There is No Escape: Designing Videogames for Maximum Real-Life Impact

In Uncategorized on March 27, 2013 at 1:11 pm

houdini in chains

If you caught my talk “There Is No Escape” at the 2013 Game Developers Conference (or watched the commentary on Twitter!), you know that I’m passionate about understanding the real-life impact that videogames have on our minds, our bodies, our ambitions, and our relationships.

Here are some resources to help you design games for maximum POSITIVE real-life impact.

Download a PDF of the slides! Jane McGonigal GDC 2013 There is no escape

(Wanna know even more? Check out my previous round-up of science must-reads for game designers at showmethescience.com. You can directly access 100+ peer-reviewed papers there on the science of positive emotion, building self-efficacy, strengthening relationships and more.)

Summary of the talk:

Do you think of games as “escapist” entertainment? Do you believe that the games you develop have little to no impact on your players’ real lives? If so, it’s time to wake up: There is no escape from reality, not even for gamers. Hundreds of scientific studies from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, family studies, and medicine document the myriad ways that games make a real and lasting impact on our brains and our bodies. Games change how we feel, think, act, and relate to each other even during the hours we’re not gaming. Most game impacts are positive, some can be negative, and the design of the game — more so than the content of the game — is what makes the difference. Whether you know it or not, you are already changing your players’ real lives. So get smarter about it. Accept that there is no escape — not from our brains, not from our bodies, and not from our relationships — and embrace the opportunity to design for maximum, positive real-life impact.


P.S. You’ve read my book already, right? Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World


The research:

The two modes of escape: Read the whole Self-expansion vs. Self-suppression thesis in PDF

Gamers Experience Greater Levels of Life Satisfaction and Happinessif they’re not trying to escape!

On Escaping the Self (an article) and and Escaping the Self (the full book) by Roy Baumeister (the same guy who did the famous two-marshmallow experiment!), this is the psychological model that associates escapism with suicide, anxiety, addiction, and more

Impact of positive emotions on success in life: “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” and “The broaden-and-build theory of Positive Emotion

Impact of positive emotions on health: Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotion and “Does Positive Affect Influence Health?”

Impact of social connection on health: “Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy

Calm or Chaos: Controlling the Stress Response

Fight or flight vs. Calm and Connect (the article is about the science of love, but keep reading — it gets to the relevant info from my talk halfway through!)

Snow World game helps burn victims in the most severe pain more than morphine

Plus some fun stuff:

Is Escapism actually the highest form of art? A theory of escapist art from io9

Urban Dictionary on escapism

Great quotations about escapism


(how to avoid designing games with negative real-life impact)

Kotaku does the best round-up anywhere of meta-analyses of 25 year of research on the question: Do videogames make you more aggressive?

Daniel Cook explains the testosterone science of co-op vs. competitive game design so you can improve your players’ real-life relationships

Sitting disease by the numbers

Sitting is the new smoking

Great ideas for disrupting all of this horrible sitting at Juststand.org


(how to make games with positive real-life impact!)

Watch Grandpa gamer play Call of Duty for the first time (okay, not a scientific resources, but still: AWESOME)

Daphne Bavelier explains cognitive enhancements from fast-paced action games in her Your Brain On Games TED talk (or read a summary of it in The neuroscience of how action games boost cognitive abilities)

Videogames lead to positive youth development (or read an excellent summary of it in New Research Emphasizes Gaming’s Contribution to Positive Youth Development)

Violent Gaming Leads to Cooperation, Not Aggression” (summary) and full research paper (academic log-in required);“Effect of Playing Violent Video Games Cooperatively on Subsequent Cooperative Behavior”

Stanford researchers document how virtual superpowers lead to real-life helping behavior

Other related Stanford research on avatars and how they impact our real-life behavior: “Doppelgangers: A New Form of Self”; “The Use of Doppelgangers to Promote Health Behavior Change”;  “The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior”; “The Proteus Effect: Self-Transformations in Virtual Reality”

Seniors and gaming: Seniors who play videogames report higher sense of well-beingVideo Games Requiring Physical Activity Alleviate Depression in Older Adults; Videogames May Help the Elderly Psychologically

Fast-paced action games boost reading in kids with dyslexia

Videogames increase social skills in autistic youth

Research from Michigan State University: “The ‘S’ in Social Network Games: Initiating, Maintaining, and Enhancing Relationships.”

Research from Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life: “Game On: Associations Between Co-Playing Video Games and Adolescent Behavioral and Family Outcomes.”

Clinical trials and randomized controlled study from East Carolina University’s Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic“EEG, HRV, and Psychological Correlates while Playing Casual Video Games”“The Effectiveness of Casual Video Games in  Improving Mood and Decreasing Stress”; A Randomized Controlled Study of the Efficacy of Casual Video Games to Treat Anxiety

On videogames, dopamine, and the neurological circuitry of the work ethic: “Brain Changes in Videogamers”; “A Neurologist Makes the Case for Videogames”;  “The Neural Basis of Videogaming”; “Dopamine Levels May Determine Work Ethic

Nature Scientific Journals’ review of research literature on brains and videogames (summary)

8 Awesome Videogame Infographics on the neuroscience of gaming, positive social impacts of gaming, heath impacts of gaming, and more – more studies that I mention in the talk are cited in their footnotes!

This is just some of the research, the amount out there about the positive impact of games is staggering! But these should be a good rabbit hole to fall down, see what else you discover.

Follow me on Twitter (@avantgame) to get all the latest research on games and their real-life impacts!

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