Go for the Epic Win



“Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it’s always worth trying and trying now.” — Jane McGonigal

According to Jane McGonigal, an epic win is “an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it … it was almost beyond the threshold of imagination and when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of.”

Save the World in Real-Life By Turning Real-World Challenges into Games

Wow!  What if we had more epic wins in life.  (If you saw my post on Trends for 2011, one of the key insights is that it’s becoming a gamers world.)

Jane is a game designer and her goal is to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.

Her master plan is to convince  more people to spend more times playing bigger and better games.

What an Epic Win Looks Like

According to Jane, what you see on the face of somebody on the verge of an epic win is:

  • sense of urgency
  • a little bit of fear, but intense concentration
  • deep, deep focus
  • crinkles above the eyes and mouth that are a sign of optimism

That’s the face Jane says, “we need to see on millions of problem solvers all over the world as we try to tackle the obstacles of the next century … the face of someone who against all odds is on the verge of an epic win.”

I agree.

We’re Better at Games Than We Are at Real Life

Jane got her got her PhD on why we are better at games than we are in real life.  She says that when we’re in game worlds, many of us become the best versions of ourselves:

  • motivated to do something that matters
  • inspired to collaborate and cooperate
  • the most likely to help at a moments notice
  • the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes
  • to get up after failure and try again

Jane contrasts this with what happens in real life:

  • when we confront obstacles, we often don’t feel that way
  • we feel overcome
  • we feel overwhelmed
  • we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical

Take from the Games and Apply to Real Life

What makes epic wins possible in online worlds?  What makes World of Warcraft, for example, the ideal collaborative problem solving environment? 

Jane wanted to figure out, what exactly is it about games that makes it impossible to feel like we can’t achieve everything, and how can we take those feelings from games and apply them to real world work. 

Here’s what she found:

  • Missions that matter.  Jane says, “whenever you show up in one of these online games, especially in World of Warcraft, there are lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world saving mission, right away … but not just any mission …”
  • Pushing the limits of capability.  it’s a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game.  So you can do it, they never give you a challenge that you can’t achieve, but it is on the verge of what you’re capable of so you have to try hard.
  • A coalition of the willing. Jane says, there are also tons of collaborators everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.  That’s not something we have in a real life that easily — the sense that at our finger tips are tons of collaborators.”
  • An inspiring story.  Jane says, “there’s this epic story, this inspiring story of why we’re there, and what we’re doing.”
  • Positive feedback.  we get all this positive feedback, you guys have heard of leveling up, and +1 strength, and +1 intelligence, we don’t get that kind of constant feedback in real life.

As an aside, I find this especially interesting because this is how I lead project teams at work.  I always turn them into an epic adventure, with inspiring stories, missions that matter, and positive feedback along the journey. 

This recipe helps me find people who are willing to sign up for the cause well beyond our immediate team.

Four Things Gamers are Getting Good At

Gamers spend a lot of time getting good at what they do.  Jane asks the question, with the amount of time gamers spend, what exactly are they becoming virtuosos at?  She says it’s four key things:

  1. Urgent optimism – Jane says, “think of this as extreme self motivation.  urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.  Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it’s always worth trying and trying now, gamers don’t sit around.”
  2. Social Fabric – Jane says, “we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they’ve beaten us badly.  The reason is it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone, we trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, stay with the game until it’s over, and so playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation and we actually build stronger social relationships.”
  3. Blissful productivity – Jane says, “we know when we’re playing a game that we’re actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out.  We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work and gamers are willing to work hard all the time if they’re given the right work.”
  4. Epic meaning – Jane says, “gamers love to be attached to awe inspiring missions, to human planetary scale stories.”

Jane McGonigal on Gaming Can Make a Better World

Watch Jane in her TED talk on how we really can use games to start to tackle some of the World’s greatest challenges:

Here is the direct URL: http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

Gaming for a Better World

Jane works at Institute for the Future, where you can find out more about some of the interesting research and possibilities.   Jane shares three examples of games that test creating epic wins in the real-world:

  1. World without Oil – The idea is to play it before you live it and it’s a massively collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of a global crisis.
  2. Superstruct – “Superstruct invites players to imagine life in 2019 and to document and record how they, their families, local communities, or extended social networks might respond to a catastrophic population collapse.”
  3. Evoke – “The goal of the social network game is to help empower young people all over the world, and especially young people in Africa, to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.”

Get Your Game On … in Work and Life

Make the real world more like a game.  Go on epic missions, create inspiring stories, push the limits of your capability, find coalitions of the willing, and unleash a version of your best self.

… and if you fail, get up and try again.

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  1. J.D. – I loved this article. Being a gamer (not as often as I’d like), I can really relate to many of the points made here. One thing I really took from this J.D. was this:

    “…I lead project teams at work. I always turn them into an epic adventure, with inspiring stories, missions that matter, and positive feedback along the journey. This recipe helps me find people who are willing to sign up for the cause well beyond our immediate team.”

    I don’t currently lead a team in my present professional role, but I have in the past and I wish I had utilized a similar style. I do lead project teams currently, so I can’t wait to borrow this.

    Thanks – greatly informative!

  2. JD, Jane McGonigal gives a brilliant speach (I’m a TED junkie anyway, so you had me the moment I saw the familiar TED logo.

    When I read this, I instantly thought of Susan Boyle and Paul Potts – both absolutely nameless. Neither likely held the “most likely to succeed” accolades in high school. Yet, they knew something about themselves the rest of the world didn’t. And they faced laughs and ridicule due to their not-so-fairy-tale appearances and captured the hearts of Simon Cowell and the rest of the world. An epic win for them happened on those days. And an epic win for many music fans as well.

    Thanks for sharing this. I will share the TED video and pass that along!

  3. @ Jk — Thank you.

    Here are three more secrets you can borrow for going on epic adventures:

    1. Draw your vision — drawing your vision is the best way to share the mental model and inspire people to race to the end in mind. A key here is also co-creating the vision with the team. If their fingerprints are on it, this creates buy-in, and full engagement.

    2. Create the movie poster — Have the team actually make a simple sketch of what the movie poster might look like. For example, is it more like Mission Impossible, or Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie metaphor is powerful because it’s not just how you sell the project to the team, it’s how you sell it to the stakeholders. Make a movie (er, project) that will rock their world.

    3. Strengths list — Have each team member share three things they highly value from each person on the team. Each person gets their personalized list of strengths to the team. If you want to see a grown man cry, you can imagine how people react when they find out just how precious they are to the team and are genuinely acknowledged.

    This tip #3 lasts a lifetime. It gives people an incredible lens into how others see their unique value.

    @ Bryan — She’s amazing. The presentation seriously grew on me. It just got better and better, and her connections with data, and parallels, and metaphors are phenomenal. Plus she’s got spunk. And that’s exactly what we need to lead the changes to change the world.

    I’m actually working my way through all the TED videos to find my favorites and to create a simpler index to find my way around.

  4. Hiya J.D.,

    I guess I am gamer, after reading your list
    * sense of urgency
    * a little bit of fear, but intense concentration
    * deep, deep focus
    * crinkles above the eyes and mouth that are a sign of optimism
    and then looking at the mirror;-)
    My game kicks off in one week, so will let you know the results;-)
    Till then keep on rocking guys!;-)

  5. hello jd
    how are you?
    i enjoyed reading this post and it’s fascinating how we can correlate the gaming world with our actual lives.
    you are so right about urgent optimism being the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle. i guess thats what i experience when playing the car racing game on the nintendo wii lol!!!! and it’s necessary to adopt such habits when dealing with the issues of life.
    take care of yourself and enjoy the rest of the day.

  6. Ted is one of my favourite conference tools. You get the chance to see successful people talking about their lives.

    I was undisputed Duke Nukem champion back in 1999


    That was hell of a talk, glued me to the screen totally.

  8. Wow, I’ve never heard of games spoken so highly. Because I work with kids and educators all I hear is how bad games are for kids and how it makes them more violent and so fourth, but never anything good so this is a whole new take on this which I love!

    I’ve never been much of a gamer though, I used to play unreal tournament and command and conquer but I haven’t played those in years. I am proud to say however that I’ve almost 3* every single level of Angry Birds. 🙂

  9. Wow, I have never played a computer game (bit odd I know) but perhaps I should start!
    I love the ideas though, I like to treat life generally as a game. Perhaps when playing a game there is less fear of failure or rejection so you would do more than the same situations in real life, hence epic missions are more likely?

  10. Hey J.D., absolutely love this article! I’ve always viewed life as a game and the greater the challenge the more I turn it into a game, but I have never seen anyone break it down like this. Looking at the various components the way you did was brilliant.

  11. Love this article! This is so spot on. I do *ahem* play a little world of warcraft now and then, and it’s true. We do become the best version of ourselves when in-game. I do also believe that we can gain some serious problem-solving skills from playing games that focus on strategy and collaboration, and I actually think I’ve learned a lot from games like this growing up. But it’s also a huge time stealer, which annoys me greatly! I love the idea of implementing these priciples in our lives (or as we gamers say; irl :)). I’m currently making some big decisions regarding work, and thinking about going for the epic win might be what makes my decison for me!

  12. @ Ivana — It sounds like you’ve got the gamer mindset … beautiful!

    @ Ayo — I’m doing well — thank you. There’s really something contagious about urgent optimism. A friend of mine was always good at nailing things at work, almost instantly, in a way that his plate never got full, yet he accomplished way more than most people around him.

    The racing game sounds like fun.

    @ Radu — TED is an incredible catalog of experience. I love the fact we get to scan and drill into so many amazing ideas, all just a click away.

    @ Alik — That sounds like a challenge 😉

    I have to say, this video was like rolling thunder. The more I watched, the more intense it got.

    @ Karl — It really is interesting. I like the idea of leveraging a gamer’s mindset in tackling the real-world. What if you knew that you could achieve some crazy impact, if you learned the skills and put in the effort … and that if you failed on your first try, keep trying until you succeed and keep learning from the immediate feedback. I think that’s compelling. I think software taught me to keep trying and version perfection over time. I’ve actually been lucky to have an environment like that at work.

    @ Amit — I know what you mean. I think there are general arguments against TV, vitaments, games, etc, and that’s actually the problem. Once we get specific, the Devil and opportunities are in the details. It totally depends on your objectives, what shows you watch, what you need, what vitamins you take, what games you play and how you play them, etc.

    The beauty is — we can cut through so many things by asking, “Is it effective?”

    I’m not really a gamer, but after watching this video, I want to get my game on. It reminded me of how a colleague learned a lot of his leadership and collaboration skills by playing multi-player online games. He learned a lot of skills around teamwork and bringing the best ouf of people, and that’s a key skill at Microsoft.

    Hmmm … I should see if he’ll write a guest post on his lessons learned.

    @ Kate — I think you bring up a great point. Maybe there is less fear and this helps people try harder or give more or go out on a limb … risk a little more, to gain a little more. I bet there’s a bunch of creative ways to learn to master skills in the virtual world to build confidence or competence for the real world.

    @ Jonathan — Thank you. I’m with you. Early on, I got that commercial stuck in my head, “Be a winner at the game of life!” and it always stuck with me. I also remember Tony Robbins saying, something to the effect that “if you set the rules, you can win the game” and I think that’s true.

    Having a game metaphor for life is empowering and compelling.

    Sometimes I forget just how powerful reframing is, and yet, each day I find myself turning “problems” into “challenges” and instantly I’m more resourceful, more empowered, and more inspired.

    @ Adrenalynn — Thank you. I haven’t jumped in World of Warcraft yet. I’m afraid once I do, I may never come back out 🙂

    I hear just too many great things about it, and I know I’ll get sucked in, and like it way too much. I did, however, get to watch the show, The Guild, and it’s a riot.

    I think so many games are great for problem-solving, teamwork, multi-tasking, and just mental sharpness. In fact, I remember a few studies where surgeons play games to enhance their skills.

    I hope whatever path you choose for work, you get to go for more epic wins.

  13. Hi J.D.! I can see how we can be better at games than in life. In a game we can push the envelope and take more risks than in real life. Also in games we also tend to take more leaps and explore new possibilities since we don’t feel that there’s as much at risk. Yes, we can learn a lot from games and implement some of our attitudes to life.
    Thanks for the inspiration. Loving blessings!

  14. @ Andrea — Beautiful perspective. I think it’s the practice in the games, that can help in the performance of real life. I think the real trick is being able to simulate the right things.

    I find myself asking each day now, how can I make my work more epic, and more fun like a game, and challenging, to grow skills in new ways.

  15. Hi JD .. needed a cup of tea – so had a good watch. Such an interesting idea .. a very interesting idea .. thanks for sharing .. I do hope you can persuade your friend to give us a post .. as to how he transferred his gaming lessons to the real life world ..

    Great – thanks – Hilary

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