Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

realityisbrokenWherein a Berkeley Phd and game design thinker explains to us how applying gamification to every aspect of life will make us happier.

The first half of Reality is Broken is fascinating. McGonigal examines the question of why we play games — from Chess to Baseball to Halo — in the first place. A huge number of people born after some time in the late the eighties/early nineties will have spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games, which is the number Malcolm Gladwell popularized as a requirement for mastery. And of course, playing a game is simply a deliberate attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Why does something completely unnecessary and seemingly pointless garner such dedication and time investment?

According to McGonigal, it’s because humans are wired to enjoy good, hard work with clear results and obvious feedback. Especially when voluntary. And society is increasingly removed from this in day-to-day work, which gets more and more abstract as so many of our roles involve being an unspecific gear in a much larger corporation. All those middle roles in tech and finance giants make it difficult to say what sort of direct impact you might be making. By contrast, all the elements of a good game — the rules, the stakes, the rewards, the social ties — are implicitly clear and obvious. Hitting those marks fires off chemical responses in the brain that make us feel good.

The author’s pitch is basically: if we can harness this motivation and power, think of all the amazing things we could do with it. Think of how happy we’d be doing them!

Which brings us to the second half of the book, where Jane McGonigal applies these gaming principles to real life causes, from getting people to visit cemeteries more to trying to solve climate change. Many of the games in this portion were created or worked on by the author herself, a fact ever present to the reader. 

The long and short of it is that I found it entirely unconvincing. For instance, the climate change ‘game’ involved bringing a whole bunch of people together to pretend it was 2019 and various resource shortages are occurring. The players pitched ideas about how to solve it by creating wiki articles, videos, recordings, etc. Scoring was based on participation and other players giving you +1 personality stats like intelligence or exuberance. The end result was a whole bunch of involved people creating some interesting ideas. Interesting ideas maybe someone could pitch to an investor like powering your phone from solar panels on your clothes. Innovation, investing, and start-up tech culture permeate this whole book. It has that Bay Area-feel through and through.

The participation level is great, especially when it makes people change wasteful activity in the present. But is this really even a game? In the sense that Halo and baseball are games? Is all it takes a bland framing device (welcome to 2019) and extremely basic feedback (+1 willpower) that doesn’t do anything other than give a social glow only some people will feel? I’m not convinced. At all. I tried one of the habit forming games she recommends (https://habitica.com/), which awards points to buy your avatar gear upon completing your to-dos. I forgot about it after a few days and feel no inclination to keep trying. By contrast, I’ve played ‘real’ games (and watched some real life sports) several hours in the past week.

Also, I’d be remiss in not pointing out one of the my favorite TV episode ever — Black Mirror’s second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits” — is an amazing dystopian future that emerges due to society becoming a giant game. Life is one long quest to amass experience points (merits) from various activities (metaphorized as riding a spin bike). There is some saturation point reached way before Jane McGonigal’s ideal reality-game world that makes gamification feel extremely cheap and somewhat oppressive.

I have one last major, but significant point of contention with the author. Surely games can be rewarding as good, hard work. Especially puzzle games. Or competitive multiplayer. But I know for me personally, games can trigger the same feelings as a good book or a good movie. What about narrative? Exploration? Simply beholding what human creativity is capable of? Joan Didion famously wrote that:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Aren’t video games often stories too? Stories we can interact with.

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