Jane McGonigal is the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future. She is a designer of alternate reality games that challenge players to tackle real-world problems such as hunger, climate change, and poverty.

Jane’s best-known work includes EVOKE, Superstruct, World Without Oil, Cruel 2 B Kind, Find the Future, and The Lost Ring. These games have been featured in The New York Times, Wired, and The Economist, and on MTV, CNN, and NPR.

Jane currently teaches the course “How to Think Like a Futurist” at Stanford University. Her TED talks named “How games can make a better world” and “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life” has more than 15 million views.

Jane is the New York Times bestselling author of Reality is Broken, SuperBetter, and her newest book IMAGINABLE: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Why gaming is good for the world–kids take note!
  • How people draw a C in front of their forehead can tell you a lot about them
  • How to probe the details of empathy

Enjoy this interview with Jane McGonigal!

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Jane McGonigal:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. I'm on a mission to make you remarkable. This episode's guest is Jane McGonigal.
She is the director of games, research, and development at the Institute for the Future.
She is a designer of alternate reality games that challenge players to tackle real world problems, such as hunger, climate change, and poverty.
Jane's best-known work includes Evoke, SuperStruct, World Without Oil, Cruel to be Kind, Find the Future, and The Lost Ring.
These games have been featured in the New York Times, Wired, and The Economist.
Jane currently teaches the course, How to Think Like a Futurist, at Stanford.
Her TED talks named How Games Can Make a Better World, and The Game that Can Give You 10 Extra Years of Life, have more than fifteen million views.
Jane is the New York Times bestselling author of Reality is Broken, SuperBetter, and her newest book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything, Even Things That Seem Impossible Today.
In this episode, among many other things, you'll learn why gaming is good for the world.
Kids take note, how people draw a C in front of their forehead can tell you a lot about them and how to probe the details of empathy.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People, and now, here's the remarkable Jane McGonigal.
This morning, I told my son gaming is good for you. Gaming teaches you empowerment, efficacy, and teamwork, and how you can accomplish epic things, and it transfers to your real life. Did I get that right?
Jane McGonigal:
Yes. Pretty much 100 percent, and now you are dad of the year.
Guy Kawasaki:
I don't know if I'm husband of the year, but I could be dad of the year. Could you start off by discussing SuperStruct and walk us through this scenario, or this philosophy, or perspective, of how gaming can change the future?
Jane McGonigal:
Yes. So let's rewind the clock and start from the beginning, which is the idea that gamers have skills, and they would like to apply them to some real role problems. That's the research topic that I was investigating in my graduate studies.
And I graduated from UC Berkeley and I'm like, "There's millions of gamers and they want to do something real. They want to not just save the virtual world. They want to save the real world. What can we design that would bridge their experiences in games with the complexities of reality? Is there anything we can ask gamers to do that will actually help or is this delusional that gamers can save the real world?”
There were definitely skeptics, but, I was lucky enough to find myself working with the Institute for the Future, which is a nonprofit in Palo Alto. They help people think about the challenges we might face in the future, what we can do to get ready, how we can build the future we want, not just avoid risk, but also make a better world.
And they said, "Why don't you make a game, and we'll see if gamers can help us understand the complexities and uncertainties of different challenges we might face?"
Because gamers are really good with understanding possibilities. When you play a game, you're constantly wondering, if I tried this what might happen? If I tried that, what might happen? They say that there are more possible variations of chess than there are atoms in the universe. Not a metaphor, actual mathematical fact.
So I created as one of my first projects with the Institute for the Future, SuperStruct. It was just under 10,000 ordinary people agreed to spend six weeks imagining and simulating in relation with each other how they would survive a series of cascading crises that started with a respiratory pandemic.
And, you may know guys are futurists. You're always looking at least ten years ahead, so this was 2008. We set the game in 2019.
So, it's the fall of 2019 and there's the worst pandemic the world has ever seen is just getting underway. And we had some other issues like supply chain breakdowns, how are you going to feed your family? How are you going to get what you need when the supply chain is broken?
We were looking at global conspiracy groups, misinformation campaigns on social media, which there was social media back in 2008, even though it seems like a long time ago, we were just starting to think about this and how misinformation would spread.
And, we just asked people, “What would you do? How would you adapt? What would you need? What would you worry about? How would you try to help others?”
And, we created this virtual social network.
It was like hanging out on Facebook, but it was just with these other 10,000 people, and you were just talking about the future crises.
So posting, "Here's what I did today. Can anyone help me with this? I have an idea." Almost like a real social network, but it's all set in the future, and it's all imaginary.
But what is amazing is that when the real 2019 rolled around, we were living through pretty much the world that we had forecast, and so I've spent the past couple of years following up with these participants and with participants of other simulations that we've run on pandemics and similar topics to see, “Sid you live through this differently?”
And, what they did. There was less shock. There was less anxiety. There was less hopelessness or feelings of powerlessness. People reacted faster. They got what they needed. They felt more confident that they could help others.
And the things that people predicted they would do, people actually did.
So our research, we were asking people you've been told to quarantine, you've been told to isolate, under what circumstances would you say, "No, I got to go anyway? I got to leave. I got to leave. I don't care if I'm supposed to stay at home."
And people said religious services, number one reason that they would violate a quarantine or isolation orders. They said weddings. They said funerals.
Of course, these all turned out to be the super spreading events, the hardest thing to shut down in society for people's safety. And not only did people feel less shock and anxiety, and experience just a little bit less suffering through the real crisis, but it was good data. It was really good data.
So now, what you said to your son, “Gamers can save the world”, it does give you real skills and prepare you for the future.
I think we are now starting to see that at least this game where you imagine the future and what you would need and how you would help, it really can set you up for success.
Guy Kawasaki:
So just so I can get a head start, what's Super Struck Two?
Jane McGonigal:
Yes. All right, so you've got to read all the way to the end of my new book, Imaginable, because I have-
Guy Kawasaki:
I did.
Jane McGonigal:
Okay, all right. For your listeners. I have three new scenarios.
There are fifteen scenarios in the book, but the three at the end of the book are essentially Super Struck Two. What's the next ten, fifteen years of most extreme disruption that we can try to think optimistically about and with some urgency at the same time.
Because these games are designed to create urgent optimism, not just that everything will work out on his own like, "Yay. I don't have to worry. It'll be fine." But, urgent optimism, like there are things we can do to solve our problems, solve conflicts, make a better world.
One of the big topics will be climate migration, which I live in California, and a lot of people are already living through the early days of I don't want to live through extreme wildfires for months every year. I don't want to live through extreme air pollution for months every year, extreme temperatures, extreme heat.
More than a third of Americans last year suffered through extreme heat to the degree that it affected their physical health, and their mental health.
So, just starting to think ... and again, we don't have to be overwhelmed or feel dread about this, but in all likelihood, we will be moving around the planet to adapt to extreme weather, and we might be living in higher densities than we have before.
I used to live in Manhattan. I'm okay with being surrounded by a lot of people, but more of us will probably have to accept that there will be some degree of climate change, at least for a few decades, until we get to the next scenario, which is geoengineering when we try to reverse it, which is another optimistic possible scenario.
Can we get used to the idea of living in higher density? And can we improve our welcoming skills? Let's just all be ready to welcome whoever has to move, or think about where we might need to make a new home in the future.
Sometimes when I talk to people about climate migration, it sounds like too much to think about. “I don't want to think about having to leave my home”, or “I don't want to have to think about doubling the population of my current city or country.”
What would the United States with twice as many people look like if we decided to have more equitable border policies and allow people to seek safety for their family? But we have a decade.
That's why we like to think ten or more years ahead. Let's give ourselves some time to acclimate to these difficult ideas and have tough conversations, and experiment with strategies and see if we can get in the mindset.
For me, that's one of the biggest things. Can we get in a mindset of being welcoming and living in higher density? That's a challenge we can start to tackle now, and in ten or twenty years, we're going to be good at it, so it'll be great.
Guy Kawasaki:
I must admit that as I was reading your book, one of the things I did last night was I started looking at homes in Australia.
Jane McGonigal:
Oh, yeah. Yes, I do the same thing.
I've been looking in Ireland. I've been trying to think of where could I go? My ancestors are from Ireland, maybe I'll go homeward.
When you design a game, you're trying to give players an immersive experience of a world that doesn't exist yet, whether it's a virtual world, it's a fantasy world.
In these future simulations, I have to create experiences that help people really put themselves in these futures so it's not so abstract. There's this survey in the book, it's a global census on climate risk tolerance and intention to migrate, and there are all of these tools online.
You can come and play these games online with a community of people. We've already got several hundred people gaming these out, and the book isn't even out yet. That is good.
And you can actually click on links and look around the planet. Where are the regions that are supposed to be most conducive to human flourishing in the next few decades? And, investigate.
And it's interesting to know, and it's good to have this data and to let our curiosity move us. And you may learn other things as we investigate other regions. There's opportunity for just experimenting who might we be in the future? The future will be different, but we will be different too.
Who would you be if you lived in Australia? Maybe you could start trying some of those things today. I hear you have to be pretty adventurous ... is really good for Australia ... start doing some things to build your adventure callouses.
Guy Kawasaki:
It might not be rational to try to avoid California forest fires by moving to Australia.
Jane McGonigal:
Yeah, actually Australia, probably a lot of people are going to be moving.
Well, Australia, they're projected potentially to have a real contraction of density, which is interesting.
I can recommend Ireland. Ireland is top three Nordic countries.
It's funny, one of the safest places is in Siberia essentially, long term climate risk. It's hard to imagine a bunch of people moving there to start a new super resilient welcome city, but it is interesting to try to stretch our mind to consider things that seem unthinkable today.
Guy Kawasaki:
Based on your research, what are your thoughts about raising a teenager? Are you thrusting an iPad in your child's hands?
Jane McGonigal:
Yes. So, my kids are a little bit younger than that. I have seven-year-old twin daughters right now and yes, we're doing a lot of technology.
It's interesting. We have friends who are going the opposite way of no screens, no internet.
I don't think that is setting kids up for success, but let me just practically speaking, we have an hour of outdoor time, or an hour of physical activity for every hour of screen time.
That's how I balance my life. If I want to play Fortnite for an hour, I better have gone hiking for an hour first, or whatever it is.
So our kids are doing that too. I think the most important thing from a young age, especially as we move forward with whether it's going to be the Metaverse, or whatever relationship we'll have with virtual worlds, we don't want kids to think of them as separate from their real lives or their real identities.
If we think of virtual worlds as escapist or not real, our behavior is worse in those worlds, right? We bully each other. We do behaviors that we would not consider ethical in real life, and when we develop strengths and skills in those games and virtual worlds, if we think the games aren't real life, then we're less likely to bring them to our real lives.
So the main thing I'm trying to do is help my kids understand that when you play a game, whatever you're good at in that game, you're good at all of your life.
And we try not to use the language of real world versus game worlds or virtual worlds. We talk about your whole life and that you can bring all of those strengths and skills with you to school, or to sports, or to learning a new language, or learning the piano, which they're doing.
And I think that is, from a mental health perspective, very important for kids at a young age to make sure they understand it's all connected. It's not real versus virtual.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wait, but Jane, now heads are exploding all over the internet listening to us, because moms are thinking, "Oh my God, my son is really good at Call of Duty.”
So now Jane is saying oh, he's really good at guns on Call of Duty and that's going to-
Jane McGonigal:
No, no, no. All right, this is great. It's never content. It's never the content of the game. It's always the verbs of the game.
What are the verbs. What is your child doing? From my previous book, SuperBetter, I have some questions.
It's like, "How do you talk to your kids about games to help them understand the connection to their real strengths and real abilities so that you can understand?" So, you just ask your son, "What does it take to be good at Call of Duty? Or, what have you gotten better at? Or, what's the hardest thing you've accomplished in this gaming group and how did you achieve it? What did that take?"
And, just to start reflecting. I want to understand, because any parent who's tried to play any of those games, the first time you try, you're like, "Okay, wait. I get." It's hard, there is skill involved. I don't have the skill yet.
Start that conversation. It could be “I can stay calm under pressure. I am really good at being flexible in the moment if I have to change my strategy. I'm really adaptive. I'm a good communicator. I'm talking to my team. I'm always asking the right questions, so nobody feels like they're out of the strategy.”
Whatever it is, it's all of those verbs and it's not the pictures on the screen is not what is transferrable.
Guy Kawasaki:
I'm glad we clarified that because mom's are putting little pieces of their brain back into their head right now. So, that's good that we clarified that.
Jane McGonigal:
It's okay, it's okay. We shouldn't shame anybody for loving to play games, and that's also an important part of the mental health aspects of gaming.
A lot of people play games because that is a real and important driver of feelings like mastering and competency and growth and connection, and you get emotions like joy and delight and surprise and curiosity.
So, we shouldn't shame anybody for getting these things from games because that creates ... Again, who needs another divide in society? We already have so many divides that we are going to spend the next fifty years healing so the last thing we need is games. Of all ridiculous things to have a sense of what's wrong with you, games should not be one of those things.
Guy Kawasaki:
You mentioned what I think is one of the most fascinating exercises I have ever read about, and this is the one about asking people to trace a C. Can you talk about that? That is ... My head was exploding when I read that.
Jane McGonigal:
Oh, okay. Great. I love that you love that experiment.
I always try to bring in research from psychology and neuroscience that is just very practical. If you want to try this at home, you can do this but you have to do it with a partner.
So, this is an experiment that can help you see what mindset you're in.
Are you really stuck inside your own body, your own mind? You see everything from your point of view? Or, are you more zoomed out? You have more perspective, you can see it from more an omniscience and really take into account all the different points of view.
So, a simple way that you check in on people's mindset is you ask them to trace the letter C right in front of their forehead with their finger. Not touching their forehead, but just right in front of it.
You know the experiment, but what would you do just naturally without thinking? How would you trace it?
Some people trace it so that it's facing them correctly. They put their finger in the air and the C looks right to them, but to someone sitting across from them, it would be backwards. And other people instinctively trace the C the other way, which I do, which is it's backwards to me but you would see it correctly.
Now, it's not you're a selfish narcissistic monster if you trace it so that you would see it rather than somebody else, but what was really interesting to me was that when we asked people to think about the far future, imagine yourself taking a walk on the beach ten years from now versus imagining yourself taking a walk on the beach tomorrow or next week, people who normally naturally make the C so they can see it, make it so that others would see it.
And so, there's something about thinking about the far future that allows us to get out of our own really local, fixed, stuck mindset in our own bodies and that we take this more expansive view and can take in other people's points of view, which makes the future a really great space to hang out, especially when we're living through very divisive times.
If we can be together in the future rather hang having to be together in the present, it seems to be easier to take other people's needs and values and perspectives into account.
I'm so glad you mentioned that. You're the first person to ask me about that.
Guy Kawasaki:
So, I understand what you said about it changes how people draw the C when you think about the future.
But to go back to your, I guess, denial, it's not a Rorschach test for whether you're an asshole right now. You can't go and say, "Okay, everybody draw a C and then all the people who draw it with their perspective versus the other person's perspective ..." That's not a reasonable, logical scientific conclusion to draw.
Jane McGonigal:
No, and different people will do it differently just depending. If you're really just thinking about "Here's what I got to do today. Here's what my goals are. Here's my to-do list," if you're really keyed in on your life, your goals, then you might be more likely to trace it so you can see it.
But when you're relaxed, you're time spacious, you're able to take in ... I've never read not one study that said this is a diagnostic tool for being an asshole.
So, that's the good news but maybe on a first date, it would be an interesting thing. I always tell people when I first started studying gaming at UC Berkeley, one of the professors there, you may know, Dacher Keltner ...
He studies emotion and how they express in the face and how it helps us basically be better humans, the more emotion we can express and interpret. And, one of his areas of research was on the little wrinkles around your eyes that are the hallmark of a genuine smile when you-
Guy Kawasaki:
A Duchenne?
Jane McGonigal:
Yes, exactly. The Duchenne wrinkle. So I was going to write a dating book. I was still a single at the time, I wasn't married, and I was like, "We just need a dating book." It's one page. The rest of the book is blank, but it's just does the person you're dating have Duchenne wrinkles? If not, keep moving.
Swipe the other way because if somebody has good Duchenne wrinkles, I'm just like "I trust this person. I know that they are a warm and loving spirit."
My husband, he looks like he's ninety years old. He's forty-five, but his Duchenne wrinkles are so deep he looks like he's about to celebrate his centennial.
Guy Kawasaki:
If you look at pictures of Richard Branson, his wrinkles are like the Grand Canyon.
Jane McGonigal:
It's not just for being a good person, but how well do you relate to other people? If you're an empathetic person, you reflect back the emotion you're see ... So, maybe we'll use Duchenne wrinkles as the diagnostic, and then the C test as just an interesting curiosity experiment.
Guy Kawasaki:
People at eHarmony are rewriting their tests right now.
Jane McGonigal:
The new facial recognition app. It doesn't care who you are, it just wants to see your wrinkles.
Guy Kawasaki:
Or just draw a C. That'll be the whole eHarmony test.
You mentioned a case where you talked to these car manufactures, and they all said autonomous driving ain't going to happen. People want to feel the power of the speed, the control, all that. And here we are, years later, and everybody's striving for that.
So, what do you think changed their minds?
Jane McGonigal:
So one of the biggest pitfalls we have when thinking about the future is that we assume that one set of values will dominate for all people everywhere for all time.
I was invited to talk to this car company about how gaming technologies might be integrated into vehicles in the future, which now, that's definitely a thing, but this was more than a decade ago.
And I asked them what they were thinking about autonomous vehicles, and this was their innovation team, and they were really not bullish on the idea because they had this perception of ... particularly in America ... this idea of freedom.
That there's nothing more American than owning a car and being able to go wherever you want whenever you want. This idea that the fundamental value was freedom, and it was a specific kind of freedom to control this machine and control your mobility.
And what was problematic about that, and I think why they had to ultimately revisit their assumptions, was that first of all, younger people today have a different idea of freedom.
It's not control over a machine. It's freedom from the expense of having a car, freedom from the anxiety. Most young people are not getting their driver's license ... This is some of the statistics in the book. They're not turning sixteen and it's like License to Drive.
When I was growing, Corey Haim, "Let me get my driver's test," and you had to do it. Most people are delaying driver's license and the number one reason they say is that because it makes them anxious.
There's just too much danger involved in driving a car, too many accidents, too much injury, and freedom from anxiety. That's another kind of freedom. Maybe they're more concerned with carbon impact than previous generations were with their own individual freedom.
They want to be free of fossil fuel addiction. So, we have to keep an open mind about values shifting, and new generations really expressing themselves, and a different set of values.
And what we're really going to see automated vehicle doing first is long distance truck driving. That's for sure the field that will be fastest disrupted by this, and it's a good thing.
I used to talk to some VCs that were investing in automated technologies, and they were worried about all of the truck drivers they were going to put out of work.
So through them, I learned that the number one job for men in America is distance truck driving. There are more long distance truck drivers than any other profession for men in the United States. The biggest group-
Guy Kawasaki:
Jane McGonigal:
Yes, and so this VC group was like, "Oh, we're going to accidentally foment social disorders, civil unrest, when all of these men lose their jobs at the same time because of our trucks."
Guy Kawasaki:
All you have to do is tell them to get vaccinated and you would foment all that problem.
Jane McGonigal:
But, it turns out people hate that job. That job is physically so demanding and burdensome. There's so much physical pain involved. You're away from your community, your friends, your family.
There's so much use of speed and drugs to stay awake. It's terrible. They don't want this job. We should automate it, and we have to make sure we're looking at the future from the point of view of people who will be affected.
We shouldn't be scared of putting long distance truck drivers out of a job because they can't even find people to do that job anymore. People hate the job so much.
There's a truck driver shortage, which is part of the reason we have supply chain issues right now. They can't get things to where they need to go. And, that's why we run these social simulations of the future. And, you know what? I like the future, actually. I know you think it sounds dystopian but to me, this sounds like a future I'd want to wake up in for X, Y and Z.
Guy Kawasaki:
Probably that car manufacturer was German, but I would make the case that you look at the attraction of Lyft. You don't own the car. You don't have to park the car, et cetera, et cetera. And, you don't have to drive the car.
So to me, that's a near term sense of an autonomous vehicle. You're not driving, you don't own it, you don't have to park it. Look how many people love that, and you're telling me no one else is going to want a car like that? There is just no way.
Jane McGonigal:
Right, and that's a new version of freedom. It's freedom of attention. Instead of having to pay attention to the road, I'm free to play games, or learn my language, or read a book, or whatever it is.
Guy Kawasaki:
It's very clear that the pandemic is going to force a break with the past and imagine a whole new world, but how do we ensure, or at least increase the probability that we have posttraumatic growth versus posttraumatic stress?
Jane McGonigal:
Right. I love how you phrased that question, and I want to start by saying you actually probably can't have posttraumatic growth without the stress first. It's not a binary.
One of the biggest predictors of experiencing posttraumatic growth is that you actually had some symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, because the growth comes out of wrestling with the suffering that you've been through of trying to make meaning out of what you've been through.
So it's necessarily good news, but I always tell people, because this is an area of my active research and I designed a game to help people experience posttraumatic growth, is that you haven't failed.
If you feel like you're traumatized, trauma is part of it. You're not now ruled out of posttraumatic growth.
The suffering is part of it. I think what will bring meaning to the suffering that we've been through, the loss that many of us have experienced, the grief and the anger we've had at other people's failures to act or how other people have acted is to find something bigger to be of service to based on our own lived experience of this pandemic.
And for different people, that arises in different ways. Some people have been radicalized around cash payments. To see how much suffering was alleviated by small cash transfers that were not dependent on jumping through hoops and paperwork and bureaucracy, just give people the basic means to survive so that they can do the important unpaid work of caring for their family or their community.
If you too were radicalized by it and you can't believe the benefit for the relative low cost, then you might devote yourself to making that a reality for the long-term, whether it's universal basic income or some other form, child credits, whatever it is, so that we can allow people to feel less anxiety and feel like they can spend just a little bit of that time and energy on caring and self-care.
But we have to look for that spark to bring to the future. What world do we want to build out of this? That will help it go from just a traumatic experience to something that is a springboard for something better.
Guy Kawasaki:
But, we're not all Andrew Yang's here. So, what does the average Joe or Jane do, having posttraumatic pandemic stress now?
Jane McGonigal:
What I have found people really liked doing most in this book is the little brainstorming game at the end called Pack Your Bags for the Future.
So, Pack Your Bags for the Future, you answer four questions about the skills, abilities, the knowledge, passions, communities, and values that you will bring to any future. What do you know how to do better than most people? What do you know more about than most people? What are you more passionate about than most people? And, what communities do you belong to?
You answer these questions and there's different prompts to think about, "Oh, well yeah, right. I'm part of the diaspora. That's a community. I'm in a therapy group. That's a community."
So, you come up with all of these things that you bring to any future, and people will actually write this down. You put it on the wall. I've got game design on my list. I've got trip planning. I've got keeping wildfire smoke out of my house. I've got some practical skills. I've got my values. I want to help people who aren't scientists understand science so that they can support progressive scientifically valid policies.
Your write this all down, and then whatever future we wake up in, whether it's a future affected by climate or by war, or a novel virus, this is your superpower list. And, we look for ways to do that.
Let's say you're a fashion influencer. Whatever change you want to make in the future you're posting on Instagram every day with your amazing outfit, just start wearing tee-shirts or have something in every photo that's a references to universal basic income. You're not Andrew Yang, but if you've got people looking at your Instagram account, you have to start putting that out there.
I always say the smallest thing you could do, just make a tee-shirt. Write it by hand if you need to…”Ask me about”, and then whatever it is you're passionate about so that you can become a voice for new ideas in your community and whoever you encounter.
We can all use our own voices and actions to spread the ideas that will make a better world, even if we aren't in a position of power to enact global change today.
So, pack your bags for the future and then you look at the list and be like, "Okay, how can I make a game for this?"
When we were simulating pandemics back in 2008 and 2010, I was thinking about my game design work and I'm like, "We're going to have to make games to encourage people to stay home, because if there's one thing we know about gamers, they have this reputation for being social misfits. They just want to sit in their basements by themselves. They don't want to go out into the real world.”
But hey, during a pandemic, it's great to stay at home by yourself. So I'm like, "All right, in the future ..." I'm just imagining. This is fictional, more than a decade ago. I'm going to work with the CDC. We're going to support people in playing games so they stay socially connected.
Fast forward to March 2020, all the big game developers, Activision, Blizzard, Nintendo, they are putting out messages with the World Health Organization supporting people to play games so that you can stay happy, stay socially connected, not go crazy while we're all isolated.
We can imagine using these skills and then we can do it. And then, I had the chance when the real pandemic happened. I was talking to the Culture of Ministry in Korea. They were like, "Help us explain to parents why it's okay that their kids are gaming during the shutdown."
So, I was able to use that skill and I was prepared. I had already just filed it away, just in case.
Guy Kawasaki:
That's great.
Jane McGonigal:
It's one of my superpowers.
Guy Kawasaki:
All right. So, there are two thoughts in the book that I read over and over and over, and I still can't quite grasp what it means. And so, I don't know if they reinforce each other or they conflict with each other, so I want you to take the scales off my eyes.
Jane McGonigal:
Guy Kawasaki:
So the first thought is more or less a quote. “You don't have to imagine future benefit for a particular behavior today to feel motivated to do that behavior. “And then, number two is you also say later, “It's harder to take actions that benefit future selves.” So, can you explain a-
Jane McGonigal:
There's a third piece, which is that some people have more empathy for their future selves than others. And, if we can create empathy for our future selves, then we make choices that benefit our future selves.
So we have to start with the weird thing that neuroscientists have discovered, which is that there's a region of the brain when we think about ourselves, our most important goals, our life narrative identity, how do I wake up every day knowing that I'm Jane McGonigal? Where does that consistency of identity come from?
That region of the brain powers down when we think about our future selves and our brain acts, instead, like we're thinking about a stranger, or worse, sometimes it acts like we're thinking about people we really dislike. We feel like we have nothing in common with them, that divisiveness.
This is just a weird neurological blip in the system, but what it does is it makes us more likely to take action today that benefits our present self. Let's say, I am trying to eat healthier because I want to have more energy.
And I've got this long-term health goal, but me, there's ten boxes of Girl Scout cookies because my kids are Girl Scouts, and present me is I got to have some Samoas.
If I feel like future me is a stranger or future me is someone I have nothing in common with, why would I give up something present me wants for future me? Same with retirement. It feels like giving money to a stranger.
Why would I put money away for retirement? Future me is a literally a stranger to my brain. So, that's the problem that certain imagination techniques, certain futurist thinking habits can help solve.
And so, this is where we come back to the first idea that you were trying to puzzle out.
Any type of imagining that connects us to our futurist self ... What's something you like to do for fun?
Guy Kawasaki:
Jane McGonigal:
Surf? Okay, so Guy, I want you to imagine yourself surfing somewhere ten years from now. But I want you to think, so you're going to be ten years older so there might be some changes to your body.
There might be some changes to the weather patterns by then, or you might be living somewhere else or visiting ... Where might you be surfing? Take in account the differences and then you visual it as clearly as you can.
When you do things like that, then you're more likely to do things that will allow Future Guy to be strong enough to surf, have the financial means to travel somewhere to surf, to have a climate that is conducive to surfing, safe, not extreme waves that we have to run in danger of.
So, what is cool is that all of that will ripple effect into any future decision making. You could imagine future you surfing but it will make you more likely to vote. That's another thing.
It's more beneficial to future us than present us. We vote today, they don't even take office for however many months. They're in office for months or years before they actually pass anything.
Politics takes a really long time. If we want to give up our time and energy today to participate in democracy, we have to have empathy for the futurist self that will benefit five years from now when change actually happens.
It's just cool. Any empathy you build for your futurist self, it will affect all long-term beneficial behaviors.
So, you don't have to picture yourself being rich in the future to increase your financial savings.
Anything you do to think about future self will help you make long term choices.
I hope that clears it up a little bit.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yes. So, just to see if I got this right, let's say ten years from now, I want to be surfing in Australia. Still able to surf. So, just thinking about that future might lead me to not eat as many Samoas today?
Jane McGonigal:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It's complicated. You have to have agency and efficacy in other parts of your life. You have to have an alternative.
Do you have access to fresh fruits and vegetables? This is not a magic pill.
We have to create an environment. We have to set ourselves up for success. If you're choosing between a Samoa and an apple, that fantasy, that little mental time travel you did, choose the apple.
So, let me know. Write me later and let me know if you find yourself weirdly making good choices for future you.
Guy Kawasaki:
Whatever it takes. Okay.
I jotted down five techniques here, which I think, in a sense, would be a good handbook for businesses to avoid being the next Kodak, or the next Xerox, or the next Blockbuster.
And they are; be ridiculous, turn the world upside, look for clues, practice hard empathy ... Oh, that's four. Yeah, those four.
And I think you can make a ton of money just telling people how to be innovative by explaining those four things.
Jane McGonigal:
First of all, I love that.
Historically, one of my strengths or weaknesses as it were is when I make games, they're free. Oh, would you like to change your life? Come play my game. Everything I do, I'm like "Free, free. Here, have this. It's in the creative comments. I don't need to copyright it."
I appreciate your thinking about monetizing in a way because I actually teach all this stuff on Coursera, because Coursera is free for learners all over the world. I want anybody to have access to these skills, so of course I just stupidly just teach it for free to anybody.
But actually, I do value that. But yeah, turn the world upside down is a good one because it's so easy to do, and sometimes I do work with executives, people in leadership, and this technique sounds so dumb and easy and trivial, they can't ...
For a really important leadership group, it has to be really complex and intimidating-
Guy Kawasaki:
Two by two.
Jane McGonigal:
Yeah. Oh, the two by two, yes. The classic future is two by two.
So, I do this with all kinds of groups, and it always generates creative ideas, and what I see is this creative energy, this freeing ourselves from assumptions.
So, what you do is you make a list of up to 100 things that are true today, and usually people focus on their industry or their organization, or their community, whatever they're thinking about. I work with teachers. They do 100 things that are true about learning today. If I do it for people who work in healthcare. 100 things that are true about healthcare.
And you make this list and then you just rewrite the list so that the opposite is true. I work with shoe companies, so we have this list, and most people own more than one pair of shoes.
Shoes aren't free. You have to pay for them. Most people don't sleep with their shoes on. That's not a cultural norm. And, you come up with all these things and then you just rewrite them. So, in the future, ten years from now, shoes are free. Okay, ten years from now, most people only own one pair of shoes. ten years from, many people sleep with their shoes on. And, you come up with this list of completely absurd possibilities.
But then what you do, which is the fun part, the challenging part, is you just start looking for clues that could make sense of them. Why would somebody only own one pair of shoes?
Well, look at what's happening with flight shaming. People started getting shamed about taking unnecessary air travel. We now know that fast fashion is one of the top three or four contributors to carbon emissions, so maybe we'll get shoe shamed in the future if you're on Nextdoor, and the way that people post about people who didn't pick up their dog poop or whatever they're shaming people about on Nextdoor, in the future, it's, "Look, Guy had on a different pair of shoes today than on Monday. Too much fashion."
And that's so sounds ridiculous. We're trying to be ridiculous, because we're trying to conjure possibilities that seem unthinkable or seem unimaginable to force us to challenge our assumptions and question our beliefs about what can or cannot change. And anyway, it's just such a fun technique. You just write your list of facts.
It may take you a while. Why would people sleep with their shoes on? I've been working with shoe companies since 2000 ... Oh my God, 2008. It took me a long time to come up with a plausible explanation for why people would sleep with their shoes on, and that was actually because I've lived through something.
I was advised by a Red Cross evacuation and rescue expert, because we were living through wildfire alerts and evacuations, that we should sleep with our shoes on because the number one injury people suffer during evacuations is foot injuries, and they panic and they lose time trying to escape because their feet are hurt or they can't find their shoes, so just sleep with your shoes on.
And we were so traumatized by all of these evacuations, we couldn't sleep. You're just up all night waiting to be told to leave, and I could just imagine people like me who live through years and years of this, you just sleep with your shoes on.
Now, does Nike need to care about that? No, Nike doesn't need to ... I don't know why. Maybe they want to make sleeping shoes? I don't know. Maybe we do care that people's lives and their choices and what they consume and own will be affected by extreme weather in ways that we haven't had to live through before.
Guy Kawasaki:
Sure. If you're a car manufacturer and you were to do this, you would say, "Okay, so 50 percent of people are not going to even get their license and the other 50 percent don't want to buy a car, and no houses have garages, and no inner cities have parking lots."
And so, what does that mean for you? You should think about that because that's happening. You can say that now.
Jane McGonigal:
Yeah. Thinking about what you would do without a car is one of the easiest unstick your mind activities that you can do if you are used to having one.
Just because when you have one, there's so many assumptions and choices that you make that are dependent upon that, but if cars are banned where you live ... We're seeing so much interest in banning cars from city centers, maybe that will extend.
Even just at a practical level, not an organizational level or corporate strategy, but just individually, if cars are banned, what would you do? What would you change?
And then, allow that curiosity and creative thinking to maybe you might decide you actually want to try some of those changes now. Maybe it sounds good to you.
Guy Kawasaki:
I have a question about looking for clues. No matter what you think about Facebook/Meta, and a lot of people think VR is overrated, is never going to happen, those things make you look stupid, but I saw a clue. I think it's a clue. I'm asking you is this a clue?
So, Facebook sent me an Oculus, and I let my kids try it, and one of the games they found is a game called Plank. The way Plank works is you get in this elevator. It drops you off on the 100th floor and there's a plank and you have to walk out on the plank. This is in my living room. I know it's in my living room. I know there's a safe zone because of how Oculus works. I could not walk out of the elevator.
And to me, that is a clue that ... I don't know about the Meta the company, but Meta the verse is real.
Jane McGonigal:
The transformative power of virtual reality is real. I agree with you completely on that.
So, let's talk about two signals.
Virtual reality has the power to do so much good, particularly I think when it can ease suffering. I have a Zen Buddhist practice, everything I do I'm just thinking, "Is this going to actually alleviate suffering in a real way?"
And so, people in end-of-life care, people in hospice care, the way that VR is being used to empower them to visit places they haven't been since they were young or to feel emotions, to access beauty, and grand visions, to fly with the butterflies, it's extraordinary. It's Nobel Prize worthy, I think.
Some people are experimenting with taking drugs to create profound, spiritual change. That's also increasingly acceptable, but VR, it can be that transcendent and transformative emotionally.
Could we have VR in other environments where people are constrained? We incarcerate so many people and when they leave prison, they are not generally better off than when they started.
Could we have VR in these places who support some dignity and support wellbeing. There are important things for VR to do. That said, I'll share with you a signal that really changed my perspective on VR.
I was talking to somebody who's heavily invested in VR technologies, and he started hearing from multiple people ... so people of color, women of color, that they would never see themselves as long term regular VR users because they didn't feel safe having something on their head that so significantly blocked awareness of their physical environment.
Whether it's from a past trauma, maybe it's irrational, but there's a trauma about needing to be vigilant. Or maybe it's a real concern that I need to be aware of what surrounds me.
We also see this with parents, people who have young children, also feel like I just can't put something on my head that is going to make it harder for me to be aware of my young child.
And so anyway, this investor was like, "Forget it. I'm done. I'm done with VR. I don't think this is ever going to be an equitable technology because too many people don't feel safe completely blocking their field of vision and their awareness."
And I have to say, when he said that to me, I was like, "You know what? I've had hesitations about VR, too, because I don't enjoy it physically or mentally." But when he said that, I was like that makes a lot of sense to me and that's a great example of hard empathy, as you said.
This is somebody who feels very secure and safe and has never had an issue like this, but he was able to hear that and to pivot to working in audio, which we now know immersive audio is so much better, I think, from an experiential standpoint, from an equity standpoint, from a wellbeing standpoint, physical wellbeing, because you can take immersive audio anywhere.
And I think it was a smart move and it came from practicing that hard empathy that you mentioned.
Guy Kawasaki:
You have the most interesting discussion of empathy I have ever seen.
So first of all, there's easy empathy, right? You've been bullied. You can empathize with somebody who is being bullied. Okay, I understand that.
There's hard empathy where it's a totally foreign experience.
But then you make a very interesting point where you're not supposed to imagine that you are in India surrounded by your family walking through the town protecting you with this phalanx of people around you. But you're supposed to imagine yourself in your current shoes, walking at the Stanford Mall, surrounded by people? Is that a better form of empathy?
Jane McGonigal:
Yeah. So this is blended empathy.
With easy empathy, we've lived through it, we feel it. It's easy to relate. We all do that.
With hard empathy, you're trying to actively construct in your mind what you think someone else is feeling or going through just based on your best guess.
If my daughter broke her leg, how would I feel? I would try to imagine that. It hasn't happened to me, but I could try to imagine what my friend who is living through that ...
But, blended empathy is really important for when we're trying to relate to people whose lives seem utterly unfamiliar to us.
And one of the examples I use in the book is reading about a village in rural India, where it's so conservative that there's a practice of when women go to the next town or they go into the city, they have to bring male relatives with them, enough male relatives to form a physical circle around them, holding hands creating this physical barrier, so that strangers can't interact with the young women. They do this for unmarried women.
And we could try to imagine what it would be like to be that woman or to be those men, but it would be making assumptions that aren't right.
The culture's not familiar to us, and it turns out when we just try to guess what someone else is experiencing, we're pretty bad it. When we try to translate those circumstances to our own lives, we tend to make better guesses.
So if I were to say, "Guy, imagine here in America, for whatever reason, there's a new norm. And if you happen to have friends or family members who are young unmarried women, if they want to go on a trip, they're going to need a chaperone." And it's going to be a physical chaperone.
Try to feel the physicality of having to create that chain. What does it physically feel like in your body? Who would you be asked to do this service for? Pick a person in your life, a specific niece or a specific neighbor.
And when we try to bring the details into our own lives, we just get much better at feeling like we have more in common, wanting to help more.
Again, it might not be super accurate because now if we're taking it into our own lives, it's different from theirs, but it does tend to change people's minds and behaviors more effectively than the old standard of "Just imagine walking a mile in someone else's shoes."
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, how about one more kind of empathy.
I interviewed a guy named Martin Lindstrom for this podcast, and he was working with a pharmaceutical company and one of their products was for people with asthma. And the executive team expressed the desire to get "closer to the customer", which usually involves hiring McKinsey and paying them five million bucks to do market research.
But what Martin Lindstrom did is he took them all in a room, and he gave them a straw, and he said, "Here, breathe through this straw."
So now, this is not easy empathy. They're not asthmatic. It's not hard empathy because you're not imagining what it's like to be an asthmatic in your life. You really are asthmatic when you're reading through a straw. So what kind of empathy is that?
Jane McGonigal:
That's lived experience. That's your own lived experience, and I'm glad you bring up that example, because we can circle all the way back to our first story about that early 2008 pandemic simulation.
One of the things we asked people to do in that simulation was to wear masks out into their ordinary everyday lives. How would wearing a mask at school affect you? How would wearing it at work, wearing it on the train, trying to go out to socialize, wearing masks?
And we actually took people on tours or out in downtown Palo Alto where we were out in the world masked, and we were just trying to feel the physicality of being in a pandemic. And very early on from our players who were participating, it became clear that this was going to be hard for people who had grown up in a culture without a practice of this.
It is physically hard to adapt. It's not just about our emotional or rational selves, but that there is a physicality involved with the sweat, and the fabric, and the touching. And, we anticipated a lot of difficulty with developing a masking practice or culture.
And I don't know if we would've been able to do that if people didn't actually do it for real, to actually physically try to go there. Virtual reality worlds are being developed so we can try to experience other things we might not. There's a technology component.
Anything that can help us simulate, whether it's this role play ... I'm role playing that I have asthma by breathing through a straw, but it is a real play, too, because it has that physicality.
That is good. That is a good way to develop empathy, again, for our future selves, not just for other people.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, you bring up the point that learned helplessness with this dog experiment ... where dogs, they learn to just take the punishment of electrocution. They just gave up.
But then you say what we learned even further is that it's not that they were trying to escape and gave up, but instead the baseline is not taking action, to endure the worst until it's over.
Jane McGonigal:
Yes, yes. It totally blew my mind. It flipped the whole field of psychology on its head, really, and it's funny.
I just recorded a three-hour lecture on exactly this topic yesterday for my online students. I love talking about this experiment.
So most people, many of your listeners, will probably remember having heard about this 1967 animal psychology experiment.
It's super famous where they shocked dogs, but they divided them into two groups. One of the groups, while they were flailing around from the pain, there was a lever that if they accidentally hit it, the shocks stopped. And so, dogs in this group just accidentally discovered they could stop the shocks. That was one group. The other group, the lever didn't work. There was nothing they do.
They brought the dogs back twenty-four hours later, put them in a different adverse environment. This time, the shocks were coming from the floor and there was a little barrier that if they hopped over the barrier, then on the other side, there are no shocks.
So all they had to do was figure out ... This is not like jumping over a ten-foot wall. It was inches. Easily overcome. The dogs who had been in the group where they could nudge the lever and actually stop the shocks, they very quickly figured out how to jump over the barrier and they were fine, and they escaped the shocks.
The dogs in the group that had no way to stop the shocks, they laid down and they never jumped over the barrier.
So thus, 1967 born one of the most influential psychology theories of all time, learned helplessness. If we experience a situation in which we have no power over the situation, there's no action we can take to improve our circumstances or escape adverse conditions, then we bring that to the future.
Even if objectively we have power, we don't see that power.
And it became one of the most common explanations for depression, that this is what it means to be depressed. We don't even try to improve our situation. But, plot twist.
Decades later, one of the original grad students on that experiment, he quit psychology. He retrained in neuroscience, and he decided to go back and study the phenomenon from a neurological perspective, looking to see what regions of the brain were implicated in this process.
He discovered that it was totally backwards. Nobody learns helplessness. The brain assumes helplessness.
And, this makes sense because we all think about reaction to threats is fight or flight. But before we do fight or flight, when you're a little baby, you can't fight. You can't flee. You can't even walk yet. The initial instinct is to freeze. We stop moving.
We just accept this passive defensive strategy, and we try to endure, and that's it.
That is hardwired into our brains. And if we want to not freeze when we experience a new risk or threat, we have to have a way to teach our brain helpfulness.
And so this is for me, the best explanation of why gamers are so confident. They're running around the world. “I can solve problems. Hey, give me climate change.”
Because every time we play a game, you're dropped into a world where you've no idea how anything works and the bad guys are trying to get you and you're running out of time, but you have to figure out, "Okay, what can I do? What can I do that is effective that I can improve my situation? What resources can I collect? What are my powers in this world?"
And so every game is like a psychology experiment, trying to teach you how to escape traumatic shock, just like those dogs. And it's what we're trying to do with these future simulations is, I don't want you to wake up in a future crisis and freeze, which is what, by the way, most people did with COVID-19.
How long did it take for people to adapt and react?
Guy Kawasaki:
Starting at the top of the United States?
Jane McGonigal:
Yes, because our brain has no experience of being powerful and effective in this type of a situation, unless you had simulated it and you'd already figured out, "Well, here are the things that I can do to make other people more likely to wear a mask," for example.
And so that's what we saw with our players. They'd already learned their power. They learned helpfulness. They avoided that instinct of helplessness.
But just imagine, no wonder life is so hard, Guy. Our brain assumes we have no power in basically any new condition until we start training it.
Guy Kawasaki:
Imagine if Donald Trump had been a gamer, the world would be a better place.
Jane McGonigal:
Oh, you're not wrong.
Guy Kawasaki:
In terms of evolutionary, wouldn't you think that if we were predisposed to freezing, those of us who are more predisposed genetically, or however, wouldn't we have died off? And now we've evolved to the point where the species is the people who are not frozen?
Jane McGonigal:
Unless it's an effective strategy in some situations. I think getting into a fight is not necessarily going to be a good strategy in a lot of situations.
And how much have we evolved since the caveman? That's really the question, because it might have been smarter to lay and pretend to be dead in that situation. A lot of our hard wiring is stuck back in the caveman, which is why we have so much anxiety, but that's a different guest.
Guy Kawasaki:
If you could get inside the head of Steve Jobs, would you say that he embodies all of the best case of considering ridiculous things, turning the world upside down, looking for clues, practicing empathy?
Is Steve Jobs the poster boy for your book?
Jane McGonigal:
No, probably not.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. I tried.
Jane McGonigal:
He could be, but he's not somebody that I have in particular said, "There's somebody who stands for what I think we should all aspire to be."
Greta Thunberg right now, what's she doing? She's the one saying that really radical rethinking is possible.
It's easy to imagine a fun, cool, new technology that could make our lives better. I don't think it requires that much radical re-imagination to think up fun, new technologies.
What takes radical imagination is that we could somehow come together, maybe sacrifice, or maybe find a way to prioritize our future selves over our present selves, to believe that it is actually possible that people might be willing to do that, that we could invest in geoengineering techniques, or we could experiment with different border... That is the most profound creativity I can imagine.
Let's be like Greta. That's what I would say.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. Let's listen to Jane. Be more like Greta.
And now with a clear conscience, in fact, you should proactively do this, encourage your kids to play games.
It will make the world a better place according to this episode's guest, the remarkable Jane McGonigal.
I'm a Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
My thanks to the remarkable people on the team. Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, drop-in queen, Madisun Nuismer, Alexis Nishimura, and Luis "Longboarder" Magana.
Until next time, Mahalo and aloha.