The qualities that make games so compelling — the immersiveness, the need to collaborate with others, the fun and even the killing — could all be harnessed by banks in their mobile applications to help their customers understand their finances and reach specific goals such as savings and debt reduction. This is a point made by Jane McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, in the keynote speech at the Mobile Banking and Commerce Summit in San Francisco Sunday.

McGonigal is a designer of alternate reality games that are designed to improve people's lives and solve problems. She has created games for partners such as the American Heart Association, the International Olympics Committee, the World Bank Institute, and the New York Public Library.

"Games are changing how we approach problems in our real lives," she says.

McGonigal points out that 71% of workers are actively disengaged, according to a Gallup study taken last October. She says this costs businesses about $300 billion annually.

"Why do we bring more optimism, creativity and collaboration to virtual worlds and fictional problems than we do to our real world, to real work and real education?" McGonigal says.

Playing games, on the other hand, evokes ten positive emotions, she says: joy, relief (from anger frustration, loneliness), love ("we feel connected to people when we play games with them," McGonigal says, "cooperative games outperform competitive games three to one, so most people play games to help other gamers, and that promotes a sense of cooperation and love"), surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe and wonder, contentment (happy with how we're spending our time, not wishing we were doing something else) and creativity. "Gamers feel they can try something that hasn't been tried before, they can think of new things, take a risk and experiment and come up with new ways to solve a problem," she says.

To prove her point, McGonigal got everyone in the room (at least 300 bankers) to play massively multi-player thumb wrestling, which is hard to describe. Suffice it to say, everybody got up and held hands in a giant network of group thumb wrestling matches. People did help each other figure out how to make all the connections and there was a lot of laughing. For a few minutes, nobody checked their emails or texted or Tweeted.

What does this have to to with banking? "Money is the number one cause of anxiety worldwide," McGonigal says. "It causes a lot of negative emotions." According to CNN Global Research, 48% of Americans say they worry more about money than anything else. "If we could take away some of the anxiety, if we could replace it with positive emotions like creativity, optimism, excitement and awe and wonder, think about the impact you'd have on people's lives," McGonigal says. "What if we could bring these ten positive emotions to mobile banking or commerce? What would that feel like if every time we made a financial transaction we were experiencing a positive emotion? Wouldn't that change our relationship to money?

"Games make us more resilient — we focus on the goal, we don't give up, we have the ability to reach out to others for help, and understand others' needs so we can cooperate," McGonigal says.

Bringing a gaming element to mobile banking applications could enable banks to bring positive emotions to managing money, she says, and help them to stick to financial goals.

McGonigal also made the point that a lesson learned from a game can make a far greater impact that something one is told or reads. A study done of young leukemia victims found that when they played a game called Re-mission made by Hope Labs, in which they killed cancer cells with chemotherapy weapons, they were much more likely to stick with their chemotherapy regimen than those that didn't. Two hours of playing a game had an impact on three years of behavior. Such techniques could be used to train employees or to help customers handle their finances more wisely.

"Are there games about money that could give somebody a positive empowering experience that could change, for years, how people relate to their money?" McGonigal says.