Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reality Is Broken

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
Penguin Group, 2011
Hardcover, 388 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594202858

From the Publisher:
More than 174 million Americans are gamers, and the average young person in the United States will spend ten thousand hours gaming by the age of 21. According to world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal, the reason for this mass exodus to virtual worlds is that videogames are increasingly fulfilling genuine human needs. In this groundbreaking exploration of the power and future of gaming, McGonigal reveals how we can use the lessons of game design to fix what is wrong with the real world.
Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science and sociology, Reality is Broken uncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy, and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments. Videogames consistently provide the exhilarating rewards, stimulating challenges and epic victories that are so often lacking in the real world. But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone? Her research suggests that gamers are expert problem solvers and collaborators, since they cooperate with other players to overcome daunting virtual challenges, and she helped pioneer a fast-growing genre of games that aims to turn gameplay to socially positive ends.
My Thoughts:

In Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal purports that gamers can make reality better for everyone. She writes, "The real world just doesn't offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn't motivate us as effectively. Reality isn't engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn't designed from the bottom up to make us happy." (pg. 3)

The book is divided into three sections: Part I: Why Games Make Us Happy; Part II: Reinventing Reality; Part III: How Very Big Games Can Change the World. At the end of the book she helpfully includes an appendix to help you find more information on the games she's mentioned, notes on her sources, and an index.

Jane McGonigal is most enlightening and convincing in the first part of her book where she is explaining how games can make us happy. In parts two and three, she began to lose me. Part two deals with specific games and mainly some she's work on designing. In part three, although I could see some of the benefits she was claiming, I ended up feeling more concerned than hopeful. (More on that later.) She certainly validates gamers and the time they spend gaming as a new form of collaboration and community building.

The book itself is a quick and easy read. Although she's not the best writer, the writing is very accessible. Actually, since a speech she made motivated her to write this book, the whole book comes across as a motivational speech stretched out to book length. But at least in this form it includes the appendix, notes, and index.

Basically, I had three problems with Reality Is Broken.

I might as well admit that while reading Reality Is Broken the song "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" by Timbuk3 started playing through my head in a continuous loop. And that is one of the huge problems with her whole argument. She never addresses any negatives (or dismisses them quickly.) She's w-a-y too much of an optimistic futurist rather than a pessimistic realist. McGonigal is an enthusiastic, chipper, pro-gaming cheerleader.

She writes, "The truth is this: in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the current world is unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not." (pg. 4)
Additionally, she notes that "Philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual leaders agree: the single best way to add meaning to our lives is to connect our daily actions to something bigger than ourselves - and the bigger, the better." (pg.97)

I have a problem with the whole premise that games are the bigger thing that we need to connect to in order to have meaning in our lives. Is it truly better to have an unending supply of meaningless rewards in order to be happy? It seems to me that if people are playing games to escape reality the problem runs much deeper than something games can fix. I'm not sure if providing more rewards or making up games for more escapism is truly beneficial. And do all of these gamers who want to escape reality also want to save the real world?

But my main problem with her book is the Big Brother overtones that come with tracking where people are through their cell phones - in order to play a game. I find it truly frightening when she writes " represents the new kind of epic win that is possible in a world where more and more people are willing to use their mobile phones to broadcast where they are and what they need." (pg. 257) Being tracked is not an "epic win" in my mind. And I can also see where many of her ideas for creating happiness while interacting with others could also easily be used for nefarious activities. The final part of the book only convinced me that in the future there will be an even greater need for more safe guards of our personal online security.

I would be remiss if I didn't add that I could see several positive uses for new games in the future that would be epic wins, especially in education, which is why the book is recommended.


(Disclosure: I received this copy from the publisher after winning an online giveaway.)

(Additional note: My son, a programmer, said to tell people to read Halting State by Charles Stross. It's relevant to the topic but not nearly so optimistic.)


Gamers have had enough of reality. opening

What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists? pg. 7

And I've come to believe that people who know how to make games need to start focusing on the task of making real life better for as many people as possible. pg. 8

The people who continue to write off games will be at a major disadvantage in the coming years. Those who deem them unworthy of their time and attention won't know how to leverage the power of games in their communities, in their businesses, in their lives. They will be less prepared to shape the future. pg. 11

In fact, it's a truism in the game industry that a well-designed game should be playable immediately, with no instruction whatsoever. pg. 25's evidence that gamers aren't escaping their real lives by playing games. They're actively making their real lives more rewarding. pg. 51

Games like Lexulous and FarmVille ensure we'll show up and do our part to nurture our relationships daily, and make a gesture of friendship whenever it's our turn. pg. 81-82

By the age of twenty-one, the average young American has spent somewhere between two and three thousand hours reading books - and more than ten thousand hours playing computer and video games. pg. 266


Carl V. Anderson said...

I LOVED Halting State. It is a very different book as far as the writing style, but I did enjoy it a lot.

Lori L said...

I enjoyed Halting State quite a bit and gave it a "highly recommended" but admitted that some of the techno-jargon left me baffled. Aforementioned programmer son, however, loved it.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I think I enjoyed it more than the 'average' reader because I play a lot of computer and console games, so the gaming stuff was right up my alley.

Lori L said...

Exactly, Carl! I knew my son would appreciate Halting State even more than I did because he's plays a whole lot more computer and video games than I do. I was right. He's loaned it out to a gaming friend and bought more Stross.