Mark speaks with Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of the new book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything, Even Things that Seem Impossible Today. After she created a game to help herself recover from a debilitating concussion in 2009, Jane was inspired to build a more positive and collaborative world through the use of modern technology. Jane believes that games can generate a higher collective intelligence that can be put toward a better quality of human life.
Today, Commander Divine speaks with Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of the new book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything, Even Things that Seem Impossible Today. Throughout all her work, Jane advocates for the use of modern technology to create a more positive and collaborative world. In this episode, Jane and Mark discuss how to translate gaming skills into real life, how games can help us prepare for the future in an uncertain world, the importance of imagining positive future scenarios, and more.
“Our minds process a lot of what we experience in games as if they are real experiences. It’s not that we get confused, you know, we still know the difference between real life and a game. But the feelings are very powerful. And they do tend to create the kind of memory that stays with us and makes the issues we encounter in games feel relevant.”
“There’s an experience that many people who are spending more time in virtual reality worlds report that when they go back to real life, there’s a feeling of dissociation that the real world no longer feels real… And that’s tricky, because, you know, we were talking about mental health impacts. Scientists are trying to figure out, is this going to be a problem?… I for one am not going to be spending hours and hours in virtual environments myself until that’s better understood.”
“You know, you can get actionable insight, you can get this wisdom. But for me, I have to admit, the thing that makes me most excited about the work that I do is people just say they feel better. And it is so weird. Like, we have them play through really scary scenarios, you know, things that would be challenging and disruptive. And they come out on the other side of it fired up, confident, with clarity. And there’s just like a psychological benefit to being willing to really seriously imagine what you would do in a difficult situation.”
“We can imagine large scale systemic, societal change that will actually allow us to wake up in a world that we’re happy to be in and don’t have to be so scared and worried about humanity’s future. And I think we’ve had too many dystopian future narratives – we need some happy stories about what it looks like if we succeed.”
“When you can teach the brain to imagine the kinds of things other people describe as unimaginable, then you’ve got a mental asset for weird AI singularity type events and whatever else might happen.”
Mark Divine 2:00
So you learned as a gamer, the power of collaboration and the power of team learning and synchronous, you know, problem solving. And so that led to you wanting to research that. So what did you actually like, research when… you got a doctorate? Right? In something cool?
Jane McGonigal 2:17
Yes. So the field is called performance studies. It’s a hybrid discipline. What I did was sort of embed myself in gaming communities, spent a lot of time in person online, deep interviews.
Mark Divine 2:32
Any particular games, like give us a sense for like, I’m not a gamer, so what were the games that…?
Jane McGonigal 2:37
So I was particularly studying games that intentionally blurred the boundaries between virtual worlds and the real world. So games that would send you GPS coordinates and ask you to go out to real world locations. I mean, this was like 15 years before Pokemon Go. That was actually the kind of game that I was developing. So as a grad student, I was making games and also studying the communities of players to see if you go back to a real world location where you played a game, does it change your emotions in that space? Does it change your behavior in that space? And what I was finding is that people were more likely to talk to strangers, if they had played a game in a space, they were more likely to try new things, and have a little more courage, a little more curiosity. And they had a sense of belonging, which I thought was really interesting, even if the game was done, you know, they’re not actively playing the game, there was something about having that positive, collaborative, social, challenging experience
That carries over into their real life.
It carried over. And then at the same time, I was studying purely online games like World of Warcraft, and I was seeing a lot of conversation around, I guess, a sense of this gap between how successful they felt in the game worlds, they were leaders, they were communicators, they had this real sense of mastery and excellence. And yet, were maybe sometimes struggling to feel validated for those same skills and strengths and other areas of their lives, or they weren’t connected to opportunities where they could use those skills and strengths for some positive impact in society. And so that gap got very interesting to me. And I wanted to sort of try to fill that gap.
Mark Divine 4:25
Right. Yeah, there’s so many ways we can take this… that gap has led to a lot of mental health issues, right? Because you get immersed in something, that’s one thing, and then all of a sudden, reality is a different story. And so you have a lot of kids kind of, don’t really know how to bridge that and how to solve that. And I don’t think parents do either.
Jane McGonigal 4:43
I can give you a practical tip for how to build that
Yeah, please do because this is a big issue with teens these days, I think, yes.
Jane McGonigal 4:51
So anybody can do this. If somebody’s listening, and they’re playing a lot of games, but they feel that gap. You can do this on your own, but it’s particularly powerful. If you have a young person or a child in your life. And I do this with my own kids. I have seven year old twin daughters who are already playing games. I have the same conversation with them.
So the critical questions to ask someone in your life or yourself who is a gamer are questions about the real skills and strengths that are getting developed in the games and virtual worlds. I did a meta analysis of more than 500 scientific papers on the psychology of gaming addiction, to how it affects real life happiness and health. And the number one predictor of positive impact, and it’s defensive against pathological gaming, or addiction prevents it, is if somebody can answer this question. What have you gotten better at since you started playing this game? Or what does it take to be good at this game? And also, what’s the most challenging thing that you’ve had to do in this game? How did you do it?
So, when players can tell stories about the skills they’ve developed, and it could be, I keep my calm under pressure, or I’m a really flexible agile thinker, I can come up with 20 different strategies… I don’t give up when things are hard. All of these different things that are generalizable to real life, when young people start to talk about these, they become essentially fused into their identity. And so they become somebody not just in the game, but somebody in their whole lives… who is calm under pressure, who doesn’t give up when things are hard, who has really flexible, agile thinking. The bridge happens through that conversation. And so I’m always asking my kids, you know, they start playing a new game on their tablet, I’m like, Ah, like, what’s the challenge? Okay, what are you trying to learn how to do? And then you know, a few days later, okay, what are you getting better at? That conversation is the predictor of who benefits from games and brings those strengths to real life versus people who think it’s something about the game. Well, it’s a game that makes me feel good. It’s the fact that it’s not real, that makes me feel safe. That’s a dangerous way of thinking because then they turn to the game for escape, instead of seeing the game as a springboard for positive emotions and social strengths and skills that they can bounce right back into their whole lives with those same strengths.
Mark Divine 7:17
That’s fascinating. That’s a really, you know, mental management is the important skill. And that’s been true forever, right? So if you’re not training your mind, then culture is training it for you. You go into any gaming environment, suddenly, you’re experiencing these things, but you’re not trained how to translate that into real world. And so I think the work that you’re doing is extraordinarily valuable, because we’re heading into the metaverse and we need to basically live both, you know, we have to straddle the fence. You know, when I grew up in upstate New York, it was like, you know, I could look at it, and liken it to being in a video game, because we, we literally went out into this incredible world called nature. And we had to solve problems, you know, we got ourselves into all sorts of trouble, and we had to solve problems. And yet, it was a very expensive and painful kind of process. Whereas you get to do that now in a virtual world, almost free, and you can hit replay. And the consequences aren’t nearly what they are in the real world, right? So you can literally as a kid, not only learning but you can practice being a good human being, you know, so I’m curious, what’s the state of developing games that teach kids not just how to have fun and solve problems, and in this weird, strange like World of Warcraft or Fortnite, environment, but also teach life skills deliberately that translate into being a good person in the real world?
Jane McGonigal 8:37
I mean, there is an amazing organization called Games for Change. It’s a nonprofit, based in New York City that folks are interested in kind of seeing the state of the field. So these are game developers who have really made it a priority to try to make games that have positive impacts on players and also on society.
Mark Divine 9:00
Are there any particular games that have like risen to the surface that they’ve been behind? Or?
Jane McGonigal 9:05
Huh, yeah, I mean, one of the most compelling games that they’ve helped bring attention to is a game called Papers, Please, that helps you get more empathy for people who may be displaced and have to migrate, people become refugees, and the sort of difficulty of having to find your way without documentation or without legal access to things that you need. I would say that game has been very popular, you know, with millions of players. And it’s really helped, I think, a younger generation, I guess, feel like they have almost a first hand experience of the types of social challenges that so many people are experiencing, I mean, now with the war, we’re also seeing climate migrants. It is exciting to think that young people could, you know, play a game for an hour online, but have this experience that feels almost as if you’ve lived it yourself, because that is something that’s interesting about games… our minds process a lot of what we experience in games as if they are real experiences. It’s not that we get confused, you know, we still know the difference between real life and a game. But the feelings are very powerful. And they do tend to create the kind of memory that stays with us and makes the issues we encounter in games feel relevant. So you know, that’s, it’s a good place to go to, the Games for Change website, and the whole gallery of games like that, that people can learn.
Mark Divine 10:36
That’s neat. Well, to that point, my philosophy is essentially the mind creates everything, the mind is even creating this body in this experience. So if you put your mind in virtual environments, it’s every bit as real as if your mind is simply being dragged along by this body in the physical world.
Jane McGonigal 10:55
It’s especially true with immersive virtual reality technology
Mark Divine 11:00
Super immersive, right? Because you can’t, at a psychosomatic level, you can’t really, it’s not going to be able to distinguish, I think there’s probably something because the feedback is so immediate. It’s not as slow as it is in the physical world, or it’s also not as stunted because in the physical world, culture has trained people to act a certain way. And those rules don’t apply in the virtual world.
Jane McGonigal 11:24
It’s interesting that you describe the real world feedback as almost feeling stunted by comparison to immersive worlds. There’s actually some new research trying to understand this phenomenon. I don’t think we understand it perfectly yet. But there’s an experience that many people who are spending more time in virtual reality worlds report that when they go back to real life, there’s a feeling of dissociation that the real world no longer feels real. It doesn’t have that intensity of color and motion and sound that these designed virtual worlds do. And that’s tricky, because, you know, we were talking about mental health impacts, you know, scientists are trying to figure out, is this going to be a problem? You know, we don’t want people walking around the real world feeling dissociated from it. Is there something about the technology that can be changed? Or is it simply duration, you know, people who spend more than an hour at a time have this side effect, but less than an hour, your brain doesn’t get so overwhelmed that it can toggle back and forth? I think we do need to kind of pay attention to that. I for one am not going to be spending hours and hours in virtual environments myself until that’s better understood.
Mark Divine 12:47
100% and it’s a fascinating area. And essentially, you know, it’s training the mind at a very fast frequency. And a very intense frequency that, you know, isn’t syncing up with the wave, the vibrational quality of the whatever we call the real world. So there, I can see how that disconnect can be jarring and can lead to some challenges or lead to kids wanting to spend more and more time because they’re uncomfortable, like this is my grandson, he just wants to spend all this time, it’s a real challenge for his parents because he wants to be online because that’s where he’s happy. And that’s where his friends are. And that’s where he feels comfortable.
Jane McGonigal 13:23
It is tricky. I mean, some research that’s come out recently, looking over the first year of the pandemic, when lockdowns were more common and there was more social isolation, found that young people and especially boys who had an online gaming habit before the pandemic, seemed to weather it with better mental health, because they already had these habits of connecting online and they already had these communities. And so they didn’t feel as much disruption, it was more of a continuation of how they related to others. So, you know, in some ways, you can look at it as a more resilient kind of social relationship. But, you know, as you said, there’s a lot of nuance.
And so, certainly trying to be flexible around gaming habits and patterns is something I recommend, like don’t spend all your time playing the same game. Like mix it up, go, you know, seasons of your life, play a little more, play a little less. I think that is a helpful way to find balance and make sure that you’re always growing. I mean, the best way to make sure that you’re growing is to just always expose yourself to new games. In fact, in aging seniors, there’s less risk of cognitive decline and fewer symptoms of dementia for people who expose themselves to games that they’ve never played before. Then that’s really important if you’re feeling kind of stuck, you’re like, Ah, I need to fire up my brain. It’s almost like learning a new language. Maybe like learning a new recipe, you can kind of unstick your brain, force a little neuroplasticity by playing something that is beyond your comfort zone of genres.
Mark Divine 15:07
So you’re saying I should move beyond Solitaire?
Jane McGonigal 15:08
Well, that is literally what I tell people. If you’re still playing solitaire on your computer, it is time for some Fortnite, that is for sure.
Mark Divine 15:19
This is a great place to kind of segue into futuristic imagineering, imaginable type stuff, which is the title of your book. You know, I kind of had a sense that gaming is, you know, as a technology is really kind of preparing youth to deal with the future that’s coming fast at them. And my proof of that is for me, I haven’t watched TV in 20 years. You know, I use technology for work, and for research. And, you know, obviously, a little bit of gaming with my solitaire on my phone. But I’ve got to now move beyond that, of course, sounds like. And so when I like plug into network TV or plug into a video game, even watching my grandson play it, like my brain doesn’t like it, it doesn’t vibrate at that level or whatever. You know what I mean? I can’t think that fast. So I’d probably be a disaster as a fighter pilot in space. You know what I mean? But these kids, you know, I’m speaking as a warrior of course, not everyone wants to approach it that way. Video games simulations are great for training the mind to operate in a VUCA environment. You know, volatile, complex, uncertain, ambiguous.
Jane McGonigal 16:27
Right? Yeah. So it’s one of our favorite terms. For the future, we’re always talking about the VUCA world. It is true if you look at the most replicated kind of study and the field of game research, fMRI studies show that gamers process real time information differently. They’re able to process and make sense of and respond effectively to multiple streams of information much faster, and their brains are already coming up with new strategies before they have conscious recognition that something has changed. That is a skill for the VUCA world, when we’re just even going about our ordinary lives. I think the biggest cause of, I guess, feeling blindsided by reality is that we’re not noticing change quickly enough, like we wake up one day, and we’re like, Oh, my God, why is everything shut down? You know, well, we weren’t paying attention to the clues, we weren’t noticing the signals of change. And for sure, at a neurological level, games do train our brains to notice change faster, and to start developing strategies, even before we have conscious awareness of the change. And that is something that I think, the whiplash of extreme weather and extreme political events and the pandemic and whatever else we might face, it will be an important gift and kind of mental strength to have a brain that can notice what’s happening just a little bit faster.
Mark Divine 18:08
What I think is fascinating, because I can see that very clearly that at least having gaming in your life, whether an adult or a kid, will provide some resiliency to be able to harmonize with technology and also understand kind of the VUCA environment we’re in. And, you know, I’ve been teaching that from the Navy SEAL perspective, which is like being in a massive video game, but it costs millions of dollars for us to train that way, or billions of dollars, actually. So it’s not for everybody, obviously.
But how does your assertion that gaming helps you kind of, like live into the future, be more predictive or more able to imagine the unimaginable, and is it just because you’re in these virtual environments that have, I’ve really gotten into… let me just finish this thought, because I’m going down this rabbit hole, I’ve really gotten into sci fi audiobooks, for some reason, like I’m just captured by them. And I never really would read a sci fi book. But when I put one in audio format, my life comes alive internally. And so now all of a sudden, over the past five years, I’ve been able to imagine all these futures. And then of course, some of the amazing TV shows, you know, like Star Trek Discovery, or you know, some of these, you know, expanse that show you a future of possibilities that helps you be prepared for those possibilities that come in the next year, two years, five years or 10 years with artificial intelligence and robotics and everything. Do you think that same thing is playing out with gamers that because they’re living in a lot of times futuristic realities, then they’re more capable of predicting the future that’s coming?
Jane McGonigal 19:41
Well, I mean, my job is to create games that kind of pair those sci fi scenarios with gamers who might benefit from pre imagining or pre feeling those scenarios. And sometimes they’re not gamers, right? Sometimes they’re government officials,
Yeah, but what I specialize in is something that I call a social simulation, which is different from a computer simulation, where you just put in a bunch of algorithms, you drop in some data, you press a button, and it spits out… If this were a pandemic, x many people would get sick, this many people die, the economy would…That’s, you know, algorithmic simulation, what I create are scenarios that I invite people, hundreds 1000s 10s of 1000s of people to come together online. And imagine for 48 hours for 10 days, oftentimes, for as long as six weeks, eight weeks, 10 weeks, keep imagining that you are trying to adapt to the scenario. How would you feel, what problems would you have? How would you help others? And most famously, back in 2010, I was creating a future game for the World Bank. We had 20,000 people spend 10 weeks imagining a world set 10 years in the future. So the game was set in the year 2020. And we asked them how they would adapt and try to help others during a series of cascading global crises that started with a respiratory pandemic coming out of China that was complicated by supply chain disruptions, extreme heat and wildfires, social media driven conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic… what do you do? How do you help others? How are you changing things in your community and in your own life? And we had people spend 10 weeks imagining this in 2010. And yes, I went back during the real 2020. Of course, I had to go find these people and find out. Did you have a different experience of the real year 2020 because you had spent time really imagining this?
Mark Divine 21:52
Is there any way to collect kind of the collective wisdom of the group that’s doing these games?
Jane McGonigal 21:58
Yeah, we often publish reports for another well known simulation that I ran for the Institute for the Future was called Superstruct. We published a series of reports back in 2009. And again, we were looking ahead to 2019. Because futurists love to look 10 years in the future, so that we’re looking at problems that we have enough time to solve like, simulating tomorrow or next year, it’s not that helpful, because like, you basically already run out of time, if something happens tomorrow, that you need to get ready for, we want to have a long runway so we can really make a change or really prepare.
So yeah, sometimes we do publish these reports online. And for Superstruc, we publish all these strategies for being more resilient. If there’s a pandemic, if there’s a supply chain disruption, if there’s a refugee crisis, we were imagining all of this happening at the same time, in the year 2019. And what was interesting to me, following up with participants, was that they did report feeling less anxiety, feeling less shocked, actually noticing the chain of events faster, getting the supplies they needed for their family faster, making changes to their habits faster. And also being able to just like jump in and feel like they had already thought through how they would use their own skills and abilities to help others during a respiratory pandemic, and were able to act faster.
And so for me, this was like a very strange validation that I started researching, you know, 20 years ago, could playing games where we try to imagine the future… could it produce actionable insights, could it help people prepare. The other thing that was weird about these games superstructure in a vote is that we were just asking people to look around their lives and tell stories about what they would do. So we might say, you’ve been advised to isolate for two weeks, you’ve been exposed. Under what circumstances do you not follow this order? Where are you going, if you’re gonna break quarantine, you’re gonna break isolation? And the number one thing that players said, was for church or for religious worship, which was kind of surprising. I mean, I don’t know that I would have predicted that. But during the real pandemic, that did, in fact, turn out to be the number one super spreading event or phenomenon. It was the number one thing that people went to, even if they had tested positive for COVID. Even if they were told to isolate, if you look at all of the seating events around the planet, a majority of them are linked to religious worship or gatherings, which is just to say that players, ordinary people, can accurately predict what other ordinary people will do using their own knowledge of their own needs, their own values, their own hopes and behaviors. And asking more people to participate in these kinds of imagination experiments now, we might get a lot of useful information, a lot of collective wisdom, so that if we wake up in one of these worlds, we can better predict what might happen and maybe just not be so shocked. Like ah, what, people are fighting about masks? We had people practice wearing masks, and we knew this was going to be an issue based on how people responded back in 2010, and everything they reported.
Mark Divine 25:13
Help me understand how… you know, these future thinking games. Is there an immersive environment, like you’d find in Fortnite? Or is it really more of a linear, reflect upon this in your life and report back on the thing?
Jane McGonigal 25:25
It’s socially immersive, we do not use virtual environments, like you would find in Minecraft or Fortnite, it’s not a visual 3D environment. Instead, we create, essentially, alternate reality social networks. So you would be invited to come to a social network that we create specifically for the game. And it looks like Twitter, it looks like Discord, whatever, Facebook, whatever.
Mark Divine 25:48
And so you seed it with news and things that are…
Jane McGonigal 25:51
Exactly, we seed it with a scenario. And every day you come back, there’s more news from the scenario, but you’re helping tell this story. So we would have you know, on any given day, you would have hundreds or 1000s of people sharing their photos, their videos, their advice, all based on imagining, oh, my God, I’m living through, you know, let’s say we’re imagining it’s the year 2030. And the internet has been shut off by the government for cybersecurity reasons. And we are now being asked to live for 30 days without internet.
Ironically, well, yeah, we would, we would have a backstory for that they would all be on the mesh network. In that case, everybody would have downloaded the mesh app to their phones already. So we have like the secret underground internet, which is, of course what people are doing right now for government shutdowns.
But what’s so amazing about this is, you know, everybody gets to share the future together. And I like this better than just writing a program and pressing a button and seeing what it spits out because if we try to simulate the future by just running these programs, it’s all predicated on did the person writing the program have the best theory or model, yeah, if you have 1000s of people playing at the same time, there’s going to be weird stuff, there’s going to be surprising trends and phenomenon. And you’re going to surface things that
It’s crowdsourcing the future. I love that.
Yes, it’s crowdsourcing the future. You know, there’s two reasons to do this, right? You know, you can get actionable insight, you can get this wisdom. But for me, I have to admit, the thing that makes me most excited about the work that I do is people just say they feel better. And it is so weird. Like, we have them play through really scary scenarios, you know, things that would be challenging and disruptive. And they come out on the other side of it fired up, confident, with clarity. And there’s just like a psychological benefit to being willing to really seriously imagine what you would do in a difficult situation. I mean, I’m sure that makes sense to someone like you, who probably has had to do a lot of mental preparation and visualizing what you would do.
Mark Divine 27:59
You just described, you know, every single SEAL mission. You’ve got to go in and collectively imagine failure 100 different ways to Sunday, and how you’d respond. And then when it happens, you’re like, Hey, I’ve been here before. And this is how we’re going to respond. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll try Plan B and see.
Jane McGonigal 28:15
Exactly. So how do we give ordinary people access to this kind of mental training and this kind of mental preparation, these future scenarios, the games that are in the book Imaginable, you learn these habits, you play through these games with your family, you know, with your co workers, you can get get access to that same kind of mental training.
Mark Divine 28:36
So I imagine all these games are not like, login and do this online. But like things you can do together with your family, you’re just like, here’s the game, let’s go, let’s play this. It’s an imagination game.
Jane McGonigal 28:47
Yeah, the ones in the book, you could definitely do offline if you prefer. In fact, a lot of people like to do it as a journaling practice. So you get a notebook, and you essentially journal for 10 days from each feature scenario. And there’s, I think it’s about 15 future scenarios in the book. I encourage you to spend 10 days with each scenario and to try to find at least one other person to trade, you know, your notes or journal entries or to get on the phone and be like, Okay, what did you imagine today, because there is a benefit to doing this with somebody else. So you get surprised by what they say or how they would react kind of broadens your perspective
Mark Divine 29:26
And that informs your thinking, and then you know, you’re informed there. And then so collectively, and the more people the more surprising things that come up. So do each of these 15 scenarios you have online as well?
Jane McGonigal 29:37
Yeah. So you can also come online and play with… we have a community of 1000 people now who are playing along with the book, in a community called Urgent Optimists, because that’s what, we’re trying to create urgent optimism for the future. Not blind hope, you know, but feeling fired up to be ready and make positive change. And so you can come online and play with people from around the world, which is really nice, because I have to say that even you know, as the designer of these scenarios, when I get at least a few hundred people playing with them, I’m always shocked. There are always people saying and doing things that I just could not have imagined, I don’t have the experience or the perspective. So it is I think it is extra good to try to do it with from people from different countries, from different industries, different communities.
Mark Divine 30:28
What a great way to be collaborative, and also to practice your global mindset, right, to get out of our little, you know, echo chambers, and to recognize that there are some brilliant people all over the globe. I spoke at a Tony Robbins event on Sunday. It’s called Wealth Mastery and 5000 people from 99 countries, 99 countries, all working on improving themselves all dealing with their own version of human fears and challenges, and all of them worried about the future, just like we’re talking about. So that idea of being able to connect globally, and create a global team or global community is super powerful. Because I think ultimately, you know, this, I love this idea of urgent optimism, because it’s sort of similar to when I teach, we you know, if we can see a positive future, then of course, you know, first you have to embrace it, and embody that and get out of fear, right, you gotta feed that courage wolf, but then, you know, you bring other people into their future. So you’ve got to imagine it first. And if you can’t look forward and imagine a positive future with technology, the way it’s going, then you’re going to believe all the dystopian crap. And that’s going to bring more negativity, more fear, and it’s going to make it more likely to come true in my view.
Jane McGonigal 31:43
I think so. And I was really taken aback. There was a survey, it was the largest survey ever conducted on the topic of how we feel about the future. And it was published just a few months ago in the Lancet Planetary Health Journal. It was very rigorous research, he talked to over 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25. And they found that a majority of young people from all over the world agreed with the statement that humanity is doomed, and that they personally have no future. And they’re really talking about climate change in that case. And it was really important for me when I was writing Imaginable to try to fill the book, especially the end of the book, with these three sort of mega scenarios at the end of the book that I want people to spend at least 10 days imagining. And they’re all an effort to plant in people’s mind, a realistic scenario that actually solves our problems, that allows us to feel like we can really believe in a positive future that is not just by like putting our heads in the sand and hoping, but by saying, you know, there are ways to tackle climate change, there are technologies, there are scientific breakthroughs, it’s not all up to you, and you know, how much you know, your individual carbon impact there is, we can imagine large scale systemic, societal change that will actually allow us to wake up in a world that, you know, we’re happy to be in and don’t have to be so scared and worried about humanity’s future. And I think we’ve had too many dystopian future narratives, we need some happy stories about what it looks like if we succeed.
Mark Divine 33:28
I agree. And I think that your work is powerful because everybody has a voice in that, you know, the disempowering view has been, you know, it’s up to government to solve it, or international institutions. And obviously, that’s not true, because they failed. It’s actually up to every human being, to do this at scale, which now the internet allows us to do in immersive environments a lot is to do so if you have billions of people, or let’s just say, on a planet that has, you know, 10 billion people in 10 years, or whatever that number might be, what if 10% of us or 20% of us, really, truly were living, believing, seeing, communicating, and mentally projecting that positive future? If you buy into the idea that everything that’s outside of us is a reflection, or a projection of what’s inside of us, then guess what, things are changed really quickly. Add to that all the multiplicative effects of these social actors and, and the positive technological innovations that will come up to solve global warming into, I mean, all these things. And wow, you can start to see how things could change positively really quickly.
Jane McGonigal 34:38
Yes. And it’s important that we have a future we can believe in. Because if we feel alienated, if we feel hopeless, that’s where you get new terrorist movements. That’s where you get
You feed into the negativity in the cycle of violence.
Yes. So it’s not just about solving the actual problems they have to solve, but it’s also about preventing global alienation that is going to create new streams of… we don’t want to live in that world. I don’t want to live in that world.
Mark Divine 35:07
I don’t want to live in that world. And the world is coming fast. And the future is coming fast. The future is here. I was at an event with Peter Diamandis where he was interviewing the Google CEO or former chairman, Eric Schmidt. Right. Is that his name? And the topic veered into AGI. Yeah, artificial general intelligence. So right now, AI is specific intelligence, right. So solve Go and you know, they can, computer can beat the best Go player, or chess or whatever. But AGI is when a computer becomes self learning in a general sense. You know, Eric was very clear that this isn’t a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when. Not everyone would agree with that. But he was. And when that happens, then you have a computer. They call that the breakout moment. And I’m sure you’re familiar with that. And so in that breakout moment, he thinks is going to happen in the next 10 years. And then, you know, United States is working on, Europe’s working on theirs, as China’s working on theirs. So you’re going to have this race because the first AGI to reach breakout wins, is this view. And so of course, from there, you have all future possibilities suddenly get magnified by trillions of times because of the power of this thing to be able to solve problems, you know, to know things that human beings can’t know or don’t know, or don’t think they can know.
Jane McGonigal 36:28
You know, the real question that is not answered yet is, will this technological resource be like the internet, that is accessible to all? And you can build whatever you want on it?
Mark Divine 36:42
Or will it be stove piped and held by government for oppressive purposes?
Jane McGonigal 36:46
Right, or, I mean, in some ways, intelligence, it could be weaponized in the sense that if you have access to such significantly more impactful.
Mark Divine 36:58
It’s fun to talk about this for a moment. I know you as a future thinker, I’m sure have thought a lot about this. But my sense is that any AGI that has access to all that the combined intelligence of the human race and beyond, will also have access to the endless possibilities that exist with the positive variations of the future or future decision making, as well as the negative and will want to, or will be compelled to, move toward the positive, both for its own survival, unless it’s, you know, coded in there specifically to veer toward the negative.
Jane McGonigal 37:33
I think it may have to be coded in specifically to veer towards certain positive values. I mean, what we’re seeing in self learning systems is that, if they are trained on large scale, human created data sets, they tend to veer towards the negative in that the patterns they pick up…
Mark Divine 37:54
Because they’re picking up human patterns.
Jane McGonigal 37:58
Yes, well, and they’re picking it up from this decade. So a lot of data sets are social media data sets, or online data sets…
Because we didn’t have those datasets before this
Right. And maybe that’s not the best place to be getting, you know, information. Because it’ll be interesting. If more of it were coming from video games than from Reddit, that might be an interesting experiment to see if there is a push. AI that is trained, for example, on Dota, has developed new kind of hybrid, competitive collaboration models of behaving that we don’t see a lot in human society, that researchers are very interested in.
What’s Dota, by the way?
It’s like a game like League of Legends, it’s a popular strategy game. And it’s… Elon Musk has invested a lot of money in training AI on Dota. It’s a kind of interesting space. But one of the things coming out of it, is these new forms where the AI, sometimes compete, sometimes collaborate, they don’t adopt a purely competitive strategy or purely cooperative, competitive, collaborative strategies. And so scientists are like oh, we can’t really find examples of that behavior in human culture, but maybe we can learn from it and adopt it. So we’re seeing better behavior in AI, or maybe higher values in AI come out of machines that are being trained on video games and social media
Mark Divine 39:21
Scientists need to know where to point, the nose of the AI, right? Yeah, if they were to go and be able to study the collaborative problem solving of a Navy SEAL team, they would have some extraordinary results. That does exist in human behavior, but just not at the mass cultural mediate level, because that just amplifies the worst. But it’s out there, then there’s got to be a way for reachers to access. And I think you’ve stumbled upon one of them, which is to go into these positive gaming communities.
Jane McGonigal 39:49
Or just think, you know, China’s training their AI on their social media, which is much more tightly regulated and censored. And it will be fascinating to see.
Mark Divine 40:01
The point is, it’s coming fast, right? Like, I think, for all listeners to understand that, and I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Because when I listened to Schmidt and Peter Diamandis, in fact, Peters got a new book called The Future is Faster Than You Think. And it’s like here, it’s all this technology, which is now in laboratories and medical institutions and whatnot, is literally on the cusp of being commercialized. And then the AI is getting smarter and smarter and the iterations is happening quicker and quicker. So it’s not like 40 years from now, or 50 years in some distant future that we’re going to see some of the things that we see in Star Trek, it’s literally in the next 10 to 20 years.
Jane McGonigal 40:40
Yeah, I mean, I think most people who are alive today will live through that transformation. We know most people who are alive today will be alive in 2050. And that’s sort of the time horizon that people expect to see really radical at scale impacts of artificial intelligence.
Mark Divine 41:01
Things that even today might take 20 years to develop will be developed in months and then days.
Jane McGonigal 41:08
So we can’t predict exactly what that will be like. But it’s a good reason to get some extra practice now playing with different futures so that we can just build that comfort with discomfort. You know, I would say like, even if…
Mark Divine 41:22
That’s one of my favorite sayings, by the way
Jane McGonigal 41:26
Yeah? You might imagine a scenario that you never have to live through. But if you were able to adapt your mind to a strange new world, and really feel that weirdness and get used to coping with uncertainties, that’s good practice for whatever weird stuff we’re going to live through. We just, we develop that kind of mental emotional resilience that you really can only get by exposing yourself to things that make you uncomfortable, or are hard to imagine. When you can teach the brain to imagine the kinds of things other people describe as unimaginable, then you’ve got a mental asset for weird AI singularity type events and whatever else might happen.
Mark Divine 42:07
That’s right. But also, like in the gaming environment, you recognize that you are a co creator of this reality and so to start taking responsibility for that.
I like that. Yes.
That’s awesome. So the book Imaginable, fantastic title. I love that. Available anywhere but what you know, where would people go to like, participate in these games? And to find and learn more about your work?
Jane McGonigal 42:32
So there’s an app you can search in the app store for urgent optimists or you can go to urgent optimists.org.
Mark Divine 42:38
Okay, urgentoptimists.org. And do you personally have any social media or anything like that, or do you steer clear of that?
Jane McGonigal 42:46
Yeah, I’m on Twitter. For now… there’s a lot of change going on. Yeah, you can find me, I’m at avantgame. So like the avant garde, but…
Mark Divine 42:58
Avantgame, I love it. Jane, this has been a fantastic conversation. Really appreciate the work you’re doing and really opened my eyes a bit. I’m gonna move beyond solitude or Solitaire. No, I’m not.
Jane McGonigal 43:08
Yeah, that was a good slip of the tongue, right. You’re gonna play a social game. I like that.
Mark Divine 43:16
Awesome. Thanks, Jane. We’ll talk to you soon.