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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: "Reality is Broken"

TITLE: Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

AUTHOR: Jane McGonigal
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2011.

We have all heard of the common saying that computer games are generally not as good and as beneficial when compared to traditional sports. Parents worry over the countless number of hours their kids spend on the computer playing games. Psychologists warn of addiction. Yet, this book uniquely bucks the trend. According to Jane McGonigal, games are actually good for you. Not only that, it helps fix a world where reality is broken.

The basic premise of the book is that gamers in general find fulfilment in computer games simply because they recognize how broken the real world is. In games, they can achieve their highest potential. They can simulate models to solve the world's most pressing problems. They can collaborate with other gamers and build an online community that is real. Contrary to many accusations that games are escapist mechanisms, the author bravely turns the critiques of games on its head, by advocating that games have positive effect on fighting social problems. She describes her vision as follows:

"Instead of providing gamers with better or more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality. I want gaming to be something that everybody does, because they understand that games can be a real solution to problems and a real source of happiness. I want games to be something everybody learns how to design and develop, because they understand that games are a real platform for change and getting things done. And I want families, schools, companies, industries, cities, countries, and the whole world to come together to play them, because we're finally making games that tackle real dilemmas and improve real lives." (13-14)

Her key argument centers around two things. Firstly, reality is broken and through creating a virtual world, one can help fix it. Secondly, the future of the world is by establishing a new reality using computer gaming and modeling. The book is divided into three parts.

McGonigal gives readers an insight into the mind of a game designer. She dissects a typical game and says that it contains 'four defining traits,' namely; a goal, a set of rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. She lists down 14 fixes for reality:
  1. Unnecessary Obstacles: "Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use." (22)
  2. Emotional Activation: "Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we're good at and enjoy." (38)
  3. Creates More Satisfying Work: "Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work." (55)
  4. Better Hope at Success: "Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success." (68)
  5. Stronger Social Connectivity: "Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting with our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a set of positive emotions known as 'prosocial emotions.'" (82)
  6. Epic Scale: "Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions." (98)
  7. Wholehearted Participation: "Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we're doing." (124)
  8. Meaningful Rewards: "Compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best effort." (148)
  9. More Fun with Strangers: "Compared with games, reality is lonely and isolating. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch." (172)
  10. Happiness Hacks: "Compared with games, reality is hard to swallow. Games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits." (189)
  11. A Sustainable Engagement Economy: "Compared with games, reality is unsustainable. The gratifications we get from playing games are an infinitely renewable resource." (244)
  12. More Epic Wins: "Compared with games, reality is unambitious. Games help us define awe-inspiring goals and tackle seemingly impossible social missions together." (252)
  13. Collaboration: "Compared with games, reality is disorganized and divided. Games help us make a more concerted effort - and over time, they give us collaboration superpowers." (277)
  14. Foresight: "Reality is stuck in the present. Games help us imagine and invent the future together." (302)
After all the optimism about games over reality, McGonigal messes with our brains yet again by saying that 'reality is better,' simply because 'reality is our destiny.' (348) She ends with affirming both games and reality. Based on her story of the ancient Lydians, she lists three 'timeless truths.'  Firstly, games can raise overall quality of life. Secondly, games can aid social networks, and participation in a big way. Thirdly, games can help us lead more sustainable lives and make us more resilient. She concludes:

"We can no longer afford to view games as separate from our real lives and our real work. It is not only a waste of the potential of games to do real good - it is simply untrue. Games don't distract us from our real lives. They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive experience and positive strengths. Games aren't leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They're leading us to its reinvention. The great challenge for us today, and for the remainder of the century, is to integrate games more closely into our everyday lives, and to embrace them as a platform for collaborating on our most important planetary efforts. If we commit to harnessing the power of games for real happiness and real change, then a better reality is more than possible - it is likely. And in that case, our future together will be quite extraordinary." (354)

My comments

This book is an attempt to create a paradigm shift in society's views toward gaming. McGonigal is passionate about the potential of games, albeit too optimistic. I think the 14 statements of a broken reality, though logical, is somewhat too cynical. Amid the brokenness in the world, there is also much healing brought about by non-technological and non-gaming sectors of society. Games can only help us so much. After a while, we need to step away from our computer desks. We need to stand up and stretch. We need to relax our sore muscles, hungry stomachs, and an urgent bladder to do real stuff in the physical world. I feel that McGonigal's main contribution is to help the rest of the world catch up with the advantages of gaming. Unfortunately she commits two sets of errors. Firstly, she understates the goodness that is still found within a broken reality. Secondly, she overstates the potential of gaming. After all, there are good games as well as bad ones. How then do you tell the difference?

Gamers will worship this book. Parents may hate it. Educationists may shun it. Children will love it. May I suggest readers use this book as a way to understand the mind of the gamer better. After all, if we cannot run away from games totally, why not learn from them?


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