Contra Costa Times (MCT)
Jane McGonigal, from her
She hasn't had much time to dust her 2005 Webby — won for her design work on the cutting edge game "ILoveBees" — or the framed plaudits from a New York Times Year in Review, which called the game one of the most significant cultural phenomena of 2004.
Instead, the Berkeley graduate student has been jetting off to global conferences on game design, negotiating publishing rights to her just-finished doctoral dissertation, and enjoying the fame and attention that comes when MIT fetes you as one of the nation's "Top 35 Innovators Under 35."
It's an honor she shares with AIDS diagnosticians, nanotechnologists and, closer to home, Lawrence Berkeley Lab researcher Christina Galitsky, whose use of technology is preventing violence in Darfur and purifying water in Bangladesh.
"In some ways, games seem frivolous compared to solving brain cancer," McGonigal said, with a laugh. "But I'm glad they recognized that games are such a pervasive, everyday part of life for an entire generation."
But it's what McGonigal has done with those games that's so striking.
Armed with a background in theater stage management and large-scale recreation, McGonigal began designing alternate reality, urban adventure games that straddle the line between video games and real-world entertainment. They involve hundreds, thousands and sometimes a million people playing in public spaces and non-traditional venues _ cemeteries, airports and city squares.
In the case of ILoveBees, it was phone booths. The 2004 project was designed to accompany and heighten interest in the release of Halo2, a video game with a rabid following. But Bees wasn't a video game.
"It was an amazing story-rich immersion and you (could) also live it," McGonigal said. "Have a real face-to-face social experience."
McGonigal was the lead community interface designer for 42 Entertainment, an Emeryville, Calif., alternate reality game company, and one of four so-called puppetmasters who designed and ran the project. She created the real-world missions for players, monitored those phone booth happenings and served as the game-player pipeline that allowed the game to change and evolve as it was played.
And her gigs teaching game design and culture classes at the University of California-Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute, whose students included more than a few Bee-addicts, gave her added insights into the types of activities that most engaged players.
"It was a truly compelling innovation," said University of California-Berkeley professor Greg Niemeyer, who teaches game design and game rhetoric. "You could play for free. (You) could explore different contexts. The puppetmasters could change the game. It was deeply fascinating."
McGonigal and the designers at 42 Entertainment went on to produce other, alternate reality games, including "Last Call Poker," which had poker players anteing up in historic cemeteries.
So far, so good for a 29-year-old on a mission to change the world, one fantastic adventure at a time.
Leaning across the kitchen table in her Berkeley apartment, a warm scarf snugged closely around her throat and Meche — her beloved black and white sheltie puppy, named after a character in a video game, of course — snuggled at her side, McGonigal talked about collective intelligence, social responsibility and her hope that ultimately, games can promote democracy.
"A few of us in the Bay Area are working on, what are games teaching us? What are the kinds of literacies taught by gaming?" McGonigal said. "How do you become a good player, a good citizen in a massively networked community? How does an individual function in a collective intelligence? It's not about individual success, it's your ability to contribute."
Games like ILoveBees and its predecessor, The Beast, operated as a collective intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of people pooled their knowledge and skills to solve problems in the game. McGonigal says it's similar to the way computers can be networked together to expand their processing power,
"We're asking people to be wetware," she said. "We are the processors."
And for a generation that's dabbled in games like these, expectations have changed.
"It's a sandbox where you can create anything you want," McGonigal said. "And this sense that the world is flexible is trickling back to people's feelings about the real world. Why aren't the physical spaces in the real world as social as the areas in (the game)? You develop a taste in people to want to have a physical impact — and it's good for democracy. The question is, how can we make games that improve culture?"
That's what McGonigal will be exploring at the MacArthur Foundation and a Palo Alto think tank, the Institute for the Future, beginning this month. On hiatus from the land of the Bees, she'll be designing games that allow people in 2007 to temporarily inhabit future worlds, merge intellects and solve problems far, far outside any box.
(c) 2007, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
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