Let’s Play Work, and Win

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Jane McGonigal wants us to spend 21 billion hours playing games. Why? To save the world.

It's a really cool idea. But unlike the 183 million active gamers in the United States (5 million of whom are spending 45 hours a week!), I don't want to play.

At my house, when the games begin, I'm Most Likely to Hide in the Kitchen Under the Pretense of Cleanup. While gamers live for World of Warcraft, and families can't wait to pull out Settlers of Catan, I'm more happy with an epic win that looks like building a Team and a business. If I was charged to change the world with a pair of dice, or the right combination of strategic mouse clicks against evil, the world might well be lost forever.

I understand that I wouldn't have been much use in the Kingdom of Lydia, a Kingdom chronicled by Herodotus. Historians always thought Lydia was a myth, but DNA and other evidence now suggest that Lydia may have been a real place that survived through gaming. (McGonigal tells the story of how the Lydians faced famine by eating on one day, gaming the next, and so on. In this way, for 18 years, they lived with an untenable situation, until it was decided that half the Kindgom should migrate and start fresh).

Here's the center of the matter: gaming has the potential to help us achieve amazing things, with incredible dedication, focus, and hope not often seen in other contexts. As McGonigal notes, games make gamers feel "fully alive...engaged in every moment." Games also provide a "sense of power, heroic purpose, and community."

So we could play games for 21 billion hours to find our meaning in life. Or, we could play our work in the actual world, and win.

I'm not saying that games are unimportant or somehow frivolous (in fact, my eleven-year-old daughter was so inspired by McGonigal that she's just now trying to create an online rain-forest game — complete with a built-in donation system to non-profit organizations, to help save the forests). I'm just saying we can learn something about working more successfully in the actual world, by attending to the dynamics of games and applying them.

Listening to McGonigal discuss the dynamics of games I'm reminded of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He maintains that flow (like the kind we often see in mesmerized gamers) is best achieved when:

1. a person feels his skills are adequate for the challenges at hand
2. a person also feels that the challenges at hand aren't too simplistic
3. there are clear goals
4. there are clear rules
5. there is a built-in feedback system that helps show when success has been achieved

McGonigal adds that games aren't really games unless we have chosen to play them (which is why World of Warcraft would not be a game for me smile

It occurred to me that the work we do here at offers many gamelike opportunities. The opportunities are embedded in what we're producing—quick-turn-around articles that get immediate feedback once published. Gamelike opportunities are also folded into the way we use our virtual office and various social media contexts (we are insanely attached to word play, and we also derive great joy from promoting each other and our network community... all surprisingly measurable through various feedback systems). Additionally, everyone we engage to work with us has already been choosing to play some kind of social-media game— on their own blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and here at our homepage.

Internet work is often naturally game-like enough to feel like play. Can other work situations offer similar game-like possibilities, even take advantage of social media to create a happy game-like situation? If so, we might not need to migrate to the World of Warcraft for 21 billion hours, in the hopes of a life-changing win.


Thanks to Sam Van Eman for first writing about McGonigal at, in Game Over: It's Time to Live It. Jane McGonigal is the author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

Image by confidence, comely (nikki). Use by permission, via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us.

“Most of the material on The High Calling is available for reuse under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Unfortunately, work by Laura Barkat is not available for reuse. If you are interested in reprinting work by Laura Barkat, please contact her directly.”

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