Fiero! Museums as Happiness Engineers

Jane McGonigal
Museum magazine, March/April 2009

The future is elusive—but it’s still a topic of ceaseless speculation. It has been a constant of human nature across time and cultures to want to know what awaits beyond the horizon. But we shouldn’t simply cross our fingers and hope we’re able to face the challenges. We owe it to the museum field to look at the trends, the research, the technological changes, the population shifts and the political mood. Jane McGonigal delivered the following lecture in December at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum as a presentation by AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, a forum for innovative thinking and new ideas about the role museums can play in shaping our communities and society at large now and in the years to come. Video of the lecture is available at www.futureofmuseums.org

This is not about predicting the future and then getting there before everybody else. This is about looking at different futures and deciding which ones we want and how best to create them. Here is a future that I would like: A game designer will be nominated for a Nobel Prize by 2034! This might seem like a strange idea to you if you haven’t played any alternate reality games designed to solve real-world problems. But that’s the kind of game I design—ones that give gamers a way to contribute to society. Because I do believe games and gamers are capable of changing the world.

Here are just some statistics to get you really excited about games: Sixty-nine percent of all U.S. households play computer and video games. They have a console or a computer that they use for gaming on a weekly basis. Ninety-one percent of people under 18 years old play weekly; they average eight to nine hours a week. Seventy percent of large U.S. companies and nonprofits already train employees with games and simulations, and 95 percent expect to do so over the next five years.

What we’re looking at is a society that is extremely well versed in gaming as a medium and is getting quite used to the particular pleasures of gaming. Some demographics that you might not be aware of: Forty percent of gamers are women. The average U.S. gamer is 35 years old. That’s probably because the first home video game console was invented 31 years ago. One thing that we’ve seen about gamers as they grow up is they don’t stop; one in four gamers is over the age of 50. Whatever you might have in your mind as an idea of who is playing games, this is the reality.

This is a new generation of hard-core gamers, and what they’re doing is generating unprecedented participation bandwidth. They are donating more cognitive cycles, more heart share to game worlds and virtual worlds than we’ve seen dedicated to any project before. Basically, we have hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are spending 20-plus hours a week playing their favorite games—that’s like a part-time job. They’re creating this kind of collective resource of mind share, heart share and energy. If we can figure out how to tap that participation bandwidth and siphon off some of that gaming time, we can do a lot of good things.

Why are there so many diverse kinds of people playing games? In a nutshell, games make us happy and help us do things that are more amazing than we think we’re capable of doing in our real lives.

Many of you are probably familiar with something called positive psychology or the new science of happiness, which has been developing over the past decade as an alternative to psychology that looks at our mental illness and chronic problems. We want to know what is optimal human experience and what we can do to increase satisfaction and well-being. We’re seeing lots of institutions and government agencies trying to apply the science of happiness in a way that provides a rigorous metric so we can see the impact of our policies or our built environments on people’s happiness. They’re creating happiness maps and metrics like gross national happiness and the authentic happiness inventory.

Happiness is not a warm puppy. That is not what the science of happiness is about. The science of happiness is about understanding what the human brain is built for, what our emotional systems are built for, our social systems are built for, so that we can optimize human experience in a way that basically matches up with how we’ve evolved as human beings. There are different kinds of happiness in different demographics, things matter more or less as you age and also in different countries we see some differences, but there are four things that seem to be pretty universal:
  1. Satisfying work—waking up in the morning with a concrete task.
  2. The experience of being good at something. We don’t have to be rich or famous, but we do have to feel like we have some strength that we can apply and that the rest of the world can see that we’ve made a contribution.
  3. Time spent with people we like. We do draw energy from that; it’s important that people have social interaction.
  4. The chance to be a part of something bigger. We all crave meaning that extends beyond our own personal life, to see that there is a bigger picture. Some people seek this through science or religion or art or activism.

If we have these four things, it really doesn’t matter what else is happening in our lives.

Museums should be in the business of making people happy. I would argue that museums are built as a place to spend time with people you like. We see families going and people going with their friends or on dates. You do get the chance to be a part of something bigger. Museums are always telling a big story. They situate you in a history or in a community. But in terms of satisfying work or the experience of being good at something, I would say that very few museums give me something to do, a concrete goal or a mission. In fact, oftentimes they might make me feel dumb.

Museums are a leading candidate to be pioneers in the sustainable happiness movement. They are a premier platform for collective experience. When we think about global happiness, well-being and satisfaction, museums are poised to deliver this to the world if we can figure out how to provide the first two things: satisfying work and this feeling of being good at something. What the museum community needs are happiness engineers—people who can apply the science of happiness and develop the systems. We need people who can create activities that generate happiness.

We have a whole industry of happiness engineers: Video game and computer game designers are basically the avant-garde of happiness engineers.

The game World of Warcraft is the most sophisticated happiness engine that exists now. It gives you something to do. You have a potentially world-saving mission. There is zero unemployment in these worlds. You have throngs of people willing to collaborate with you. You have your guildmates and you have strangers who need to work with you to achieve your goal. You’re spending time with people you like, and strangers are becoming people you like because you’re collaborating. And then you’re getting constant feedback about how much you’re learning and how much better you’re getting. When we learn things in games, we get that. When we learn things in life, we don’t.

The average player spends 20 hours a week in this game. There are 10 million subscribers right now who pay for the privilege of receiving the happiness that this game provides. Not only do they spend 20 hours a week playing; they spend an enormous amount of time supporting the culture, archiving this game world on wiki, a webpage for user-modified content. It’s the second largest wiki in the world after Wikipedia. Because this entire wiki is just about one game, World of Warcraft has the most collective knowledge created about it on the Internet of any topic in the world. Five million people use and contribute to this wiki every month.

It has taken 100 million mental hours to produce Wikipedia as it exists today. It took, say, 100 people a million hours, or a million people contributed 100 hours. If you think about the 10 million World of Warcraft gamers who are playing that game for 20 hours a week, you realize that it would only take five days of World of Warcraft gaming to build Wikipedia, which has taken years to build. If we just took the players of that one game and borrowed their brains for five days and asked them to work on real problem solving—and we know they’re capable of doing this kind of work because they’re building the World of Warcraft wiki—we could create a whole new Wikipedia every five days, and that’s just one game. That makes me think that if we could get gamers to work on something real, the Nobel Prize is possibly in our future.

If you’re not a gamer, you might not realize that the reason people are spending so much time in front of these game systems is not because they don’t have a life or because they’re lame and don’t like reality. It’s because these systems are optimized to make us happy. They are optimized to do all of the things that we crave. So games work better than most of reality because they give us clear instructions. We know exactly what we’re supposed to do when we start to play. They give us better feedback. You can’t be good at something unless you’re getting feedback, and gamers don’t mind criticism. Getting told why you suck is actually a really fun part of the experience. That’s when you’re really engaged in learning and getting better. Researchers have used biometric data to prove that gamers are most engaged when they fail, and the computer shows them what they did wrong. Can you imagine if you felt that way about failure in reality? It would really be quite powerful.

There’s a lot of research on the kind of emotions games generate. My favorite emotion that they have been shown to generate is something called “fiero,” which is an Italian word we don’t really have a word for in English. When we’ve done something really hard and we feel really proud of ourselves, we raise our fists in the air: Fiero! You’ve seen it with those who win the Super Bowl or when you’ve finally finished whatever thing you’re doing—fiero! I finished that report! Games produce so much fiero that people collect these photos of gamers with their controllers in the air. That’s an emotion we don’t get enough of in real life. We’re not walking around constantly going, “Fiero!” But gamers are, and this light bulb went off in my head: Multiplayer games are the ultimate happiness engines, and that could be a very powerful force for good in the world. And compared to games, reality’s broken.

There’s a piece of graffiti in my neighborhood, and every time I walk by it I think, whoever wrote that is a gamer: “I’m not good at life.” I am really, really, really, really, really good at Rock Band 2, but I am not good at life in the same way. We need to fix that. We need to fix it so that people don’t feel like they are smartest and most powerful only when they’re in virtual worlds. We want them to feel that way in real life, and we want to give them systems that let them be their happiest and most successful selves in the real world.

When people show up at museums, can’t we give them a mission or a goal? Can we give them feedback? What are you “leveling up” in as you go from room to room or from museum to museum? Are there virtual honors that you can show to your friends online afterwards depending on what exhibit you were interacting with? Is there a better community that we could provide, real-time interaction with other visitors or maybe even with other visitors at similar museums around the world? We can really think bigger about global community. People really enjoy that sort of live interaction with people all over the world.

What’s the museum fiero moment? Can we go from “What did I see at the museum?” to “What did I do at the museum that I will now brag about to everyone I know and own as a life story?” Happiness is crystallized to its perfect form in games. But in the future it doesn’t have to be just games. We can create systems that work like games. We can create institutions and spaces that work like games. Museums don’t have to install screens and little things you interact with. What I’m talking about is creating large-scale participatory systems functioning like games that do those four things better than reality. We just have to understand why games are working better than anything else.

And so my last forecast is that over the next 15 years we could see museum-organized mass collaborative systems. You might call them games that are changing the world by giving people a chance—superpowers—to practice these collaborations. We could see museum exhibitions and other spaces exquisitely designed to turn visitors into players and to turn crowds into super-collaborative communities. The one thing I can’t stress enough is that the fate of humanity hangs in the balance over whether we’re going to get crowds to do anything useful. Are they going to put all their participation bandwidth into virtual worlds, or are they going to contribute in the real world? We’ll also see museums channel participation bandwidth online and on-site to real investigations and projects of what I call “applied imagination.” Whatever you hope people will learn, whatever you dream that people will come to understand and be inspired by, there is a next step of mobilizing them to do something about it because it’s what creates happiness.

Museums have all this pent-up knowledge and expertise, and all of these collections that are designed to inspire and bring people together. The museum community has an ethical responsibility to unleash this and to inspire visitors into action. I foresee museums becoming key hubs within “global super structures.” These are extreme-scale networked organizations that are designed to help humanity survive super threats like global climate change and the global economic crisis. 

Just for fun, I thought you might like to hear what gamers think about the future of museums. We ran a game at the Institute for the Future this year called Superstruct, set in the year 2019. The game predicted that humanity may be extinct by the year 2042. So the game involved trying to tackle super threats like corruption of the food supply chain or a pandemic and asked people to help us solve these problems and create super structures. In six weeks, we engaged a community of 7,000 forecasters, and they wrote a thousand stories about the future. They had 500 active strategy forums and 500 organizations that they invented, including quite a few museums. In fact, if you look at a tag map of the content, the two biggest words are “museum” and “museums,” which shows that the players saw them as key to saving the future of humanity.

They created a Museum of Impossible Things where you would propose something impossible, and then the museum would bring people in to try and create it. As soon as the thing had actually been created, it would get moved out because it was no longer impossible. The idea was to tap into the crowd’s dreams and desires for what seems impossible.

Another interesting museum they created was a Catalog of Feedback Failure, based on the idea that we make the same mistakes over and over again and wouldn’t it be nice if we had feedback on things that we and other people failed at that we could consult before we made decisions and repeated the same mistakes. People contributed stories of their own failures—that was how the museum in the game worked. It was awesome; I had to think of something I’d failed at that I was willing to admit publicly.

Along those lines, I asked a thousand of my best gamers this question: “What’s your favorite museum in 2019?” I thought I would share a few of their answers with you. This one says that one of the foremost new museums is the “Youseum.” Your DNA is sequenced as you enter and the entire exhibit is about you: your past, your future and the challenge of understanding yourself objectively. Here’s another cool idea: It’s the “Fictionsatorium,” where you get to spend the day adopting a new temporary personality from another culture or period. Here’s one called “The Olfaction Museum,” high-definition odors from history and around the world.

We need a new kind of institution, one that is explicitly seeking to create sustainable world- changing happiness as its primary mission. Museums should be trying to give us satisfying work to do, the experience to be good at something, time spent with people we like and the chance to be a part of something bigger. Museums can invent a better future by making us happier today, creating more sustainable sources of happiness and helping us collaborate to save the real world tomorrow.



Jane McGonigal is an award-winning designer of alternative reality games and a research affiliate and resident designer at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. One of her research concerns is discovering how mass collaboration in the virtual world can translate into helping communities in the real world probe the future and solve problems.