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Jane McGonigal on the Neuroscience of Play & the Promise of Augmented Reality

The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression, according to world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal, who’s referencing the work of pioneering psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith. Sutton-Smith studied the psychology of play for five decades. More recently, neurological research has backed up many of Sutton-Smith’s hypotheses. The same two regions of the brain activated by playing video games are the regions that are chronically under-stimulated, and eventually shrink over time, in people suffering from clinical depression. McGonigal showed research exploring the difference in brain activation caused by interactive play versus passive exposure, and talked about the similarities (and differences) between negative addiction and goal-oriented focused behavior.

McGonigal also spoke about the success of Pokemon Go, which was not only the fastest-downloaded app in the eight-year history of apps, but also the fastest-growing product in human history. McGonigal showed clips of the frenzied pursuit of Pokemon in New York City and Taipei, Taiwan, to illustrate the collective and contagious enthusiasm for the relatively phenomenon of augmented reality games.

  • Robert Clegg

    2:33 If the passive brain is less stimulated, what accounts for the HUGE emergence of eSports, audiences watching competitive video gaming?

    • rawlsio

      Or just watching televised real-world sports, for that matter… It’s easy to believe that engaging in interactive, decision-driven gaming stimulates a distinct set of neural systems. It’s hard to believe that “passive” observation of sequential content delivered outside your control makes the brain “dead” or “depressed”, as this section of the presentation seems to suggest. Too difficult to square this idea with the vast amount of consumption of these media (including the huge volume of click-response faux interaction on Facebook, etc.)

  • Robert Clegg

    3:38 I’d like to hear a little more about the excitement due to the anticipation of success. One of the critical reasons I believe the algebra game I developed 2004 was so successful was that I interpreted kids immediate and excited participation to mean that they thought they had a chance at success – or that the game was solvable, doable- as opposed to the open ended feeling and frustration of the classroom where you weren’t sure if you could succeed or if it would ever end in success.

  • Robert Clegg

    4:12 When the brain perceives you could learn something that would help you in the future… The success of video games in education remove the “why do I have to learn algebra?” The future becomes the immediate goal in the game. Kids want to perform there. So they learn what is needed to achieve that amazingly short term goal. This is the brilliance of a well written game. It removes the confusion around the need to learn a subject.

  • Robert Clegg

    1:30 This feels a little misleading, that this part of the brain lights up only when you are making a decision. If that were the case, all these kids on Chromebooks that have to make numerous interface decision and things unrelated to content or context would be in a brainstate for super-learning. This is not the case though. Trust me, I see it in class rooms every day.

    These apparently simple decisions must be set up in a context of meaning, relevant meaning actually. it is the frame of meaning that connects simple decisions. Is there a part of the brain related to context and meaning, relevance that sets the stage/frame for this brain activity you are showing here?

  • Robert Clegg

    4:30 Kid’s brains, executive functions for one, don’t mature until early adult life. this is why they don’t make good decision relative to the future. This is why a great video game works with kids because their idea of the future is compressed to the right now or near future – In other words, kids can get dopamine from making decisions and setting goals relative to the near future.

    My question is – does this help them develop or does it stunt growth and create an adult that can’t think long term?