Jane McGonigal meets a real gamer

A still from Jane McGonigal's famous TED presentation

PAX East takes place in just a couple of days, and the keynote speaker is Jane McGonigal. I’m mostly familiar with McGonigal through her TED lecture “Gaming can make a better world.” In the presentation, she argues that if we could tap into the time and energy that gamers demonstrate through their devotion to their hobby, we could do a lot of good in the world.

When I saw her TED lecture, I thought that the picture of gamers she was presenting bore absolutely no resemblance to what I’ve experienced from human beings while playing online, but McGonigal is an idealist. To wit, she wrote a book titled Reality Is Broken. That idealism has likely played a huge part in her achievements, so I don’t make the comment by way of poking fun of her.

I do enjoy seeing idealism clash with reality from time to time, so when I heard the tale of the GDC session “No Freaking Respect: Social Game Devs Rant Back,” I couldn’t help but laugh. McGonigal ran headfirst into an experience that is emblematic of the reality of modern gaming culture: the exploit.


A game was to accompany the presentation. Everyone in the audience would receive a plastic coin as they walked in. They would then use their social networking abilities to collect coins from other people in the audience. Whoever had the most coins at the session's midpoint would receive some time on the microphone to do a “guest rant.”

Ryan Henson Creighton, the founder of Untold Entertainment, managed to get his hands on the entire bag of coins. From Creighton’s retelling of the story as posted by Gamasutra:

I strode back to the entrance, to where the deliciously young and impressionable CA [volunteer Conference Associate] was handing out the coins. In an urgent voice, I said "Excuse me! Chris Hecker, one of the panelists, said he only really wants about half the room to get these coins. He sent me to get the bag and run it up to him at the front of the room."

Then, with no skepticism or suspicion, the CA pleasantly purred "sure," and handed me the bag.

He handed me the bag. The bag with all the coins. I had all the coins.

Creighton exploited the game in the most classic sense. He found a weakness in the "programming" and used it to his advantage. I’m of a mind to say that exploiting is assuredly cheating, which is usually an opinion shared by anyone who suffers at the hands of an exploit and doesn’t feel spiteful enough to replicate that exploit in order to even the odds.

A picture and map layout of the Roundhouse map in Call of Duty: World at War

The most famous example of exploiting I can think of would be the Roundhouse map in Call of Duty: World at War. It featured a large, metal door at the edge of the map that allowed one to get under the map's geometry if they jumped at just the right position. Players would find themselves mysteriously killed when no one from the enemy team was anywhere near them. The kill-cam would then cut to the opponent walking around underneath the ground and shooting up into the map. This exploit ruined dozens of matches for me and my team. We eventually just camped out the door and killed anyone we saw trying to exploit the glitch.

To hear Creighton tell it, McGonigal very much wanted herself to win. Earlier in his post, Creighton talks about not being able to compete with her “celebrity, eagerness, and feminine wiles.” To follow the metaphor, let’s consider this “player skill.” Creighton knew he couldn’t counter skill with skill, so instead, he cheated.

Unlike in the real world, Creighton didn't ruin McGonigal’s game. His deception didn't impress the session panel, and therefore, they named McGonigal the winner. It was as if some sort of moderator from Xbox Live happened to be floating around during one of those Roundhouse matches, kicked the exploiters, and handed everyone else a win to help pad their stats.

While the purpose of this panel was not to teach McGonigal a lesson, I wish they had let things play out naturally. Up until this point, we were telling a tale which is an extremely apt metaphor for what everyone in competitive gaming experiences on a regular basis, and competitive gaming is most certainly social gaming. Dustin Browder’s “Starcraft 2 as e-Sport” panel made this argument rather forcefully. They don't allow cheating in Major League Gaming, but the rest of us amateurs have to put up with it on a regular basis,

Competitve gamers celebrating their trophy win

When McGonigal talks about tapping into gamers’ energy to do good, she’s missing something very important: A tremendous number of the people she would like to tap into only cooperate when they are also in peril, i.e. when they are playing competitively as a team, as with squadmates in first-person shooters or raid groups in MMOs. Historically, one can only reliably count on human beings to cooperate with one another when they are in trouble. The rest of the time, humans tend to default to the most basic human behavior: individual competition.

I wonder what might have gone through McGonigal’s mind if the panel members had announced Creighton as the winner. What if the panel had recognized that they'd designed their game poorly enough to allow for an easy exploit and dealt with the consequences the way game designers have to in the real world? We could follow the metaphor and say that they applied a patch in handing McGonigal the win, but that’s generally not how it works, is it? Usually one has to suffer the exploit for a while before the developers fix it. Metaphorically speaking, the more appropriate response would have been making McGonigal wait for the next time the game took place.

Might she have learned something valuable from the experience had that been the case? What if she focused her efforts on tapping into humankind’s competitive spirit, which is much more pronounced than its cooperative inclinations, to try and do good in the world ? That sounds like quite a challenge for a designer: figure out a way to turn competitive effort into cooperative gain. It would likely have a much higher probability of success, as well. I don’t have the command of math and systems that most developers seem to, but even I can crunch those odds.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has written for Gamasutra, GamePro, The Escapist,, Joystick Division, and @Gamer magazine, and maintains a blog at Follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca. First Person is his weekly column on Bitmob.

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