Context Book: Reality is Broken

We, as human beings, like to play games. Maybe some of us (a lot) more than others, but it seems built into our genetic makeup. If this is the case, Jane McGonigal (2011) argues in Reality is Broken, then how can we tap into the idea of gameplay to make the world a better place? Now gaming, especially video games, get a pretty bad reputation, and having a game developer right a book about how games could improve the world seems a little self-serving, right? Wrong. The fact is, we are already playing games, no one needs to force us out to buy them (the fact that Grand Theft Auto V hit the $1 billion sales mark in just three days proves this point). McGonigal gives us insight into the gaming culture, and provides some rather fascinating tools for solving many of the world’s problems.After giving us a condensed history of gaming culture, McGonigal divides the book into three parts: Why games make us happy; Reinventing reality; and How very big games can change the world. In each part, she gives us examples of games that have helped improved lives, and even helped improve the world.

realityisbrokenWhy Games Make Us Happy

The first part of the book looks inward at our collective psyche to find out what about game play draws us in, and how it connects us to others.  Her first reality fix is probably the most important, the one that underlies everything about gaming:

“Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles to help us put our personal strengths to better use.”

Now for most of us, the thought of reality being too easy might be hard to swallow. In fact several arguments against gaming (and, unfortunately, some of the arguments for gaming) have claimed that gaming is an escape from reality. While we may get a bit of a breather from day-to-day life by turning on the Xbox, or playing a round of Words With Friends on our iPhones, the truth is, life doesn’t challenge us in meaningful ways. “Games make us happy,” McGonigal writes, “because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.” If that is the case, then our global depression epidemic must be caused by a lack of good, hard work. The solution, as many have found, can be found in gaming. Gaming provides us with fiero: the “most primal emotional rush we can experience.” A pride that we have accomplished something meaningful. And, as it turns out, on the larger the scale of the victories, the more positive experience we are likely to have.

This epic scale of gaming is likely what set the idea for this book in motion. As McGonigal states,”We’ve spent as much time playing World of Warcraft as we’ve spent evolving as a species.” Yes, as of the time of the book’s publication, that would be more than 5.93 million years, collectively playing WoW. We have also set milestones playing games like Halo 3 (and, more recently, Halo 4) amassing group victories (10 billion+ kills in the game’s universe) and leading towards massive-scale wikis, blogs, and forums created by players in the community. We have also become more connected via our mobile devices. Many of the more popular mobile gaming apps include chat features that allow us to communicate with our friends, family, and even strangers. Sometimes it’s just a friendly hello, or a slightly less friendly taunt, or it may be full conversation. The fact is, all of these things contribute to a population willing to connect, and population that is really good at collaborating.

Reinventing Reality

In the second part of the book, McGonigal presents us with the idea of alternate realities. These really are nothing more than the gamefication of the everyday to accomplish more and greater things. School has been gamefied at Quest to Learn, a charter school in New York where “students are engaged in gameful activities from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they finish up their final homework assignment at night.” Hidden quest assignments, competing for “boss level” challenges, even “leveling up” versus standard grading are all part of the experience. We also see examples for post-traumatic recovery (see Youtube video at the bottom of the post), tackling chores, and connecting to others across generation gaps, all of which use some form of game play to overcome obstacles.


My alter-ego: Karrnyge. Sometimes you just need to be a Sith Warrior.

How Very Big Games Can Change the World

Building on the alternate reality games, McGonigal closes out with a look at larger scale gaming: the type of thing that can really change the world. I’ve discovered there are three basic roles you can have when playing MMOs: the healer, the tank, and the DPS (“damage per second” aka “damage dealers”). Now within each of these there are usually some areas of specialization. Some people (and some character builds) are simply better at some roles than others. However, in order to be effective in raids and other group play, the group will have more success if there is a proper mix of roles within the group. Is this sounding familiar? It should. It’s a lot like how reality works. Unfortunately, we are not always grouped with the proper mix of roles when asked to tackle problems. Enter big gaming.


This is really where things come together. How do we bring together the right mix of people to help solve our world’s problems? Games, of course. Given all the time we have spent gaming (and most of the “born digital” generation will have spent that time playing games online), we should be really, really good at collaborating with each other. If, McGonigal suggests, we can address our problems as a meaningful challenge, a game rather than a chore, then we are likely to attract more people to it. The more people are involved, as her games World Without Oil and Superstruct show, the more creative solutions become available.


Being a gamer, it was easy to lean towards this book and embrace all it had to offer. I was surprised, actually, at the massive scale at which we, as a species, participate in games. With such a huge arsenal of tech-savvy, collaborative people available, we have an army at our disposal to tackle many of the world’s problems. Unfortunately, gamers and gaming still have that bad reputation, something that may hinder the acceptance of gamefying our challenges. Hopefully, McGonigal and others like her, can continue to champion the cause.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

A glittery Jane McGonigal talks about SuperBetter:



14 thoughts on “Context Book: Reality is Broken

  1. This is a fascinating, and for me, timely, post! I watched Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk about a month ago and found it incredibly interesting–both because of her personal story and for the powerful potential she sees in gaming. Reading through your post I felt shocked each time I read a statistic! The collective number of hours people have spent playing WOW is enough to tip the scale in favor of harnessing the power of games for me! Although I, like you mentioned, already lean in favor of them anyway. Seeing examples of things like the Quest to Learn model was a great way to help me visualize some of the bigger concepts. I think you have woven real life examples into your summary very well and it’s left me feeling re-energized about the power collaborative efforts can have. Nicely done! And now I have something else to add to my reading list!

  2. I can see why a gamer would accept McGonigal’s arguments, but as a non-gamer, it’s hard to see the difference between games changing the world and say sports doing so. We’ve had sports for ages and games seem kindred to sports. I suppose sports have changed the world, they have impacted education and the economy, but not always in a good way.

    While millions play computer games, I have not been at a social event in the last few years when the topic came up — even with my nieces and nephews. I’m just not in the stream of gamers. Also, I think the world changes based on a brilliant idea or invention growing in popularity, e.g. democracy, the printing press, PCs and I don’t quite see how games relate or compare.

    So I’m still skeptical though I do value your thorough description of this book.

    • @susan-kelly Part of McGonigal’s text that I may not have touched upon was that games have been used throughout human civilization (she begins with a story about gaming in Lydian society from The Histories by Herodotus). It is by no means a new “brilliant idea or invention”, rather, something that human beings seem to have adopted as part of our nature. We are merely seeing newer developments in gaming formats.

  3. This is powerful: “Gaming provides us with fiero: the “most primal emotional rush we can experience.” A pride that we have accomplished something meaningful. And, as it turns out, on the larger the scale of the victories, the more positive experience we are likely to have.”

    I’ve read a few of the gaming in libraries works and attended the first gaming in libraries symposium back in 2005 (!!!) in Chicago – and the point above still rings true so many years later as I consider your report. Would you liken the winning of badges in some learning systems (our MOOC, for example) as a similar “rush” of emotion?

    • @Michael Definitely reward systems, such as earning badges, can supply that rush. I’ve seen MMOs adopting legacy rewards systems, which I feel adds a level of family fiero. For example SWTOR has a legacy for all they characters linked to your account on a server. Some of the milestones seem difficult to reach as a solo player (reaching level 55 on all 8 available classes, for instance); however, if families play on the same account, each member can have a hand at reaching these milestones. Many of these also come with legacy badges that other players can see when playing. So I think any recognition of achievement will likely be worn with pride by those achieving them in MMOs or in MOOCs.

  4. Thanks for a great summation of the work. My problem with McGonigal’s “big games” argument is that gaming principles work in context at a micro level. We can look to game designs and schools and, maybe, even in libraries because there is a well-defined context and that context provides a structure for what we value, what problems we have, and the routes available to fix those problems: hence, we have all the elements needed to gamify it. But at macro scale, there are too many unknowns to create a gamified structure. Thoughts?

    • @kyle You bring up a good point about context. Would it be possible to gamefy and take on these large-scale endeavors and still be successful? Realistically, McGonigal might be stretching a little too far. However, it is important to push as far as we can go in this. Somewhere in the middle of small scale gaming and these massive scale scenarios is probably the limits of what we can do. I can’t remember (and my books are all packed away from my move), but I do believe she makes a statement acknowledging that she might be aiming too high.

      One of the ideas I’ve been struggling with is the recruitment process. Obviously we can recruit for gamefied schools and for library instructional programs from the school districts and library communities, respectively. WoW appeals to anyone who might have played D&D, read Tolkein, or been read a fairy tale as a child. SWTOR appeals to Star Wars fans. The simple interface and ability to add to the overall server-verse inMinecraft appeals to children, tweens, and teens. So these games have no trouble recruiting participants. I mentioned that big gaming can bring us a collaborative team that we might not have otherwise assembled. Do we need to have a large population playing? Or would we need to limit the number of players? (Would that defeat the purpose?) Could we divide up larger populations onto multiple servers? And what are the implications for security? On a global scale, we are opening ourselves up to hackers and trolls?

      I think all of this definitely points to needing specific parameters. Objectives would need to be clearly defined. There would need to be accountability (TOS). The bigger the game gets, the more things to consider, and perhaps the less like a game it could become.

  5. @jamesmyurasek @kyle Yesterday at the MOOC Symposium, Prof. Liz Lawley spent over an hour exploring “gamification” and games. The first thing she did was throw out the word, stating when something is “-ified” it becomes suspect. She shared this:

    (pardon the language) – Turned out to be a super interesting talk. One thought that really struck me: “incentive systems must be opt in.” She said it’s not fair for learners to be thrust into systems they may not care about!!!!

    • I think this all points to something we need to be conscious of… how quickly we adopt new terminology, even if we don’t really like it. I really didn’t like using the term gamification. I always saw it as institutions, organizations, fields of study, etc. using games as one means to achieve a goal. But at what point did gamification jump the shark? I think this is what Lawley is leery of. Too many have begun gamifying everything. And at this point I start seeing it akin to the dotcom trend (and eventual burst). I think the most well thought out gamified systems will survive, but we’ll see an eventual burst in the gamified business world.

  6. I had also recently watched Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk (thank you Netflix for adding the Ted Talk series!). Like @abbyrae I was fascinated by McGonigal’s idea of gaming as a potential for healing and getting through difficult times. While I used to play video games when I was younger, I haven’t touched a controller in so long (except to use Netflix on my boyfriend’s PS3) and I am amazed at how large the gaming industry has become. Until watching McGonigal’s Ted Talk and reading your summary of the book, I had never thought about the potential of gaming as a way for people to collaborate and solve problems, but it makes sense. Thanks for sharing!

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