McGonigal's book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, has at its core a thesis which is both unexpected and infectiously optimistic: that the person you become when you play a game is NOT a separate being, or even a secluded facet of your personality. The hero you become when you play games is an amalgamation of your best, most human qualities, including curiosity, optimism, problem-solving, persistence, imagination, and self-confidence.
McGonigal says, in her NPR Science Friday interview with Ira Flatow, that one of her favorite definitions of a game is "unnecessary obstacles that we choose to overcome" (emphasis added). Children who grow up playing games approach the world differently than those who don't; to them, no problem is insurmountable, with enough patience, cleverness, and teamwork. Their digital (and tabletop) alter egos flourish in the game-world, like plants in a sunny window. They're given permission, no, encouraged to see the world in terms of manageable challenges, missions, and levels. If you can't beat the problem now, just wait a while and come back when you're at a higher level, or when you've learned a new technique or picked up a better gadget.
In that same interview, McGonigal lists several free online games which are actually making measurable contributions to making the world a better place:
foldit - Protein chains are vital to the operation of all living cells; they transmit neural messages, break down nutrients, and teach your cells how to divide. Instead of remaining as long strings of molecules, they tend to clump together in predictable ways, which influences how they perform their various functions. If they fold up wrong, they can cause all sorts of problems, from malformed cells to cancer. Foldit allows you to simulate this process by designing your own proteins. If the protein you design proves itself especially resilient, then the scientists at the University of Washington will actually synthesize you protein in a lab and use it in the fight against cancer! How cool is that?!
EteRNA - Allows you to build and simulate your own RNA molecules, one of the most basic building-blocks of life. The user-interface is extremely intuitive, the "physics" are satisfyingly solid, and the overall mood is "curiosity rewarded by discovery." If my high-school biology class had involved playing a game like this... well, things might have turned out differently. Who can say?
Civ. D. - short for "civil disobedience," this game has not acutally been created. Yet. McGonigal proposed the idea at the D.I.C.E. summit last year; essentially, players would guide a peaceful revolution from start to finish, beginning with protests and sit-ins, right up through installing a new cabinet and drafting a new Constitution. It would be like Sim City meets Oregon Trail meets Tahrir Square. I see a lot of classroom applications for this one, if anyone ever gets around to making it.
But there is a caveat, a point of diminishing returns. Those who play a game they enjoy often do better at tasks they attempt in the following 24 hours, such as making a presentation or closing a business deal. But subjects who averaged more than 20 hours of games in a week received no more benefit than those who stopped before that point. In fact, after 28 hours of gaming per week, researchers found that those players actually performed worse in most social interactions, and were also found to be more depressed and lethargic.
Turns out that moderation is still the key to leading a productive, happy life. Who'd 'a' thunk it?
Addendum: All this talk of games that are good for something more than escapism has caused me to unearth an old gem: flOw, by Jenova Chen. This game was her graduate thesis for her degree in Game Design. It's totally sweet, wordlessly simple, and highly entertaining. I highly recommend it, even if you're not usually a fan of video games. This one might change your mind. So go ahead, give it a click.