It was called I Love Bees, and it was a futuristic, multimedia participatory game that had people all over the world running to answer ringing pay phones.
It turned out that I Love Bees--which was one of a fairly new genre of games known as alternate-reality games (ARGs)--was actually a promotional vehicle for Microsoft's forthcoming monster-hit Xbox title, Halo 2. But even when word about that commercial link began spreading, no one cared. The game was too engrossing.
I Love Bees was created by Seattle-based
Since then, McGonigal has become widely known for her work on ARGs--she was the lead designer on 2005's Last Call Poker, an ARG that promoted Activision's Xbox 360 launch title, Gun--as well as for designing "big games"--multiplayer, multimedia street games--like Cruel 2 B Kind, which gave players the task of roaming the streets of cities like New York, looking to "kill" opponents with kindness. Earlier this year, she got her doctorate in ubiquitous computing and game culture.
Recently, McGonigal sat for an interview before a packed house in the theater at CNET's Second Life bureau. There, she talked about why ARGs are important, why Nintendo's Wii could save democracy and why game designers should watch CBS' Survivor.
Q: How do you describe what you do for a living?
Jane McGonigal: I create games to change people's everyday lives; games that let people use everyday technologies and spaces differently--more playfully, more socially, more superheroically. The other part of what I do is study games to see what impact they have on people's identity, habits and quality of life.
What does that mean?
McGonigal: I might make a game for your cell phone that interrupts your usual life with superherolike missions to fulfill at your dog park or bus stop, or in an elevator. I might make a game for your local historic cemetery so that people feel comfortable using a space that traditionally, we steer clear of.
The games use nongame technologies like phone calls, SMS (Short Message Service text messages), IM (instant messages), e-mail and objects planted in real spaces. And you are playing at the same time as many, many other people, because I'm really interested in the power of the massively scaled social experience.
What is an ideal project for you?
McGonigal: I recently finished my Ph.D., and the only thing that kept me sane was my dog and the people at the dog park. I never left the house except to take my dog out. There is something amazingly powerful about dogs and the social leverage they give us. So an ideal project for me would be a game that embraces the culture of play and extended social networks that dogs have created.
How are the games you create changing people's lives?
McGonigal: It's a quality-of-life issue. In virtual worlds and digital games, we feel powerful, engaged and connected. We have clear goals, tools and powers we use in amazing ways. Everyone playing shares our goals, and there is a tremendous sense of collaboration and community--even among competitors. So you can really change someone's mood, perspective and quality of life by giving them a sense that the world around them has more meaning for them.
That's a great feeling, and if you have it on the train or checking your e-mail, it can just influence how you see everything in your life. I always say that my games are designed to teach you to answer a ringing pay phone.
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