The Hard Part is the Fun Part (convocation speech)

In Uncategorized on August 23, 2013 at 5:30 am

Flying planes Miami University 2013 convocation

On August 24, 2013, I spoke to the incoming freshman class at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To my great delight, my book Reality is Broken was chosen as the summer reading project, for all 4000 students. So I was happy to come speak to them in person — and even happier to design a special game for the occasion. Below is the text of my speech, which includes instructions for playing the game.

Please, if you are reading this, join in the game with us. Even if you’re not a member of any “Class of 2017”, you can surely imagine yourself four years from now, hopefully on the other side of some great obstacle or challenge that you are tackling now or hope to tackle soon. Imagine someone else, somewhere near you, is also facing a tough challenge — one they’ve chosen for themselves, like college, or a challenge that life has chosen for them. Play the game with that person in mind, and also keep in mind that you always have the power to choose new tough challenges for yourself — even if you never went to college, or finished college long ago. Today, we are all the class of 2017!

If you play the game with us, please post a pic of your plane on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #Advicefrom2017!


Jane McGonigal, PhD

Convocoation Speech – Miami University – August 24, 2013

The Hard Part is the Fun Part

Good morning! And congratulations. You’ve put in a lot of hard work to get here today, and your reward is that from now on, you get to choose your own adventures. This is a wonderful power to have. You are now officially in charge of your own destiny. And you’ve earned it. So please, have fun with it. Enjoy everything. Even the hard parts! In fact, especially the hard parts. If there’s anything I’ve learned as a game designer, it’s that the hard part is the fun part. We need a good challenge to have fun, to feel alive, to unleash our strengths, to turn strangers into teammates and allies. This is why we play games – sports, videogames, all games. We play them because nothing makes us happier or stronger than tackling a tough challenge that we choose for ourselves.

This is what the art of game design is all about. Game design is the art of enjoying the hard part. It’s the art of making goals more difficult to achieve, for no good reason, other than the fact that we have more fun that way! Take the game of golf, for example. The goal is to put a small ball into a small hole. If you weren’t playing a game, and you wanted to achieve this goal, you’d just walk right up to the hole and drop the ball in. Easy! But when we’re playing golf the game, for some reason, we agree to stand really far away from the hole. And to make things even worse, we use a stick to try to somehow get the ball from where we’re standing into the hole, way over there. This is a terrible way to try to achieve the goal of getting a small ball into a small hole. But we love it! Because golf is a game, and games are about the art of the hard part.  Games remind us that we actually have more fun when things are more difficult.

I try to remember this when things aren’t going so well in my real life. I try to remember that tackling tough obstacles is what we choose to do for fun when we’re bored. If you play any game or any sport, you’re like me. You crave the hard part.

So here’s one of the quirks of being a game designer, and an expert in game psychology. Because I know that I am happier and stronger when I’m tackling a tough challenge, I have a really bizarre approach to solving my real-life problems. I like to take whatever problem I have and make it harder before I try to solve it. It’s true! I intentionally make a stubborn obstacle even MORE difficult to overcome, because then I’ll have to use even more creativity to solve it. I’ll be less bored, and more engaged. And maybe, because the challenge is now so much more interesting and unusual, I’ll be able to get other people more excited about helping me solve it.

This is actually exactly what I’m doing here today, because instead of just giving a nice, normal convocation speech, I’m going to try to do something a lot harder than that.  You see, I find formal speech writing pretty difficult, and not that fun, so instead of just writing a normal speech, I’ve decided to design the world’s first massively multiplayer convocation game. Yes, of course, what did you expect? I’m a game designer! Of course we’re going to play a game together. All 4000 of us. And, let me tell you, designing a game for 4000 people to play at the same time is really, really hard. But that’s why I’m doing it! Because the hard part is the fun part.

Okay, so now let me tell you about this game I’ve invented for us to play together today. You have the materials for the game already, the paper with dotted lines and numbers, so you may have already guessed how part of this game will play out. Have you figured out yet what you’re supposed to do with the paper? I bet you have. You’re going to make paper airplanes. And then we’re going to do something pretty interesting with them.

The inspiration for this game started with an image that I couldn’t get out of my head. I imagined four thousand paper airplanes flying at the same time, in the same bit of sky.

I wanted to see if this would be possible to do. I’ve never seen 4000 paper airplanes take flight at the same time. It seems like it might be awesome and epic and you know, I really want to know what it looks like! So this was the beginning of the idea of my massively multiplayer convocation game, and to my great shock, I somehow managed to actually convince your wonderful president, Dr. David Hodge, to let us do this. So thank you President Hodge and thank you everyone at Miami University who took a chance to let us play this game together today.

So, 4000 paper airplanes flying overhead, that’s going to be a really cool moment to behold, to create together, but it’s not really a game. I mean, in the barest bones way, maybe it’s a game – the goal is to get 4000 paper airplanes in the air at the same time, and we’ll know we’ve won when we see all the planes in the air. And we lose if somehow we manage to screw up this pretty simple process, you know, maybe if you all turn out to be the worst folders of paper in the history of paper-folding and none of your planes take flight. That would be bad, and could lose. So I guess it could be a game, just to fly 4000 planes, but it’s a pretty easy game to win. And games should challenge us. The hard part is the fun part! So we need this game to be harder.

Good games should also bring out our best qualities. Some of the qualities I particularly like to bring out in players of my games are courage, creativity, and empathy – the ability to imagine what someone else is going through.

So I want to take this one interesting idea – 4000 airplanes in the sky – and try to design a better game around it, try to make it more challenging, so that all 4000 of you have the chance to rise to a small, heroic occasion this morning, and really tap into your own strengths.

So how can we create a more challenging and worthy goal for ourselves? Well, I asked some of my game designer friends for help, and they had some pretty weird ideas. One of my best friends said to me, “You should just put a giant bull’s eye on your head.” The idea being, I suppose, that you would all try to aim your paper airplanes at my face, and the more of you who actually hit my face, the higher your collective score. That sounds like a fun game… sort of. Okay, but we’re not going to do that.

Other friends suggested more competitive games. We could find out who among you can fly your plane the highest, or the furthest. But honestly, that’s just not my idea of what makes an awesome game. With a game like that, we would have 1 winner and 3999 losers. That’s just lazy game design. The last thing I want to do today is turn 3999 of you into losers. I’m not going to do that. It’s much harder for a game designer  – but more satisfying, I think – to design a game where it’s possible for everyone to win. Or even better, to not be sure who won, so you have to keep playing.

That’s the main difference between what game designers call “finite” versus “infinite games.” This is an idea I’m obsessed with. I write about the idea of finite vs. infinite games in my book, so this may sound familiar to you. To remind you, here is what the philosopher James Carse has to say about them:

“There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite.

A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game.

An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game.

Finite players are serious; infinite gamers are playful.”

I want us to be playful today, and not too serious. I want us to play an infinite game.

So here’s my idea for a 4000-player infinite paper airplane game. This is the game we’re actually going to play. It’s called Advicefrom2017, as in Advice from the Class of 2017. And this game is going to help us break the rules of a typical convocation speech, play with the boundaries of a typical speech..

In a normal speech, I get 18 minutes to try to inspire you or give you some useful advice. But there are 4000 people here who are as interesting as I am – all of you – and I’d kind of like to give you all the opportunity to give each other advice or inspiration. Sort of multiply the wisdom available here today. Instead of one convocation speaker, we can have 4000. This is one way of turning convocation from a small, finite game – one speaker, or one player – into a much bigger, and better game. A game we all get to play.

So I want you to imagine you had 30 seconds to stand up here at this microphone and say one thing to every single person in this room. What would you say? Would you give us advice? Would you offer some words of encouragement? Would you pay us a fabulous compliment? Or would you just sing us a few lyrics from your favorite song, or maybe quote your favorite movie?

Well, I’m not going to let all 4000 of you come up here and do that, because by my calculations that would take approximately 33 hours, which is 32 hours and 52 minutes longer than we have left. But if you play this game with me, you are going to get to inspire or give advice to at least one other person today.

Here is your goal: Before or after you fold it up, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to write something on your paper plane, something that you think one of your fellow students needs to hear today. If you know what you want to write, you can start writing it now. You have a few more minutes before it’s time to fly the planes, so don’t panic if you don’t know what you want to write yet. This is where the courage, and creativity, and empathy comes in. This is playful, you can’t say the wrong thing. Just keep this goal in mind: Try to write something that will make the person who catches your plane smile, or laugh, or feel better or stronger or more courageous in some way. Think of it as a mini pep-talk. If it helps, imagine you are flying this plane directly to your best friend, or to your brother or sister, or someone you really care about, write down the words of support you would say to them.

If you really want to win this game, I want you to imagine someone else catching your flying plane and opening it up. Someone who, like you, is here today to start tackling a very tough challenge. Picture this person taking the plane back to the dorm and putting it on their desk. They see the words you wrote again and it sticks with them like a good fortune cookie fortune. Or maybe even the words you write in that plane will find their way to someone, through luck or through fate, to someone who really needs to hear them. And maybe they will carry your advice with them for the next four years. That would be the ultimate win.

No one is going to know who wrote what, it’s anonymous and your plane will be up in the air and caught by who knows who. So you can play this however you want. It’s up to you to decide what to write.

This gives you a lot of freedom. Now, this is where the risk to me as a game designer comes in. I have to decide if I trust you enough to actually step up to the challenge — which I admit is not easy! — to try to write something down that might help the person who catches your plane. Really, you have total freedom here — You could write nothing, and just let your plane fly completely blank. But I do trust you. And I know that the hard part is the fun part. So even if this is hard for you, I want you to overcome the writer’s block or the boredom or the fact that you didn’t bring a pen with you or whatever might stop you from doing right by the one person who catches your plane. Try to give that person something, some small thing – whatever advice or wisdom or words of support YOU out of all 4000 people here have to give.

Now if for some reason you would prefer not to play today, that’s okay. Because play should be voluntary, so if for any reason you are not feeling inspired to join us in this game, I want to encourage you to consider participating in a different way. It would be great to get some photos or videos of whatever happens. So if you decide to sit the game out, perhaps you would helps us all out by pulling out your phone and getting some photos or video of all the airplanes flying!

Okay, so let me recap here. First, you’re going to fold a paper airplane. Then you’re going to think of some short words of wisdom or inspiration or advice might help the person who catches your plane. Write that down, and then we’re all going to throw our planes at the same time, and everyone is going to try to catch a plane. You win if you send some good words AND you catch some good words. If you don’t like the words you catch, throw the plane back in the air and catch a different one, until you like the words you get. You can also add new words to any plane you catch to try to make it better before you throw it back in the air. Just make sure you’re holding a paper airplane at the end of the game, I want everyone here to leave with one paper plane – and not the one you made yourself!

Go ahead and get started with the writing and folding if you haven’t yet. There are dotted lines and numbers on the paper to help you fold the plane if, like me, you’re not really a master paper plane flyer. Lend someone your pen if they need it. And then here is the thing. Do the writing and the folding now, but don’t fly the plane. When you’re done, and your words are written, and your plane is folded, I want you to hold your plane up in the air to signal that you’re ready. And when everyone’s plane is ready, when we’ve got all hands up, I’m going to count down from 3 and when I say “FLY”, everyone will throw their planes and we’ll get that awesome, epic moment. I hope. Don’t fly your plane until everyone is ready!

The game has started! Are your folding yet? Are you writing yet? I’m going to do this too, I’m going to fly a plane too. When you’re ready, hold your plane up in the air. And then get ready to catch one!

We’re almost ready – remember, if you don’t like what you catch, make it better and throw it back in the air!


Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 10.41.36 AM

Okay, that was awesome. I caught a plane, and I’m going to read you what it says. [READ PLANE]  I’m also going to take a photo of it and tweet it. I’m going to tweet it with the hashtag #advicefrom2017. I want to see what you all caught, too, so I’m hoping you’ll tweet your plane’s words of wisdom, or post it on instagram. And use the hashtag #advicefrom2017 so I can find it, and everyone else can find it, and you can see what everyone else caught. I want to do this because I want to keep the game going. So the game doesn’t end here, so that it’s truly infinite. And having friends on Twitter I have it on good authority that if 1000 people tweet in 60 minutes with the same hashtag, we can get it #advicefrom2017 trending on Twitter, so other people will start playing too, and who knows maybe by the end of today there will be paper airplanes flying with words of advice in random towns and cities all over the place because of the game we started here at Miami University today. Now that would be a truly infinite game.

So while we are all in the mindset of infinite play, let me end by sharing with you a few more words Professor James Carse, some advice which I’m sure he would have written on his paper airplane if he were here today. This is his advice for how to play the game of life. He wrote:

“You can do what you do seriously, because you must do it, because you must survive to the end, and you are afraid of dying or failing or other consequences. Or, you can do everything you do playfully, always knowing you have a choice, having no need to survive the way you are, allowing every element of the play to transform you, taking pleasure in every surprise you meet. Those are the differences between finite and infinite players.”

I say, it’s up to you to decide whether college and the next four years of your life will be a finite or infinite game. I think you’ll enjoy yourself more and become a more interesting person if you choose to play the infinite game. If you make a mistake or fail at something you’ve tried, or have to change your plan, remember that’s not the end of the game – you haven’t lost. You’re in the middle of bigger game, and you’re still playing, and you don’t know how the game ends yet. Always have a goal that is bigger yourself, and seems frankly impossible, because that way you know the game will keep going. And make as many allies as you can. You’re off to a good start – you’ve made 4000 new allies by playing together today – and you’ve made me as an ally, and that’s a favor I want you to call in someday if you need it. Okay? Thank you for playing with me. Please tweet and instagram your plane with the hashtag #Advicefrom2017. I’ll be looking for them! And remember: The hard part is the fun part. Good luck!


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