The Coolest Science Geek We Know

1_JaneMcGonigal-127Photographed by Molly DeCoudreaux
Video-game evangelist/designer Jane McGonigal suspects, at some point, you’ve disappeared for a few hours (heck, even days) to play "Candy Crush," "Angry Birds," or perhaps "World of Warcraft." There's no need to hide your shame: A billion people spend at least an hour each day blasting away on their phones, computers, and consoles. Now imagine bundling all that creative mojo and focus into upgrading your mind (and quite possibly the world). That’s the dream that drives McGonigal, whose research suggests gaming can help you slice up problems like a Fruit Ninja.
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“Everyone should feel like they have a unique superpower,” says McGonigal, a self-proclaimed “science geek,” avid runner, and author of The New York Times best seller Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Practicing what she preaches, she created the addictive game and web app SuperBetter to speed up her recovery after a traumatic brain injury left her bedridden for three months. Now more than 250,000 people have used it to tackle everything from social anxiety and depression to insomnia and chronic stress.
Other games she's directed get players psyched and ready to fight world hunger, poverty, and climate change — all from the comfort of their favorite screens. The whiz woman is setting her sights high, pushing for a video-game designer to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by 2023. We have one suggestion...
2_JaneMcGonigal-64Photographed by Molly DeCoudreaux, hair and makeup by Renee Rael
Eureka Moment
“When I was a PhD student at UC Berkeley, I was designing games in my spare time and noticed that many players were looking for ways to take their gaming skills, like collaboration and collective intelligence, and apply them to real-world challenges. I thought this was fascinating: Were they crazy? Were they delusional? Or could gamers actually save the real world? They wanted to investigate government corruption, track down terrorists, and turn the biggest stresses in their lives, such as getting over a traumatic breakup or finding a new job, into a game. No one else was taking gamers seriously, so I decided to study how games were changing the way we solve problems in our real lives. It turns out that gamers can do everything, from helping scientists come up with new cancer treatments to identifying mysterious objects in the solar system to documenting illegal spending by elected officials!”
Reality (Doesn’t) Bite
“Playing games is all about volunteering to overcome a challenge. Every game asks us to work hard at something that requires focus, effort, and creativity. If you bring the gaming mindset to reality, you can look at the stress in your life as an opportunity to wrestle, creatively, with something that's truly tough for you. You don't see it as a threat. You see it as an opportunity to rise to the heroic occasion.”
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The F-Word
“Every project I work on has one thing in common: I'm trying to invent something new. I'm going to make a game that accomplishes a real-world goal no one has ever tried to achieve before. I love how audacious this is. I'm not afraid of failure. And I won't be finished with my work until every single person on this planet wakes up and feels like they have something to contribute to tackling the world's toughest challenges.”
Connect Four
“The best advice I ever received was to throw out a traditional career plan and follow [these words] instead: ‘Whenever someone you admire invites you to work on something with them, go do that. Work with the most interesting people you can find, and you'll always be happy, and you'll always be learning.’ This has proven 100 percent true.”
Infinity and Beyond
“Find other people doing brave work and shine a light on them. Raise them up instead of promoting your own work. Don't be a lone wolf. You can't lead a movement unless there are people even more brilliant, more passionate, and more talented than you making your crazy idea look even better.”
For more in-depth interviews with inspiring visionaries, click here.
Hair and makeup by Renee Rael.
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