McGonigal's Reality is Broken: using games to improve the world
Jane McGonigal is one of my favorite thinkers, and it's a delight to have her philosophy neatly distilled to a single book, her just-published debut Reality Is Broken. McGonigal is the leading practicioner in the use of games to motivate people to solve real problems with their lives and with the world.
McGonigal starts from the observation that games compel our attention in great sucking draughts, dropping us into flow-like states in which we compete against the machine and each other -- as well as collaborating -- with all the hours we can find. McGonigal takes us through mechanisms that make games so consuming: a series of tasks that increase in difficulty at a rate that keeps us fully engaged; failure modes that are fun and amusing; activities that feel epic in scale.
Then she walks us through the work that she and her colleagues have done in adapting these mechanisms to real-world tasks -- from the game she devised to help herself with an awful head-injury to mass-scale outdoor events that combine players and passers-by in a series of delightful encounters that make everyone feel great and want to do more.
This is the ground-work -- McGonigal wants us to see that small, voluntary modifications to the already arbitrary rules by which we conduct our affairs (social norms, conventions and laws) can make us work in ways that make us happier, that fill us with motivation, that encourage us to help and value our friends and neighbors.
Then she moves beyond the theoretical and starts to examine the still-nascent field of social participation games that have -- with varying success -- used game-like systems to motivate large groups of people in the service of social causes, giving those people a framework that allows for meaningful participation, mastery, and large-scale collaboration that plays into the things we find inherently stimulating and engaging. Projects like the Guardian's "Investigate Your MP" game that convinced thousands of people to examine and catalog hundreds of thousands of obscure documents, revealing millions of pounds' worth of irregularities in British Parliamentary expense claims.
McGonigal is careful to examine the projects that have failed, and performs expert post-mortem examinations on them, providing clues so that we can avoid their missteps in the future.
Finally, there is a call to arms, a series of more ambitious examples and optimistic hopes for the future of this field. McGonigal is an infectious optimist, and it's hard not to read this book without smiling and even laughing with delight at her wonderful real-world examples.
Fundamentally, McGonigal is talking about systematizing those happy accidents where we find ourselves working in smooth concert with others, filled with satisfaction and purpose, and creating a disciplined approach to reproducing those moments on demand, when they are needed most.
The problem of working well with others is the most important one we as a species have contended with. Successful strategies for collaboration are what make religions, companies, political systems, sports teams and movements work.
As Bruce Sterling says, everything with the potential for good also has the potential for evil. It's certainly conceivable that someone might use McGonigal's techniques to motivate people to do bad things more efficiently and with greater efficacy. Though McGonigal notes how some game designs give rise to more trolling and awful trash-talking than others, overall the book is thin on this subject. I think McGongigal natural optimism would suggest that positive interactions win out over negative ones, all things being equal, and she might be right, but I think it's far from a sure thing.
Still, it'd be a pretty poor world if we abandoned every force for good because it might also be a force for evil. Altogether, Reality is Broken is a force for good: reading it leads you to believe that game-like mechanics might succeed in making us better together, in fields as diverse as conservation, education, play and health.
People who spend hours playing video or online games are often maligned for “wasting their time” or “not living in the real world,” but McGonigal argues persuasively and passionately against this notion in her eminently effective examination of why games are important. She begins by disabusing the reader of some inherent prejudices and assumptions made about gamers, such as that they’re lazy and unambitious. Quite the opposite: McGonigal finds that gamers are working hard to achieve goals within the world of whatever game they are playing, whether it’s going on a quest to win attributes to enhance their in-game characters or performing tasks to get to a higher level in the game. Games inspire hard work, the setting of ambitious goals, learning from and even enjoying failure, and coming together with others for a common goal. McGonigal points out many real-world applications, including encouraging students to seek out secret assignments, setting up household chores as a challenge, even a 2009 game created by The Guardian to help uncover the excessive expenses of members of Parliament. With so many people playing games, this comprehensive, engaging study is an essential read.
"McGonigal proposes a fascinating and provocative, if troubling, manifesto that adds to our understanding of the appeal and potential power of digital games. . . . McGonigal is a clear, methodical writer, and her ideas are well argued. Assertions are backed by countless psychological studies." The Boston Globe
"Once you read this remarkable book, you'll never look at gamesor yourselfquite the same way." Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind
"Jane McGonigal is worth hearing outher point in this provocative manifesto is that the energy and devotion that gamers pour into video games is a powerful force and that we are fools if we fail to harness it. . . . McGonigal marshals convincing evidence in smart and snappy prose, delivered in an old-fashioned book for techno-peasants such as me." Janice P. Nimura, Los Angeles Times
"Reality is Broken is a compelling exploration of why playing games makes us feel so good, and why, far from being a distraction from reality, technology-led games are increasingly providing solutions to our daily dissatisfactions. . . . Despite her expertise, McGonigal's book is never overly technical, and as with a good computer game, anyone, regardless of gaming experience, is likely to get sucked in." New Scientist
"Powerful and provocative . . . McGonigal makes a persuasive case that games have a lot to teach us about how to make our lives, and the world, better." San Jose Mercury News
"Jane McGonigal's insights have the elegant, compact, deadly simplicity of plutonium, and the same explosive force." Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother