Thirty thousand Mexicans are rioting in the streets after the price of tortilla flour quadrupled for the third time in three months. Hotel owners in Memphis are installing "anti-senior citizen" signs to keep away the thousands of aging Gulf Coasters trying to escape another violent season of storms. And in Georgia, an insurance company just announced they will no longer offer insurance to people living in ReDs zones -- where the ReDS (respiratory distress syndrome) pandemic is spreading like wildfire.
If this news makes you feel like the apocalypse is near, Jane McGonigal has done her job. Last year, the director of games at the Institute for the Future dreamed up and unleashed Superstruct, a six-week, real-time massively multiplayer forecasting game that imagines the world of 2019, "23 years before human extinction." Through a Web site and videos posted to YouTube, McGonigal posited five threats to human existence -- global food shortage, fuel wars, a pandemic, a refugee crisis, and upended democracy -- and asked members of the public to collaborate on devising ways around that grim, and potentially very real, future. "I'm interested in using games to figure out how can we intervene now," says McGonigal, who received more than 10,000 ideas from participants, including executives from companies such as P&G and Kraft.
McGonigal, a 31-year-old with a PhD, a mane of blond curls, and a geek's love of Webcams (her latest game, Top Secret Dance Off, features her oscillating around her San Francisco home in a cat mask), has become the high priestess of alternate realities that build massive communities of problem solvers. While she programmed her first game at age 10 on a Commodore 64, it wasn't until grad school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied "audiences," that she realized games were her calling. "I was fascinated by what happened when a bunch of strangers experience emotions together in the dark, bonding but not interacting," says McGonigal, whose first book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Change the World, will appear next year. "For that moment in time, they are this super emotionally charged community."
She has since turned this intrigue into two businesses, which include her Institute for the Future gig, and her consultancy, which educates companies such as Infosys and Nike on the value of alternate-reality games. "In the business world, everyone wants to know what Warren Buffett is doing," says Susan Gold, a chair of the International Game Developers Association. "In the gaming world, everyone wants to know, 'What's Jane McGonigal doing?' "
McGonigal works with marketers -- Microsoft for I Love Bees and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for A World Without Oil -- only when she can also use the exercise as R&D for her own explorations. Last year, she hooked up with McDonald's and digital ad shop AKQA to mastermind her first-ever alternate-reality game on a global scale. Spanning 100 countries and nine languages, The Lost Ring was an elaborate six-month hunt leading up to the Beijing Olympics that involved a global cast of characters with amnesia, a mysterious ancient sport, an invented language, and real-world missions such as finding a planted artifact at the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. "We wanted to connect with young people in a more relevant way," says Johan Jervøe, McDonald's vice president of global marketing, noting that the game ultimately lured 5 million participants. "When you see the world having to work together to solve problems" -- even if the end goal is to sell more Big Macs -- "you realize that none of us is as good as all of us."
McGonigal's next goal is to "increase global net happiness." She believes if people could experience the same emotional and physiological benefits in real life that they receive from gaming -- elation, adventurous thinking, focus -- people would be as engaged in their work and global issues as they are in World of Warcraft. However, for all the creativity that games can trigger, McGonigal concedes that they are only the first step. "Games are getting people to agree on a common goal and engage with that goal collectively for large amounts of time," says the self-styled happiness hacker. "But it's not like it's a magic button. They still have to do the problem solving when they get there." -- by Danielle Sacks