A Better World Because of Theatre… And Gaming?

by Devon Berkshire

in National Conference

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Why We Chose Jane McGonigal to Speak in San Diego

I have a confession to make. I hate video games. Or rather, I used to hate video games. Like a lot of people, video games conjured up images of my teenage friends sitting around playing Mortal Kombat, responding to any questions put to them while gaming with little more than a grunt. No one who played video games was fun to be around. As a theatre person who craved in-person exchange, games seemed like the opposite of what I loved: like colossal two-dimensional time-suckers.

I’m not sure if it’s that games have gotten much more sophisticated over the years or just that I had no vision for their true potential, but my experiences on the programming team of TCG conferences have completely altered my thinking.

Enter Gabe Zichermann, founder & CEO of Gamification Co., onto the stage of the Audience (R)Evolution Learning Convening in February 2013. TCG hosted this convening to promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models from across the country, and we researched potential speakers from the gaming community to address the growing marketing trends in other industries toward gamification. Gabe keynoted the event with an inspiring and substantive talk on applying game theory to develop new and effective engagement strategies—a talk that left many theatre-makers buzzing with ideas about how to employ such theories in their work.

Responding to what is, and is not, effective at TCG gatherings is something I can say (with pride) that our team takes seriously, and in this case, gamification was clearly something we should continue to explore. As we deepen our focus on community development in San Diego with the {Art|People} arc, which will examine the changing relationship between theatre and communities, and explore the emerging possibilities of {Theatre | Technology}, we wanted to take a closer look into the world of gaming as a mechanism for engagement and global change.

Our plenary speaker Jane McGonigal may personify that juxtaposition better than any game theorist out there. We are so excited to have secured her as a speaker for the TCG Conference—because she links her experience as a prominent (female!) game designer with her personal mission to improve people’s lives and solve social problems.

In Jane’s first TED Talk in 2010, she upends the old stereotype like the one in my head, of gamers as deadbeats or couch potatoes, and paints a picture of gamers as resilient and passionate problem-solvers, or “super-empowered hopeful individuals” as she calls them—and then weaves an argument for applying the collaborative, trusting, meaningful social fabric of game environments to take on real-world challenges.

She further develops these ideas in her 2012 TED Talk in sharing a revelation she experienced while recovering from a concussion that plunged her into a suicidal period. Forever a creative spirit, Jane harnessed her trauma into the design of one of her most innovative online gaming platforms: SuperBetter, a gaming tool formed to help build personal resilience, or “the ability to stay strong, motivated and optimistic even in the face of difficult challenges.”

As an author, director of games research & development at the Institute for the Future, and founder of Gameful, Jane has a PhD in performance studies and an impressive list of personal accomplishments. But our team is most excited by how closely the values she embodies with her gaming work align with TCG’s core values. The array of games she’s helped create as a designer best illustrate her profound understanding of digital engagement and her aim toward positive social impact.

As TCG Member Theatres develop game-centric techniques, like Audience (R)Evolution grantee Portland Center Stage, or simply develop gaming principles to deepen the engagement of their audiences and communities, our team is thrilled to open up the conversation about the possibilities that gaming can unleash in our global theatre community. (Read more about our Audience (R)Evolution grant program here or on the TCG Circle here.)

Register here for the TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders in San Diego, June 19-21 (the early bird deadline ends on April 18!)…and bring your game face.


Devon Berkshire is the Associate Director of Conferences at Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and as the logistics arm of the Communications and Conferences team, handles the programming and planning of TCG’s in-person convenings, most notably the widely attended annual National Conference. A longtime event planner and theatre person, she is also a founder and Board Co-President of non-profit theatre company Studio 42, and has produced a variety of innovative plays, workshops and exciting events with the company. Prior to joining TCG, Devon produced corporate events in the financial sector, and ran an independent event-planning company, Jax & Devo. Devon holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.F.A. in acting from the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute at Harvard University and Moscow Art Theatre.