A review of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal
I was not a video gamer as a kid. Gaming was something my older brother did, holed up in the basement with a Commodore 64 and an Impossible Mission game cartridge. I never really saw the point; it seemed like a waste of time.
This perception of gaming as a pointless waste of time persists into our 21st century. Despite the exponential digitizing of all aspects of our lives, spending a few hours playing World of Warcraft has not acquired the cultural acceptability of time spent playing traditional games like Scrabble or Monopoly. According to Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, 97% of boys under 18 play video games and 94% of girls. There are five million gamers spending more than 40 hours a week playing video games. For many people with an interest in the development of youth, and for those concerned with the impact of video games on society in general, these numbers are alarming. They represent both a symptom of and a pathway to the degradation of intellectual thought, social progress, and civilized society as a whole.
McGonigal hopes to change that perception with her first book,Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. She joins other prominent game scholars (James Paul Gee, Katie Salen, David Williamson Shaffer, among others) who argue that games have a beneficial effect on players, despite the long-standing, mainstream belief that video gaming “rots the brain”, i.e. does not provide the intellectual and social stimulation young people need to grow up healthy and contribute positively to society.
McGonigal’s thesis, however, is bolder than her peers’. She not only seeks to augment understanding of the benefits of video gaming, she strives to counter our culture’s resistance to playing more games rather than fewer. It’s not gaming that’s the problem, it’s reality. Our current reality, she argues, is broken. Reality is boring. Reality is enervating. Reality constrains. If we are not careful, our students and employees will continue to be drawn to games in lieu of committing themselves to the requisite activities of schools and workplaces. Unfortunately, these formally sanctioned spaces of labor are rarely characterized by the “hard fun” games offer⎯the breakdown of society is occurring in reality, not in video games.
McGonigal proffers a series of “fixes” she believes are the key to unleashing the power of video gaming to improve society. When I began reading Reality is Broken, I was expecting a review of contemporary social, environmental, and political change-themed games like those profiled by Games for Change, an organization that promotes the creation and distribution of games with “serious” themes (They profile many of these games on their website https://www.gamesforchange.org/). As much as I enjoy exploring Games for Change, I have been somewhat skeptical that playing a game can engender in a player the urge to take civic action.
McGonigal’s arguments, however, led my thinking down a different path. Video games bolster habits of mind, social interaction, motivation, and attitudinal outlooks that have the potential to significantly impact the world in an positive way. In fact, McGonigal is so optimistic about the salutary effects of gaming on gamers and culture at large⎯that she truly does believe that gaming can change the world.
McGonigal arranges her arguments by first defining a good game and then through her analyses of numerous game examples that conform to this definition. Her discussion reveals the themes to which she attaches her hopes. A good game is characterized by goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. A goal offers a sense of purpose, rules make us creative, a feedback system offers a promise that the goal is achievable. Finally, voluntary participation relieves the stress of the competitive environment and provides the motivation to keep playing. Within the frames of that definition, McGonigal elucidates the four major characteristics of games that reality needs to adopt.
A good game’s impact does not stem from its particular content, according to McGonigal. Some games are educational, yes, in the sense that they provide substantive, concrete content with which a player can engage (Sid Meier’s Civilization for example). Rather, good games teach us how to work hard. This is difficulty, however, that we voluntarily sign up for. The concept of agreeing to take on difficult work is one she sees as lacking in today’s schools and workplaces. McGonigal frequently turns Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his conceptualization of “flow” to reinforce her arguments: “Nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.” What are gamers getting good at if they are spending so many hours gaming, McGonigal asks. They are getting good at “good, hard work.”
She turns to World of Warcraft as an example of a game where there is no unemployment and there are endless increasingly challenging jobs to tackle. Part of the goal, as a World of Warcraft player, is specifically to reach the opportunity to take on more difficult work. McGonigal describes the game as engaging its players in a “blissful state of productivity.” Even casual games, the ones we play in 15 minutes or less (Minesweeper, Bejeweled, Angry Birds), can give us the same satisfying rush of being engaged in something productive, particularly if the current environment in which we work or study does not provide opportunities for voluntary engagement with challenging work.
McGonigal cites the work of game researchers who were interested in monitoring states of peak feelings during video game play. The researchers expected that moments of triumph would produce peak feelings, but they were surprised to discover that peak feelings occurred during failure as well. The game “Super Monkey Ball 2,” for example, has spectacular failure sequences that many players find hilarious. The humor relieves of the stress of failing and actually encourages players to play more. They are eager to continue confronting the challenges of the game. McGonigal uses the word “agency” frequently, referring to a state of control and efficacy one feels over one’s self. With “positive failure feedback,” players do not lose their sense of agency and this is crucial for maintaining optimism that the goal is achievable.
Here, McGonigal challenges stereotypes about gaming as a socially isolating activity. Gamers are not necessarily cut-off from interactions with real people in their lives. In fact, some forms of gaming can facilitate new forms of socializing that strengthen the bonds between friends and family.
One example is Lexulous, a Scrabble-like game played through Facebook (Today’s current favorite is Words with Friends). In her study of player interactions on Lexulous, McGonigal discovered that people were frequently playing it with family (especially their mothers) and having chats alongside the game play (“How’s that cold? Did you get rid of it yet?”). Lexulous and Words with Friends are asynchronous, meaning the turn-taking happens over time. You can think about your next move for hours or even days. Since you always have a game to return to, you have a structured excuse for checking in on Mom.
One of the most surprising, and strongest, I believe, sections of McGonigal’s book details how well-wrought games can satisfy our need to participate in endeavors of an “epic scale.” One of her examples is how the Halo 3 gaming community came together to achieve ten billion kills against fictitious aliens. More than 15 million people joined together to accomplish this goal, and the camaraderie and support amongst Halo players to contribute one’s efforts was something not seen in everyday life. McGonigal is fascinated by the idea of what could be accomplished if 15 million people put their efforts into solving what she calls actual “super threats” like climate change and the global economic crises. In one “real-life” game, UK citizens combed through millions of previously classified documents to ferret out evidence of government corruption, an investigative task made manageable by the volume of citizens who responded to the cry for help. She imagines a world where sustained and immense collective effort can be harnessed for the greater good.
For those of us who teach, you may instinctively know the power of gaming already through your years of working with children. (Who hasn’t played Vocabulary Jeopardy in class?). The gamification movement is hugely popular right now, largely influenced by her work. The concept has taken hold in education with badge systems for completing tasks or posting on a class blog, for instance. With an influx of funds from the Gates Foundation, Khan Academy supplemented its online instructional video program with an elaborate badge and “leveling up” system. My favorite new game for students is Ribbon Hero, a Microsoft plug-in from Office Labs that awards points (and balloons!) as you complete different tasks in Office programs. I have used Ribbon Hero in a new student orientation at our school with great success the students love it and I find it a much more effective method for software training, especially for young people, than my projecting step-by-step instructions on a whiteboard.
However, I can’t help but be skeptical of the scale of McGonigal’s dreams. An intimidating chasm exists between the games she has created and the games she argues the world needs games that, in her eyes, are within the realm of possibility. In the world of World of Warcraft, collaboration is the norm. But taking the real world into consideration, with global political relationships as tenuous as they are these days, I don’t know if true international collaboration is anything the human race will ever achieve. McGonigal’s text is tinged with a delightful and inspiring Pollyanna quality, but a quality that perhaps also rouses cynicism in those who encounter concrete tension and explicitly expressed conflict every day, not just in the abstract.
Yet, in the end, I am a teacher and naturally think of myself as an optimist. I find McGonigal’s voice to be most powerful in the following sentence, a succinct and compelling distillation of her vision for her work:
Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better more immersive reality.
Reality is Broken is not about the “game of life.” Nor is it about a “life of games.” It is about recovering the best aspects of life through the application of the best aspects of games. It is life we want to enjoy and savor, not games. It is reality we need to repair.