Sinnh’s CBR-III Review #5: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World – Jane McGonigal

Original article at my blog

Reality is Broken was a wonderfully thoughtful gift from Subie, who heard McGonigal talk in Boston earlier this year and managed to score a personal signed copy for Rock and me. Thanks Subie!

I had heard about McGonigal just a few days before Subie gave us the book when she was featured over at WoW Insider (World of Warcraft-related news and blog site). I liked her message even though I felt the practical application of what she was saying was not quiet there yet. After reading the book, I still like the message, and I still think the practical application is not quite there yet, but I have a new understanding of how it’s possible.

So what is her message? In a nutshell, it is the premise that if we could apply the same kind of productivity and enjoyment to our everyday lives that we devote to games, we could appreciably improve the quality of our lives and make a difference in the world around us. Couched in there too is a defense against those that would claim that games are purely escapist time-wasting activities, that gamers (specifically video gamers) are missing out on life by immersing themselves in games, and that games cannot incite useful or productive work or bring about life-changing opportunities.

McGonigal arranges her book in three sections. The first explores why people like to play games, any games: board games, video games, sports games, puzzle games, word games, pen and paper games, “playground” games, strategy games, and so on and so on. At the surface, games obviously make us happy because they are pastimes, like watching T.V. or reading a book. But deeper down, games make us happy because they challenge us; they push us into tackling seemingly insurmountable odds that we can overcome through creativity, ingenuity, and persistence; and they reward us with intrinsic values such as pride, awe, self-fulfillment, and satisfaction. Games also have the possibility of connecting us as communities (depends on the game).

The second section examines how established game mechanics could potentially be applied to our everyday lives to provide the same challenges and rewards that make games so fun to play. McGonigal argues that one could make a game out of life’s difficulties (as she did when she turned her medical recovery following an accident into a game), or our everyday responsibilities, or our social interactions.

The final section presents several examples of real (i.e. currently existing) games that have real-world effects. The argument is that people spend, and have spent, numerous productive man-hours playing games. What if that productivity could be applied in a game that brings about actual change? She discusses several examples of such games (most of which she helped design), but my favorite example she talks about is Foldit, a game in which people manipulate proteins in a 3D virtual environment (comparable to Tetris) to learn what patterns are the most stable. The project’s goal is to get gamers to contribute to science by playing.

That is my summary (though not very short) of the major parts I got out of the book, but McGonigal goes into so much more detail about a variety of game-related issues. There is certainly a lot of information here and a lot of insight into the potential future of games and where they’re going (specifically, these life-changing games). Like I said, I don’t think games are quite there yet. Personally, I think gamers are more likely to spend more hours next week playing the Ocarina of Time re-release than Foldit…but I’m also a jaded, short-sighted person with little to no imagination or foresight. Honestly, I would love to participate in a game that produced real-life results as much as I currently participate in WoW. It would be truly amazing if this is actually where gaming ended up going (and after reading the book I think it’s very possible it will).

This brings me to what I liked about the book the best, which was the first section that deals with why games are meaningful, why they make us happy, and why it can be a very good thing to play games. I was nodding in agreement to pretty much every sentence written in the first six chapters (though less so in the chapters that explore how social connections can grow from gaming, contradicting the idea that all gamers are socially stunted recluses…cause, see, I’m socially stunted because I hate people and think every single person out there is an asshole, whether they’re in physical or virtual form… but that’s just me).

In addition to recommending this book to self-classified gamers, I would highly recommend it to people who don’t consider themselves gamers, or who can’t comprehend what the big deal is about games, but who have an open mind and interest to learn how games can be important, both for personal happiness and in a potentially larger world-changing sense. In any case, I’ve always thought that every single person out there is a gamer to some degree. And if you truly are not playing a game of any kind, I would seriously urge you to give it a try. It’s quite fun.

McGonigal on The Colbert Report


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