or leading a party and coordinating these things, coordinating resources, coordinating attacks across the Internet has become an incredibly valuable skill set almost overnight. Yes, right.
Well, right now, with so much virtual work happening and even in the future of work, we know that workers are going to have to be comfortable collaborating with A.I. programs and managing their own swarm of bot programs are going to have to be able to work in virtual reality to control robots or drones or others.
There are all of these skills around virtual environments, virtual collaboration, remote collaboration, that gamers are definitely at the leading edge of developing the skill. For and I always say, like, if you're worried about the future of work and not sure what to do to get ready for it, you could you could do a lot worse than to play some challenging video games. You know, we've every reason to think that the future of work will be more like fortnight than the kind of office jobs that we have today.
What are the best games for kids to play? Do you think in different age groups say like under 10, 10 to 15. And I know that it's the it's dependent on kid and timing, but there's probably some games that give you better lessons possibly than others. Yeah.
I mean, you know, there first of all, there's a cultural currency to playing the games that your peers are playing. And one of the big benefits that we know kids get is that kind of social confidence when they are in the culture as their peers. So, I mean, it changes from time to time.
You know, Minecraft is still very popular and gives you a wide range of, you know, do you want a little bit of adrenaline? Do you do you do you want the keepers to be able to destroy what you create? Or do you want to be in a nice, peaceful, creative mode? That's an environment where you can choose how you want to play and there's a big community around it. You know, I Pokémon go is great because it gets people active and out exploring the real world environments.
And I certainly know my kids started getting way more active steps and we started playing it together. And that's important. I think whatever is kind of in the peer group is is a good thing. It's a good thing to do because particularly for for young kids, we're seeing that being a part of that culture is really important. Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about how gamers, kids in the US who have been gamers their whole lives seem to have adapted psychologically better to the pandemic, to being forced to do at home learning and not be able to go out to playgrounds.
And there are sports, as usual, and that they adapted better because they already had all these sort of rich online communities and ways to stay connected. So, I mean, for me, if you're a parent, you know, if there's a game that all your kid's friends are playing, even if it looks a little bit like, oh, I don't know, is there some realistic violence or not, the benefits they get from playing the same game as their peer group should outweigh whatever you might feel uncomfortable about seeing on screen.
That said, you can also have conversations with your kids about why you prefer they don't play.
I mean, I think just because I know the benefits of games, I'm not like a crazy person, like I'm not I totally can see that there's Gore in games or there's behaviors and gaming communities that are disgusting and all the sorts of bad stuff.
And if you see that I'm you shut it down. And I personally, when I play fortnight, I don't if I love fortnight, but I'm like total stealth mode. And I just hope I hope to outlast everybody. I don't kill people because I just like I'm not into that. It doesn't make me happy. I feel bad and someone else's game. And I don't even like that kind of comical violence. And you can talk to your kids about that and be like, I don't play games where I kill people because I don't know.
I just don't feel good about it. And let's have that conversation, too, and help them reflect on it. I think is is a valuable thing to do, too.
Is there truth to the violent video games leads to violence in adulthood? No.
Isn't such idiots like the fact that we're still talking about that decades after it's been like systematically disproven?
I mean, like the most conclusive evidence that it's not true is that the number of people who play I put violent in quotation marks because the really violent games are like American football. You talk about concussions, right? We actually have violent games that we play.
And there most of them are physical sports where we actually do violence to ourselves and our own bodies and to each other. You know, video games, the number of people and the hours that we've spent playing them has skyrocketed.
And yet violent crime has gone down almost on the same curve.
And so it's completely ludicrous and nobody actually believes it increases violence. So the one thing we know is that if you are ideating on a violent activity, like, say, you're like a really disturbed individual and you start to have fantasies of acting out, your fantasies are likely to be informed by whatever media you're consuming, whether it's graphic novels or movies or video games. And so you may act out what you've seen in the game. If you weren't a gamer, you might act out what you've seen in a movie.
If I had someone in my life who I was worried, had violent fantasies or was having a severe psychotic break, I wouldn't be excited about them being obsessed with a game where they're like creating an arsenal of realistic weapons. I would definitely be concerned about that. But if somebody is not having a psychotic break, it's not. Generally, something that we need, there's literally no evidence that it does anything like them.
Are there any warning signs that parents should watch out for in their kids, that borderline addiction or behaviors that. What are those?
Yeah, I mean, the first thing you do if you have any concerns is start counting up the time that's been playing. So if it's over 21 hours a week, I do recommend that you start trying to control it or shape it, unless they are an extremely accomplished EA Sports player, because, you know, people can make you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournaments. It's a job. You can play 40 hours a week. If it's your full time job, fine.
But short of that, people keep a log for a week or to see how many hours it is, because in all of the studies that have been done of kids, of adults, of all the negative impacts of games, no study has found negative impacts at less than twenty one hours a week. So just want to be safe. Great. Keep it three hours a day. That's plenty of gaming for somebody as well being. The other warning sign is if game play seems to increase in intensity while real life problems are also increasing.
So what you don't want to see is like a direct relationship between like more problems, more games. What I talk about is attention.
And, you know, if somebody seems to be going down a dark tunnel of of addiction where it's not it's not that they're neurologically addicted to the game, it's just that everything else seems so hopeless. The game feels like the only place where they can make any progress or have any meaningful connection.
You need to work with them to put their attention on other things as well so that there is a hope of improving school or work or their body or their friendships, relationships, whatever they need to repair.
You have to say it's good to get it's good to find relief in the game.
And now we have to bring our attention to some of these other things and then we can go back to the game. You know, it's like a it's a dance.
Spend a couple hours gaming, spend a couple of hours bringing your attention to getting your body or getting your your your studies in order.
Yeah, that's I mean, that's a red flag. You don't want to see more gaming, more problems. That's that's the downward spiral we were talking about.
So for all the tweens and teens that they're listening to this and getting your parents to listen to this as evidence that they should let you play more video games, you should get your grades up as you play more.
Well, I mean, it grades, whatever. I mean, like I by the way, I'm like I've been radicalized around schooling and the amount of anxiety and stress that kids are under, especially in the American school system. It's so absurd the idea that for the first 18 years of your life, you should be just constantly worried that you're not going to perform, you know, to some artificial standard that your behavior is not going to be acceptable, that, you know, I mean, the whole my kids, I I disenrolled my kids from our school district this year, and we're hoping to just, I don't know, unschool.
I don't know what we're going to do. But what what has happened to you know, I still have nightmares about high school. I was I was one of those like 4.0 high achieving students. And I still have nightmares that I forgot to study, that I haven't been going to class. And then I have to remind myself of my dream. Like, Jane, you have a Ph.D. It doesn't matter whether you graduate from high school or not like you're OK.
But we are traumatized.
And if we want to talk about, like, how do we create more resilient young people, we need to stop traumatizing them with this completely arbitrary system of consequences for just for who?
I mean, who cares? It's just it's so ridiculous.
American schools need to be I mean, we just need to get kids out of these prisons of the mind. And, you know, that's a that's another story. But we've done long term damage to to kids mental well-being and their brains, ability to, I don't know, generate self motivate, you know, outside of these external pressures.
Talk to me a little bit more about developing resilience and maybe self-esteem and self efficacy with kids.
Yeah, I mean, what what we I think what we really want to see in kids is that they get curious about something and they learn how to follow that curiosity, whether they want to learn how to cook stuff. So, you know, what is it going to take for them to be able to make the meals they want to make and an alternative to learn skills. You've learned techniques. You have to you have to learn math to make the recipes work out if just whatever you want to do.
Because in real life, the only thing that's going to make you successful is having some kind of inner drive that is related to your interests and your passions and your. Authentic skills and so giving kids a chance to give time and attention to what they are authentically curious about and what they feel like they might be good at or want to get better at.
I mean, if I am, what I'm hoping to do with my kids is just allow them to build on their strengths for four years. I don't know when we'll put our kids in a in a normal school, but for now, you know, the things that that get them up out of bed that they're excited to do, they get better at it so much faster than when you try to teach them something that you think they should.
Now, what my kids can teach themselves about drawing, watching YouTube tutorials, and I mean, if they care about it, they can learn a year's worth of stuff in a week, it feels like. So, yeah, I think what the the really resilient kid, it's going to be the one who knows how to follow a passion and teach themselves and build their own sense of motivation about what they want to wake up and do.
Are the things that we can do as parents in your mind to help the kids teach themselves?
I mean, I'm just starting this process myself. I mean. Well, let me let me say that anybody who's interested in this, if you just start Googling unschooling, there are experts on this who can who can speak to the difference between learning on your own, what you want to learn and being forced to perform under pressure, what somebody else thinks you need to know. And so just starting down that rabbit hole of unschooling, it's you know, I had never heard of that term until this past year.
And there's a great book. It's called Why Are Your Kids Still in School? It really woke me up and I thought, yeah, especially in the pandemic. Like, this is a good time to ask that question. Why are we letting someone else design our kids everyday lives? I mean, the amount of time they spend in school? I'm a game designer. I'm really good at designing experiences and environments where you get to learn and grow and improve skills.
And so I think I think we need to rethink ceding all of the power of what our kids do every day to a bureaucratic and unimaginative anxiety producing institution.
I agree is very a check the box to you. Right. It's like your you might be doing algebra in grade two, but, you know, if you don't share your lunch, then.
Well, I mean, it's truly I mean, honestly, like it just if my kids can learn how to be helpful family members this year instead of what they would normally be learning in kindergarten, what do we really want them to be able to do when they grow up just to be like good, helpful people who can wake up with an idea of what will give them energy and excitement to do it in their day and be able to, like, take charge.
Right. And if I want to learn something, I know how to learn it. I know what to do. And I feel like I have the confidence and self-esteem that I can I can take that challenge on. Yeah, exactly.
Do video games help us make predictions about the future or there things that we can do to prime us for learning? What can I.
So there is one aspect of video gaming that kind of makes you a better futurist. So my career kind of like for like an alternate timeline where I started developing and being trained as a professional futurist when I started my research in gaming and I was doing all this research into like, well, what if we were using games to change the real world and not just virtual worlds? I was discovered by the Institute for the Future, which is the world's oldest feature forecasting organization, has been around for six years now.
And they said, well, it sounds like you're actually inventing the future so I can be a future futurist with us, because the best way to predict the future is to actually be the one who's inventing it and deciding what it will be.
So in my professional futurist practice, what I've discovered is that people who spend a lot of time playing games are actually very effective at anticipating second, third, fourth order consequences of future events. So, you know, like when you're playing a game, you might be imagining, like, OK, if I do this, then what is the other player going to do? Or if I use this resource, you know, what will happen next? Well, how will I solve a problem if I don't have that resource anymore?
And I have to try another way. And so you start to like think one step ahead, two steps ahead, three steps ahead, and you develop essentially all of these essentially alternative timelines in your mind of all the different ways the game could play out. And, you know, certain games facilitate this more than I was like, if you're a chess player, you can imagine one hundred different futures and hold them all in your mind at the same time.
Right. And we do see that with with real time strategy games as well. And so that's actually really helpful for things like in technology. I've been doing a lot of work on the sort of ethical or responsible development of new technologies at scale. What happens when something you created has a billion users is going to be a lot of unanticipated consequences uses that you did not intend, but.
Suddenly pop up, and so I do a lot of work with technology companies using gaming methodologies to help them essentially game out what different people might do with the tech or how how that ecosystem is going to operate in these more sort of surprising and complex ways the more that they scale.
So that that and that if you if you're a gamer, you're pretty good at that and oftentimes will bring gamers in to work with companies to game out scenarios because they do have that creativity and imagination.
If X and Y and Z of season and you just keep going and going, are there ways that we can strengthen the neurological pathways to allow us to imagine things that we haven't encountered before?
Yeah, that's a particular obsession of mine. So as a as a futurist, you know, one thing I do is I create forecasts about the future and I'm often and they're based on research and forecasts, as in like multiple possible futures or forecasts as in like this future will continue.
And here's how it might adapt.
We describe worlds that you might wake up in one day. So like one of the worlds that I'm very interested in exploring and have created some games around is, you know, when we're all when neurological sensing devices are connected to social networks, what that world might be like.
We know that many people are working on the technology. Elon Musk is working on it. Facebook is working on it. There's all kinds of deeply funded stealth startups working on it. I think it's fair to say in like 10 years, we're all going to be broadcasting subconscious or like pre conscious thoughts and feelings in ways that we can't do it today. And so I'll describe a world, you know, imagine there's a social network called Feel that has a billion people on it.
And you can subscribe to people's feelings are emotional states. So, you know, I start I'll get ten thousand high school students and say, can you imagine, you know, this network exists? Would you be on it? If you are, who would you like feel your feelings? Who would you block? Who would you like to feel? You know, who would you be scared to feel we try to game out? How do you think a network like this would be used in politics?
How would it be used in marketing? How could it be used in learning? How could it be used for good? How could it be used for evil? Actually, working with high school students on that was was really good because kids today are so used to new technologies, just kind of miraculous technologies coming into existence that they can hold that in their mind. But a lot of times if I'm talking to a government agency, like if I were talking to a security organization about what they might need to anticipate in a neuro sensing social network world, they might have all kinds of blocks, like they just can't imagine it because they've never experienced it.
And it doesn't feel real to them.
It doesn't seem plausible. And we've I can't tell you how many times I presented a forecast. We're like, OK, I want you to imagine you're in this world. And they'd say, I can't imagine that. Like, I literally just can't even picture that.
And what I realize is, in addition to being able to accurately describe worlds we might wake up in, because you can look at the signals and look at the driving forces and say, like, yeah, pretty good chances this is going to happen someday. So we should start thinking about what we're going to do in that world, who we can help with.
The ethical dilemmas are who's going to be hurt by it, you know, how can I take advantage of it? But a lot of people, they can't do any of that work because their brain cells never experience that before.
Therefore, my pattern, recognizing machines is not going to happen. Right, because our brains get stuck in looking for continuation of patterns. And so when you predict a disruption, the brain can't picture it. And one thing you can do to actually help people take these possibilities more seriously is get them to imagine themselves in that world and try to let go into it as if it were a virtual reality world just in their own minds. Picture it. Look around the first time you unbox in sensing device.
What does it feel like? You know, what color is it? What room are you in? Who's with you? When you put it on, who's the first person that you subscribe to feel you ask them to create a kind of vivid story and then the next time they're asked to think about this technology, their brain says, oh, yeah, that that does seem reasonable or that could happen because your brain has an easier time picturing it, because now it can remember what you already imagined and that feels like evidence.
So if you want people to take seriously things that sound unthinkable or unimaginable, just getting them to tell a story, even if you think it can ever happen, just start imagining it, tell that story. The next time they think about it, they feel like it could be more real. And then the next time and then the next time and the brain starts to actually finally get it. And I'll tell you, I've been doing pandemic forecasts for two of my biggest games, one in two thousand.
Eight in one in 2010 forecast big respiratory pandemics that started in China for the year 12, 19 and 20 20, and I have heard from players all year long who played those games a decade ago.
OK, you know what? I put my mask on in January. I don't need the government to tell me. I didn't listen to any propaganda like I understood because you had me wear a mask. I had people running around Stanford in twenty eight wearing masks because we had this like we were we were simulating for six weeks a pandemic and, you know, how would we have class and how would we throw birthday parties.
We thought we solved all of that stuff and felt the anxiety and felt the annoyance and the frustrations and the physical.
You know, you can you can help people prepare for and imagine these features just by like by essentially gaming them, living them, simulating them so that when they roll around, you're not frozen, you're not stuck in the old ways of thinking or doing.
Your brain's ready to go because it's already accepted that this is possible. And so you can act faster and adapt faster.
I like that because then you've already experienced that. You've already gone through the friction of sort of accepting it and dealing with the what ifs. And now when it happens, you can just sort of like switch on that part that you've already used. Yeah.
Do you want to hear one of the next things that I'm really trying to get people to wrap their minds around? Yeah, totally. Yeah.
So Government-mandated Internet shutdowns, it seems so implausible that, like, we just wake up in the government would have said, you know what, no Internet for three weeks.
Didn't they try this on ready player one. Right. There's a there's a great organization access now that org that's tracking government-mandated Internet shutdowns all over the world. There were hundreds of instances. And it's not just in authoritarian countries. The number one place where the government shuts down the Internet is a democracy. It's India.
And the number one reason given for Internet shutdowns is safe public safety to prevent the spread of misinformation. Really, they're often linked to protests or the spread of truth in in authoritarian countries.
But, you know, our our president has the power, according to the War War Powers Act, he can shut down Internet, can shut down TV and radio, can shut down mobile service.
What? That's crazy.
But so it is crazy. And but the thing is, it's also it's already happening. So William Gibson, the science fiction writer, he has this great quote. The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. And we often think this is someone else's problem, like, OK, yeah. And the Philippines, they're always shutting down the Internet. In India, this is someone else's problem. But it could be our problem, too.
And it I think people should start thinking, what are they going to do if they wake up and the Internet's out and mobile phones don't work because let's say there's too much disinformation about the election results. So it's not for public safety. We're shutting it down or the next pandemic, let's say five years from now. There's another pandemic and people are spreading misinformation. So they shut the Internet down to stop the spread of misinformation. There are lots of plausible reasons.
And we're so used to thinking of the Internet as this kind of stable, neutral resource that we just we just take for granted and actually created a I created a game to help people really start making plans for.
What do you do if the Internet's just randomly shut off every few days or every few weeks? Could be just for a few hours. Could be for a few days each time. But we have to, like, adapt. You don't know any given day if it's going to be there or not.
I want to talk about something you mentioned there, which is the misinformation. How do we how do we get better at filtering what's real and not? And I guess in a way, thinking for ourselves about the information being presented.
Yeah, I mean, we probably shouldn't think for ourselves is part of the problem. I mean, we do we we need to have trust.
There needs to be trust in some expert or external system. I mean, if you're if you're always just sort of trusting what you think your brain is going to get you in trouble because we have all kinds of mental biases or hiccups. The brain doesn't want to the brain will always reject information that doesn't align with its current way of thinking unless you can really shake it up. You know what? At least what I try to do in future of thinking is because I know people will reject things that don't don't gel with their own experience of reality.
We know that one thing that can interrupt that and kind of force a rethinking is a really strong emotion. So when I try to when I go to this future forecasts, I try to get people to sit with, you know, a strong feeling of anger or anxiety or an.
I try to you wake up one day and this is happening, how do you feel? What do you do? And try to get an emotional component going? Because the region of the brain that sort of is constantly monitoring the environment for change that says maybe your strategies aren't working or you need to be open to information that is counter to your current beliefs, that that does get that does get jolted up by really strong emotions. So that's also how propaganda works, too.
So, you know, any good technique that can be used for good can be used for not so good.
And so maybe I mean, in a way, what we're just saying is we need to use propaganda methods, but for, you know, for good, for good.
That's that's a that's a slippery road to go down. But we need to play on people's emotions more because that's how that's how conspiracy theories work. It's how propaganda works is all based on emotion. So we can't just talk. You can't reason your way out of that. You just have to you have to trigger the emotions around, you know, facts.
Speaking of reasoning, what can we learn about making better decisions from video games?
How can you learn about making better decisions in the real world, in the real brilliance and the real.
I mean, I actually think that this is kind of meta.
But every time you play a game, you're choosing how to spend your time and attention, and that's a decision we are constantly making that is often operating at a subconscious level and we don't necessarily take ownership of it.
And if you can start to ask yourself, why am I playing this game and why did I want to play it now and start to articulate why you're making the choice to play?
I think that that actually can help you develop a clearer, more clarity in all the things you do. You know, if I'm choosing between X and Y, why might I choose one or the other?
If you can articulate the why and I think video games have been done a terrible disservice in the past couple of decades. People talk about them as just escapist fun.
And, you know, people play games really deep reasons and compelling reasons, and they play a powerful role in people's lives. And just to act like they're always just some fun that I have has really robbed people of the language and the self-knowledge to talk about why they play. So, I mean, there's a lot of other kind of decision making that goes within, goes on within a game. But even just deciding what to play when if you can understand that and talk about it, then you can start to understand all the choices that you're making in your life and what brings you benefit and why.
It seems like people people do jump on video games in some ways because it seems like everything is being game of fire these days from every job. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? How do you think about that?
Yeah, I mean, I think I'm really angry at the organizations that have tried to use game mechanics to essentially exploit what games do well in service of goals that they have, but that are not in the interests of a player or a user or an employee. Right.
I mean, when we talk about gamification, usually what we're talking about are people who are being being motivated to do something they don't want to do, whether it's like work, work harder, buy more stuff, pay longer attention or engage more in something that they probably should stop and go do something else.
And it's a really it's a it's it's a way of trying to to control people's engagement against their own interests.
And that's certainly not something that I support. Anytime I hear gamification use in that way, it makes me really angry because we should be making things that support people and doing more of what they authentically want to do.
And that brings them benefit. You know, in my own work, in my own career, I had the opportunity once to make a game for the New York Public Library, and they were celebrating their 100th anniversary and they were dealing with the problem of like young people don't go to the physical library anymore. And this is generational, just dropping off a cliff of use of the library. And so they thought, well, how can we motivate young people to do what we want them to do?
And they were like, let's game ify. It will give them points for checking out books. We'll give them achievement badges for visiting different collections. Well, that's what the library wanted them to do. But, you know, of the young people obviously didn't want to do it because they'd be doing it if they wanted to do it. And so the idea of game of buying that behavior really was just frustrating to me. So what I proposed instead was, what if I make a game that if you play the game, what you've actually done is written a book that can be printed on demand and put on a shelf at the library.
You'll be a published author with your name in the New York Public Library catalog. And then maybe you'll feel cool about hanging out in the library because that's where your book is and it will feel like home and a place of creativity. And I came to that idea by seeing a statistic that ninety two percent of young people in the US say they want to write a book someday because they feel like they have a story that's worth being told or voice is worth being heard.
And so, you know, for me, we should be making games that give people opportunity to do something that they'd love to do, but it seems like outside of their reach. So if I can make it easier for you to finish writing a book in a night or a weekend, you kind of like Nano RAYMO on steroids. You know, it's like a month long writing game or even to where everybody tries to write a novel in a month. So we did that like in a night.
Now I'm on a night and now you're an author like.
Yes. Like put that on your college application or like put check that off on your life goals accomplished. Or now you can write a second book because you know you can do it. And this next book can be one that's really even better for me. That's what people should be thinking about when making games is what are people really need help accomplishing that is meaningful and awesome.
And we should not make games to try to manipulate people into doing things that they don't want to do. That seems fair, right?
Yeah, it definitely seems fair. I think that's a great place to. In this conversation, Jane, I want to thank you so much for your time today. It's been a fascinating conversation. Oh, and thank you for having an open mind about games and about the benefit they can bring and how, you know, how we can play more and still have awesome lives. Hey, one more thing before we say goodbye to the knowledge project is produced by the team at Farnam Street.
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