We play more than 3 billion hours a week of video games. Jane McGonigal, director of game research at the Institute for the Future, would like to see us play more than 21 billion hours a week. She thinks we can get there by overcoming misconceptions about games and building games that have a broader interest and more meaning.

McGonigal’s research, captured in the new book Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world, could be very important for the game industry because she articulates why games should be a gigantic industry, compared to where they are today.

One of the limitations on the current game industry is that lots of people are afraid of playing more because they think that games are a waste of time. These people reason that games are merely an escapist activity that we undertake when we don’t want to do something productive. They think games are addictive, like gambling, and are a distraction from what really matters in life.

But McGonigal says that’s a dangerous idea. If McGonigal is right, then there might be a way to get people to play games far more than they do today. The path to doing so, she believes, is through the creation of meaningful games. And if she is right, then the video game industry could see enormous growth for a long time to come.

“Games are not escapist,” she said at the recent Dice Summit video game conference in Las Vegas (her slides are here). “I have been going around trying to get this idea accepted. Playing games is the single most productive thing we can do with our time and we can use games to change the world.”

That idea might sound crazy, and comedian Stephen Colbert said as much when McGonigal appeared on The Colbert Report. But McGonigal, who has a doctorate and is an accomplished game designer, says the past decade of research into games has shown that the time spent playing games can be more productive than time at work or in school.

In fact, she notes the average gamer plays 10,000 hours of games by age 21. That’s about the same number of hours that students spent in high school and middle school. She says there are 500 million gamers today, playing on all sorts of platforms from the iPhone to the game consoles. About 99 percent of boys under 18 play games five days a week. About 94 percent of girls under 18 play games as well.

McGonigal says that gamers are at their best as people when playing: they’re motivated, optimistic, resilient, collaborative, and expressive. Those feelings spread into the real world. After playing a game, a person is more likely to go up to someone in a bar and introduce himself or herself, she said.

She also said that kids who play with their parents are more connected as a family and are more likely to talk to their parents about anything. She said that leads to less depression. A study of 3,000 gamers who played social games showed that they are more likely to help others in real life. In that sense, McGonigal believes games bring out the best in us.

McGonigal said that we have to convince gamers that they can be in real life the kind of person that they are in games. They can be heroic, they can fight cancer, they can fight poverty and stop climate change. There are “serious games” that already teach people how to do those things. Some 57,000 gamers helped co-author a research paper on biochemistry by playing a game.

McGonigal said there are lot of positive side effects from playing games that debunk the idea that games are a waste of time. A 2009 study of 7,000 gamers playing Guitar Hero (“may it rest in peace,” McGonigal joked, as Activision Blizzard has canceled further guitar games) showed that 67 percent of players were more likely to pick up an instrument in real life.

Games, McGonigal said in an earlier speech, are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle. They are challenging to play, which dispenses with the notion that gamers are lazy. Gamers try to achieve a positive state of mind, which McGonigal calls “eustress,” or positive stress that sharpens our brains and leads us to a state of “flow.” When you’re in a state of eustress, people like you more because you’re motivated and optimistic. So it draws potential allies closer.

Gamers generally don’t give up even though they spend about 80 percent of the time failing before they have an epic win. The U.S. Army’s mental health assessment team looked at 1,000 veterans and found that one of the best coping mechanisms for battle stress was to play three or four hours of video games a night. A study by a researcher at Grant University in Canada showed that gamers had the fewest nightmares, leading McGonigal to say that games protect us from real harm.

McGonigal said she believes games can lead to flourishing, or a feeling that you have accomplished something in life, as described by Martin Seligman, the founder of “positive psychologyand professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. McGonigal said games can help generate what Seligman says really matters: positive emotions, better relationships, meaning, and accomplishments.

That works while we are in the game. But McGonigal would like to see games lead to more positive results in the real world. That’s where gamers should realize that games are tapping into traits they already have, such as being heroic, and then get them to do more of it in the real world.

“We want people to think of themselves as gamers in the real world,” she said.

McGonigal created a prototype of a game to help herself heal after she got a concussion. When she hurt her head, she couldn’t read or write and became more depressed than she had ever been. She created a game she called “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” based on a Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme. She wanted the game to provoke positive emotions and help her recover faster from the industry. She believes the game helped save her life.

Because games can have such a great influence, McGonigal says game developers should realize they have a lot of responsibility to create the right kinds of games. She has formed a company called Social Chocolate, whose first game is SuperBetter, based on the concussion game. She is encouraging game designers to share ideas at Gameful.org.

If games can do better at improving our real lives, then it could lead to 21 billion hours a week of game playing, McGonigal said.

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