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.
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.
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.
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: