Reality is Broken - Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World - by Jane McGonigal
Posted on January 30th, 2015
The book starts by describing some principles that describe what a good game has/does. Jane summarizes it in 4 important points:
- A goal: Important to give the player a sense of purpose
- Rules: Limitations into how to achieve the goal. The limitations force the player to be creative while looking for solutions.
- A feedback system: to help the players learn how they’re doing. It provides motivation to keep playing.
- Voluntary participation: one cannot be forced to play a game. By volunteering, it ensures the game lasts while it is pleasurable.
She moves on to explain why gamers feel joy, pleasure, awe or flow and why those feel so much more rewarding then most real life activities. She continues with a discussion about happiness and what are different approaches to try to obtain some. She presents some studies that show that most durable happiness comes from intrinsic rewards, i.e., feelings we provide ourselves such as satisfaction for having completed a puzzle or produced a craft rather than extrinsic rewards which come from the external world such as shopping, drugs or other such activities.
She moves on to explain how we actually desire work so long as it is satisfying and shows as an example World of Warcraft quests which provide us with a clear objective, hints into how to achieve it and a clear reward.
As with all attempts to perform something, we will eventually fail. Jane explains that failing in the real world usually hurts or costs us. Failing in game is, most of the times, fun and safe and allows us to train more and try again. By removing the fear of failure, we can tackle harder tasks.
She continues explaining that we also tend to enjoy more thoroughly games that provide us with a social aspect. The ones in which we are involved with more people and allow us to have social interactions.
Those allow us to face challenges that go beyond our individual capabilities as they leverage the capabilities of the many and group them into very performant, motivated and skilled teams. Those challenges become massive achievements (epics) that players feel extremely proud of since they couldn’t have achieved them alone.
After having discussed the benefits of games to the individuals happiness, Jane moves towards explaining how games can be used to improve reality. She starts by providing a few examples of games that challenge players to take actions in the real world to earn points in the game. Chore Wars awards virtual rewards for performing real chores at home. Thanks to configurable environment for groups of people, the goal is to have chores done. Rules are in place regarding who can get awards and how, players earn points which are clearly shown with a rank to provide a feedback system and each individual signs up on their own (voluntary participation). She explains how Chore Wars has successfully changed the dynamics of her household by sparking a competitive aspect into performing daily tasks.
Adding to this, she moves on to explain how much more motivated and rewarding life is once your achievements are acknowledged publicly and how alternate realities can help provide this feedback.
She then moves on towards using games to do real-world good. Games that mix local interactions and virtual objectives can help create communities or even improve people’s lives by simply making it more interesting for the players. By doing so, such games encourage players to interact with strangers, people they have never seen and probably won’t ever see again. But those interactions can lead to fun, happiness and, some times, relationships that improve everyone's lives.
Jane follows to present researches around how to be happy with simple actions. She lists 3 activities that will, according to the research, ensure you live a happier life:
- Practice kindness
- Think a little bit about death daily
- Dance more
Moving to the next phase, Jane shows a few examples of games that allowed large communities to achieve in unprecedented speed goals that had direct impact in their lives. The first, a game sponsored by The Guardian, asked people to identify expenses from government representatives that looked suspicious. It allowed an investigation in weeks that would otherwise have taken years not to mention the cost reduction. She moves on to explain how Wikipedia’s creation is very much shaped as a game and that this aspect is very important for the most active wikipedia contributors and how researchers have used PlayStation 3’s network to gather help from thousands of players to discover how to fold proteins and help cure cancer.
Those arguments lead her to conclude that using this large collaboration network of players can help us achieve amazing results that would, otherwise, be unreachable. In a sense, the epic challenges we will face in reality can be tackled by groups of players just like the virtual epic challenges that so many games have offered their players.
Continuing on, Jane moves to show that games are currently becoming highly collaborative environments in which even with individual games, there are more and more ways to contribute with other players providing ideas, walk throughs and other helps. Jane then presents a study that says most of the younger generation (born around 1990) spends around 10 000 hours playing games and collaborating before they reach 21 years old. Based on another the well known research, she concludes that most of this generation has the capability of being amazing collaborators as 10 000 hours is a mark of practice needed before becoming really good at something.
Finally, on the last chapter, Jane McGonigal presents a few games targeted at leveraging those collaboration skills, creative minds and myriad of experiences to try to tackle our current real challenges such as world hunger, oil dependency and others.
Her conclusion provides a summary of her 14 fixes for reality and an encouragement to embrace the idea that games are tools to improve our life as well as our perception of reality. The fixes are:
- Tackle unnecessary obstacles
- Activate extreme positive emotions
- Do more satisfying work
- Find better hope of success
- Strengthen your social connectivity
- Immerse yourself in epic scale
- Participate wholeheartedly wherever, whenever we can
- Seek meaningful rewards for making a better effort
- Have more fun with strangers
- Invent and adopt new happiness hacks
- Contribute to a sustainable engagement economy
- Seek out more epic wins
- Spend ten thousand hours collaborating
- Develop massively multiplayer foresight
Jane is obviously deeply convinced by her arguments and ideas but the book does lack some better argumentation. She presents multiple beneficial aspects of playing games regarding joy, awe and other positive emotions such as fiero but she lacks completely to mention the frustrations, anger and irritation that may come from playing a game you care about but fail to complete. The bias is clear towards the beneficial aspects of playing games both towards the personal emotions as well as the social impacts. The argument that games make people feel better and happier is easily buyable if you’re a gamer but the only mention of other side effects Jane cares to mention is that spending too much time playing reduces the positive impacts that playing a game has on you. In short, her description make games sound very much like a happiness drug that can be consumed in moderated amounts.
Once we move on towards how to use the fact that games are very successful to improve the world, Jane does a good job showing many gaming techniques that can help getting people more engaged (even if for only a short to medium amount of time) and feeling better about doing whatever is required of them. The ideas around improving the feedback about how people are doing at their task and avoiding a situation of fear of failure to encourage people to try and be more creative are quite interesting and align with many practices found in software development by the agile movement. The examples around leveraging the power of the crowd in a gameful way to achieve tasks that would otherwise take a huge amount of time is also an awesome inspiration.
As Jane starts that the population we are forming are gamers and will, therefore, have a great potential for collaboration, she overuses the 10 000 hours argument by simply saying that playing 10 000 hours of video games, people are therefore getting great at collaboration regardless of the type of games, their performance or feedback on gaming. It is also widely contested that the 10 000 hours study provides any evidence that those hours are sufficient to become really good at anything. Finally, there is a general bias towards our ability to transform every problem or challenge we face into a rewarding, interesting game or, worst, making everything that is not “gamified" insanely boring and essentially not doable.
There is also a big social aspect that is ignored in all of the argument and book regarding our economic imbalances and cultural differences when it comes to feeling good and rewarding our behaviors positively. The reality fixes themselves I have found less valuable than the understanding of the qualities of a good game and why we feel so good playing them.
Overall, the book is worth reading although it’s not a light read and it doesn’t necessarily present strong arguments all across. The perspective of using certain ideas from games and understanding better what makes individuals more committed is valuable in itself. Thinking about using people’s creativity and time to solve certain real world problems through games is another good tool to have in your belt. I recommended a critic when reading the book and care to ensure any attempt to gamify a problem or solution is well understood and not overly used. This is surely not a silver bullet but it’s also not at all useless so, learn, understand and apply when appropriate.