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Book Review: Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal

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I tried to like this book. I really did.

Reality Is Broken presents a well-researched analysis about what attracts us to video games, what we get out of them, and why we keep coming back for more.

As a grown man who plays video games, this is a subject close to my heart. Games have been a salve and a source of anxiety in my life, and I like to dig for the reasons why.

Jane McGonical

On the other hand, the book builds on this analysis with a bunch of head-in-the-clouds hippie claptrap.

McGonical’s thesis is that we can apply the same principles that attract us to games (especially “social games”) to other aspects of work and life in order to make us more happy and productive. She has good intentions, but her vision seems limited when she lays out the details.

She explores how games affect our emotions, often providing terms for feelings I recognize as a gamer. For example:

  • Fiero. The sense of exultation from accomplishing a difficult task.
  • Flow. The continuous stimulation that comes from immersion in a creative work; leaving the game, whether by winning or losing, brings you down.
  • Gamer Regret. The feeling that you’re missing out on real life by playing video games.

In a nutshell, we enjoy — in fact, we get positive physiological feedback from — overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. In a game, we know there are always ways to achieve those goals, a courtesy that real life does not always extend.

Reality is not a good game

Unfortunately, the book goes off the rails when it attempts to apply these principles to non-game situations.

McGonical deconstructs a number of popular social media games, including some she had a hand in developing. She knows how they work and how to make them popular. More importantly, she firmly believes their principles can be readily applied to real-life situations.

She provides anecdotes from her own life to support her theory, but her bias toward finding positive results shows through.

For example, she invents the game SuperBetter to help her recover from a concussion. The game awards “achievements” to herself, her family, and her friends for helping her get through tedious tasks. It works well for her.

However, the game does nothing to actually help her heal. Instead, it is an effective way of distracting herself as her body undergoes a long, tedious, and painful recovery. Because she loves social games, this one works for her. What works for other people will vary wildly from person to person.

McGonical is an unabashed supporter of “positive psychology,” and she peppers her book with terms like “happiness hacking” and “collaboratory.” She thinks the positive emotions we get from games need to be present in all aspects of our lives.

For those interested, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided takes apart positive psychology from a layperson’s perspective. It spoke to me more than McGonigal’s book does.

Ultimately, she doesn’t acknowledge the underbelly of the “gamification” she proposes. Aside from her, few game designers are trying to change the world. They’re trying to make money.

There is no doubt that social gaming has real-world appeal and benefits, even to people who don’t normally play video games. But it is also an effective means of obtaining marketing information, most of which the participants voluntarily provide. Foursquare alone is a golden cornucopia of your movements and buying habits for marketers. God help us when the government gets into the game.

She implies that almost any area of work or life can be improved via game principles. As if anticipating my next thought — dquo;what about people who clean toilets for a living?” — she describes Chore Wars, a social game in which you compete for points and achievements by completing real-world housecleaning tasks.

That’s fun and all, but how would it apply to a real job? Achievements can motivate you when nothing’s at stake, but they come up short when you’re trying to feed your family. Or perhaps money could be substituted for achievements, which makes your job less of a game and more of a Darwinian struggle for survival.

As a sidenote, the game Bulletstorm has an in-game “skillshot” system that rewards soldiers based on the creativity of their kills. Fun in the game, a nightmare in real life, which the game’s characters even comment on.

She repeatedly emphasizes not only the importance of finding inspiration for difficult tasks, but also of making people happier and more productive with less. She clearly intends nothing sinister by this, but it’s not hard to see how making people happier with less works better for stockholders than workers.

McGonical’s life and history reveals that she is a true believer in what she says. And there’s nothing wrong with her goal of using new technology to make the world a better place. However, she fails to make her case. She’s projecting her own interests and loves out onto the world.

One final nit: Early in the book, McGonical notes that there have been 5.3 million years of World of Warcraft gameplay, which she says is longer than all of human evolution. Well, yes, but only if that were 5.3 million years of consecutive gameplay by all of humanity. A more meaningful comparison would be how much time WoW players or even humanity has spent working or sleeping since the game was released.

It’s a silly comparison, one that is beneath a person of her education. Small errors like that made me more alert for larger flaws in the book.

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