Does Playing Games Equal Real Productivity?

Does Playing Games Equal Real Productivity?

Do you enjoy playing video games? Jane McGonigal, a published author and game designer, believes deep happiness and top productivity can be achieved by playing more games–lots more games. Take that, boss. Take that, mom and dad.

“Playing games is the single most productive thing we can do with our time,” McGonigal said at her PAX East panel which was reportedly branded “The Discrete Science of Why Games Make You a CONTAGIOUS VECTOR of Awesome 101.” Discrete, indeed!

There are some conditions that must be obeyed, of course. Gamers can’t draw in the positive effects of video gaming if they play for more than 28 hours, act like a jerk online, or play with a bunch of jerks online.

Otherwise, McGonigal referred to a study in which it was determined that students from age 16 to young adulthood played “pro-social” games for half an hour a day and were increasingly driven to help people in the real world. Cooperating in games, McGonigal said, helps us to develop a useful “cooperation radar” that’s applicable in real-life tasks.

“For years we’ve been told games bring out the worst of us, but is it possible what’s actually happening is that that games are bringing out the best in us?” she asked.

McGonigal’s enthusiasm is absolutely peachy, but claiming that video games are the most productive thing we can do with our time smacks just a little bit of wishful thinking. Oh, it would certainly be nice if video games paid out on a larger level: Who among us hasn’t wished that the social game they’re pouring weeks into actually yielded real coins and cows? Who among us hasn’t wished that we could pick up trash off the street and sell it for a decent sum to a vendor with a seemingly limitless supply of cash to hand out for dandelions and monsters’ fingernails?

Sadly, playing video games is not a directly productive way to spend time. Playing a game means pouring time and energy into someone else’s creation without much in the way of physical compensation. That’s fine, because games provide other benefits. They’re relaxing, inspirational, fun, and they can serve as a means by which people can learn to coordinate and cooperate. Of course, drawing the mental benefits from said coordination requires not playing with jerks, as McGonigal stipulated. This is easier said than done, because video games have another benefit and curse: They provide a safe way for us to vent our frustration and violent urges. Unfortunately, when this activity is performed in an online game, it seems to inevitably go hand-in-hand with spewing racist remarks and misogynist language. Not productive, not relaxing, not cool.

There’s a lot of good to be derived from playing a video game, but those same emotional highs can be experienced by writing a good story, painting a picture, helping an old lady across the street–and in those instances, something is being done to directly better the world. That’s why gaming should be balanced with, er, writing good stories, reading good books, and helping old ladies across the street.

None of this is to demonize games in any way. In fact, reading books was once regarded as an activity suited for withdrawn layabouts and the “dangerously” intelligent: Look at poor old Henry Bemis from the Twilight Zone, who just wanted to read his books but was met with finger-wagging at every turn. Maybe McGonigal is right. Maybe twenty years from now, experts in the field of child education will recommend that kids play at least ten games during the summer months.

For now, though, it’s probably best to regard gaming as a pastime, and not a hobby.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Then it’s a shame two of the top five highest grossing games ever are bro-shooters. (im sure you can figure out which games im talking about)

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