A Conversation with Jane McGonigal


A few months ago, during one of my hours-long internet research dives, I googled "the future of empathy." I expected to see books or journal articles among the results. What I did not expect to find was an interactive online game called Face the Future aimed at getting people to imagine a near-future in which we can share and receive feelings as easily as text messages or emails. If you've been subscribing to this newsletter for a while, this may sound familiar. Just before the game took place (in mid-November) I sent out a link encouraging readers to check it out. The game ended up getting an overwhelming response, and I've got a story coming out soon that gets at more of the details. But I bring it up now to explain how I found myself in the fortunate position of interviewing Jane McGonigal. She is the director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, which partnered with educational organization Facing History and Ourselves to create the Face the Future game. McGonigal is a world-renowned game developer and the author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and Superbetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient - Powered by the Science of Games. 

We talked about how technology can affect empathy, and what young people can do to make sure they're part of the process of change. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

Kaitlin Ugolik: Can you talk a little bit about what you do at the Institute for the Future?

Jane McGonigal: At IFTF, we base forecasts around signals. We look for things that are being invented now and prototyped and studied in research labs now, and try to follow the breadcrumbs where they lead. 

KU: What are some of the current signals most relevant to how we use technology?

JM: We've foreseen that wearables like Fitbits will have sweat sensors so they can detect things like adrenaline and cortisol and oxytocin, all of these hormones that tell us about our positive and negative feelings. We're already seeing the use of voice analysis, so when we talk to Siri or Alexa in our living room, they can look for our speech patterns to see if we're depressed or anxious.

KU: How do you think these innovations will affect our ability to empathize, or experience empathy?

JM: The reality is that there will be a lot of data about our emotions in the future. We kind of want to build that out to ask, once we have this data, will we keep it private? Will it be shared? Who will we share it with, and why would we share it? The furthest out is the idea of being able to simulate a sense of emotion.

KU: Would you use the technology simulated in the Face the Future game to transmit your own emotions? 

JM: I think almost certainly no. I worry about if colleagues could see that I'm stressed, would they not want to work with me and I'll miss out on cool projects? Or if my parents seem I'm upset. There could be lots of potential downsides on an interpersonal level, but I also think tracking on a bigger level could be useful if anonymized. Like noticing that people in San Francisco are really depressed today and figuring out why: the weather? Something else? It would be interesting to contribute data to learn about the mental health of communities. 

KU: Do you have concerns about whether sharing emotions in that way might actually have a negative effect on empathy?

JM: I'm more interested in the general sense of anxiety that many people feel about the future, and the sense of uncertainty many young people have about their futures in particular in this economic, political and environmental climate. Thinking about the future - any future - builds a sense of belonging and self-efficacy. Instilling this idea that the future belongs to you, and you can take actions today that affect how that future turns out. 

KU: How might technology like we're talking about help young people feel more in control of the future?

JM: When you're overwhelmed or paralyzed by anxiety or depression, it can be hard to make room for what other people are going through. I think what we've seen in the last decade, particularly with younger generations, a sense of figuring out who's in charge and wondering whether they can make a difference, and whether it matters what they do. Getting involved with deciding what the future should be like is an important part of helping people find that confidence and self-efficacy that they can make a difference in the world we all wind up living in.


KU: Can you give one example from the technology world?

JM: What if we had asked some questions about Twitter a little earlier in its development, in terms of design assumptions that were made about anonymity and the ability to create multiple accounts instantly and talk to anybody even if they don't follow you? If we thought through that, we might have made some different design decisions to minimize the chances that it would become such an atmosphere of bullying and harassment. I think now we're seeing some pushback against some of the design decisions, but the platform is in such a stage of maturity that it can be really hard to intervene and change course. It's important for the future community that users of this type of technology are expressing their wants and desires and concerns now.

You can follow Jane McGonigal on Twitter at @avantgame.