Review - Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken

This review has been a long time coming (grad school isn't always conducive to keeping a regular blogging schedule). My apologies, but here it is finally.

So, Reality is Broken. That's the attention-grabbing title of Jane McGonigal's new book, at least, and her rather bold claim is that games offer a viable avenue to fixing (at least some of) what's broken in the world. Am I convinced? Well, I suppose you could take this review as a rather long-winded answer to that question, but in a word...yes, but not completely (yet) . There are a few deficiencies in her case, but these are more a product of the nascency of her project than anything else. I'm definitely less skeptical than I was the the first time I wrote about her, and don't hesitate to recommend the book. I may not be quite as optimistic as McGonigal, but I stand convinced that her vision is one worth exploring, whether or not its implications really are as far reaching as she takes them to be. Tl;dr? It's worth the read.

Now to dig into things a bit.

The book is organized into fourteen chapters, each themed around a "fix" for an element of the real world that (compared to game worlds, at least) is lacking in one way or another. These chapters are binned into three sections, the first focusing on "why games make us happy", the second on "reinventing reality", and the third on "how very big games can change the world". We can thus distill the book into two central arguments (for our purposes, I'm lumping the last two sections together):

1 - People love playing games
2 - It is possible to leverage the engagement and pleasure games offer in the service of positive, real-world change

The first argument might seem trivial on its face, but detailing exactly WHY we love games is not so simple a task. Sure, we can say "because they're fun", but what does being fun really mean? There's plenty of research on this topic, spanning philosophy, psychology, ludology, and more, and McG does a very nice job of synthesizing findings from these different domains. In this sense, the first half of the book is essentially review, but a sufficiently good one that I can practically recommend the book on the merits of the first six chapters alone.

This first section is effective on three fronts. First, the content itself is solid, and well annotated. If you're looking for a nice overview of research on game engagement/enjoyment, this is a really good place to start. Second, she does an excellent job of grounding theoretical findings, both by tying them to intuitively graspable pleasures that games satisfy (like unnecessary obstacles, stronger social connectivity, and emotional activation), and by providing plenty of concrete examples from real games. Third, and perhaps most interesting, is the narrative that underlies the entire discussion. This brings us back to the title of the book - remember that each benefit is framed specifically as a "fix". Consider this example:

Fix #4: Better Hope of Success
Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success.

These "fixes" imply that people find games enjoyable by virtue of the fact that they are pleasurable in ways that real life is not. On the one hand this might seem obvious (or worse, purely tautological), since we can safely presume that choosing to do something "fun" implies that the alternative is less pleasing. Nonetheless, in the context of McGonigal's book this is still an important point, since it provides the theoretical basis for the real message she's trying to drive home, that we can take what we know about why we enjoy games and use it to change the world.

And that's the jump the reader is asked to make. It's not exactly an easy one (well, not as easy as the book makes it out to be), but one that I'll make...tentatively.

Leaving the first section of the book behind, the focus of discussion shifts away from videogames and onto alternate reality games (ARGs). Part two of the book argues for the beneficial effects such ARGs can have, then in part three this argument is extended to large-scale ARGs that are, McGonigal argues, capable of effecting real changes on the global scale. We're talking here about games aimed at "future forecasting" (like SuperStruct), effecting social change (like Evoke), and more. This final bit of the book is the culmination of the whole story McGonigal is telling; it's the dream that we can build games that change the world.

I don't have the space here to fully lay out McG's argument, but the general logic (as I understand it) is this: We've established that games are fun. People love playing them, and spend hours upon hours doing so, such that we now have a large portion of the population that are very skilled at playing games. This amounts to an untapped source of focused, creative energy that, with the right kind of game design, can be directed at something more than entertainment. Enter the appropriately designed ARG, which injects the lessons of game design (which have been inarguably proven to generate fun, engaging play experiences) into real world environments. Properly directed, then, players' efforts can actually achieve something good in a context external to the game, whether on the large scale of the kinds of games I mentioned above, or on the smaller scale of games like Tombstone Hold'em (which encourages people to be more comfortable thinking about mortality) or Superbetter (a game to help people recover from injuries or chronic medical conditions).

I'm oversimplifying here for the sake of brevity, but I think you get the point. And while generally it's a good one, I am concerned that the logic of McGonigal's extrapolation from the world of typical videogamers to that of world-changing alternate reality gamers might not be as sound as it seems at first glance. She provides quite a few fairly convincing examples of 'successful' ARGs, but a problem is that success for these games is typically measured only in terms of qualitative reports from players or achieving a relatively large user-base. Take Evoke, the "crash course in changing the world", for example. That game attracted over 19,000 total players, and though it's not clear what proportion of them were 'serious' players, I can't argue with McGonigal's evaluation of it as a highly successful ARG. But we must remember two things.

First, her case for the real-world efficacy of these large scale games hinges on them someday attracting far, far more players. She on several occasions references World of Warcraft, with its 11 million-plus players, together spending over 200 million hours per week in the game, as an example of the untapped power of the gaming community. THAT many players could do some serious world-changing if they put their minds to it, hands down. But the question remains, can ARGs make the several-orders-of-magnitude leap from thousands of players to millions of players? Now I realize this may come off as an unfair criticism; The types of games developed by McGonigal and other ARG developers, after all, are still in their infancy. It is quite possible that with time they will be as many people playing ARGs as there are on WoW or Farmville. I'm just not sure with how much confidence we can expect this. Why? That's my second point.

One question that was lurking in the back of mind through most of Reality is Broken was this: Are the people playing Evoke, Superstruct, and the like the same people who are playing games like WoW, Call of Duty, and Starcraft? I can't make any strong claims one way or the other, but it's a question McGonigal didn't convincingly answer for me in her book, and it's crucial that she does. If ARGs are only interesting to some small subset of traditional and/or hardcore gamers, or if they're attracting an entirely different group of people who don't traditionally play games, McGonigal's thesis takes a big hit. If I built a game to change the world, but it was only fun for people who love tabletop World War II strategy games, well...it should be clear I won't be doing much world-changing. That may be a silly example, but the point remains that McG wants to tap the energy of the millions of serious gamers out there, and that means her games must be engaging and fun to them. I'm not saying that this is necessarily false, but it's important that it be solidly demonstrated.

Concluding Remarks

I don't want these last few criticisms to come off as an indictment of the book. For one, they are based largely on the fact that ARGs are brand new. They simply haven't been around long enough for us to know what their long-run appeal will be to people, hardcore gamers or otherwise. For another, even if these games never approach the user-base of something like WoW, they're still capable of real, positive change in the world at one level or another. The point is that, whatever the case, these games are worth designing and studying. I don't disagree with McGonigal's basic premises; I'm just a bit more cautious (cynical?) in making projections based on them. That said, I still strongly recommend the book. I had my reservations, but I'm glad I gave McGonigal the chance to convince me. Perhaps I'm not completely confident her approach will work in the long run, but I am convinced that it's worth pursuing.

Review - Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

7 Responses to “Review - Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken”

  1. Angie Eunji Huh says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I played wow and starcraft before. Want to know more about it.

  2. Mary LaVenture says:

    I am curious to read this book. I have been interested in much of the work Jane ihas been doing (Evoke and Gameful just recently). It is always interesting to see what she has to say about using games in real life situations. I don't buy into her beliefs 100%, but I life the idea of creating ARGs and using them for positive actions.

  3. kbirge says:

    I like Jane's broad definition of play, and I think it can be even further expanded into everyday life. Groups such as VW's The Fun Theory are innovating ways to make mundane daily tasks fun and even rewarding through technologies like piano key stairs, trash cans with sound effects, and a speed limit monitoring camera that gives away lotto-style prizes. (Check them out: http://thefuntheory.com/)

    These innovations are, in effect, creating social change by making simple tasks fun and rewarding through play.

  4. Maria Fedorova says:

    I'm new to the topic. Based on this review, it seems that McGonigal's book is a good source to start with.

  5. Jackie Choi says:

    Sounds interesting! I can't wait to read the book!

  6. uxdan says:

    It really is an intriguing concept. It all really boils down to psychology and what games do for people who play them. What factors cause people to play that game? What causes them to be hooked and spend hours of mental energy on it? I think we can latch on to those concepts and apply them appropriately to other areas of life.

  7. Mitja says:

    It'd be interesting to find out how the non-gamers are considered. There's a lot of people playing such games, but there's even more people not playing them...

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