Jane McGonigal’s much-publicized book, Reality is Broken, has attracted considerable attention for its unabashedly evangelical embrace of games. The subtitle (Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World) gives us the real theme of the book. This hard-charging romp through McGonigal’s thoughts, experiences and observations about games will appeal more to those already immersed in gaming culture, but offers some insightful tidbits for non-gamers. Her work focuses mostly on video games, briefly touching on other game types. It does not limit itself to mere first-person shooter fare but travels through every genre of video game currently available. The work is less a case study on games than a manifesto on the potential of games to revolutionize (in only positive ways) everyday life, with McGonigal’s zeal guiding each page.
McGonigal is nothing if not enthusiastic. Her name is well established in the gamer community, and this book puts her on the map of game experts who can talk to the general population – to a point. McGonigal is a game expert. She plays a variety of video games for many hours a week, and she also consults with various companies on video game development. She is steeped in video game culture, and approaches most aspects of her life with a spirit of competition, as though each activity is game to be won. She and her husband even compete with each other to do housework using an online game called Chore Wars. In fact, McGonigal thinks you’d be hard pressed to find any aspect of life that couldn’t be improved by adding a game element. If you find such a premise to be juvenile (and you will have lots of company), this book is not for you; however, if you are open-minded, this book might have you thinking about games in a whole new light.
Though McGonigal holds a PhD in Human Performance (UC Berkley), the writing is never scholarly. Instead, it reads much more like a self-help book. In fact, many chapters touch on positive psychology and flow, ideas that function as the bedrock of her theoretical framework. When she cites research, she is careful to exclude any study that might contradict her thesis that games are the answer to the problems of the world. I suppose there is no law saying that authors should present opposing opinions in their writing, butShe is clearly creative in her ideas but rarely practical and I found myself puzzled by the idea that games were ultimately more rewarding that real life. Does this mean that points earned in games provide more intrinsic rewards than a compliment in the real word? Perhaps for some people this is true; however, I would argue that we should find ways to make real life more rewarding. It’s certainly true that many people are forced to do meaningless unrewarding work, but games don’t necessarily have a way to change that for all people. And even for people who do rewarding work, would we want a surgeon operating on us as though our bodies were a game board? That’s a game I’m not interested in playing.
I laughed out loud when I read this:
Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy.
While people who enjoy playing video games might agree with at least part of this assessment, I immediately thought of most of the video games I have played recently. Post-apocalyptic worlds, zombies, killer aliens, crime and murder are the most popular themes for video games today, but McGonigal believes that reality is depressing. I recognize that there are games with more positive themes, but such games are a small minority. When McGonigal goes further to suggest that the ‘hard work’ of gaming brings us happiness by giving us difficult challenges to overcome, I feel a little sick. Difficult challenges include helping to alleviate poverty, working with warring groups to find peace and growing prize winning tomatoes – not killing bug-headed aliens on a TV screen. McGonigal refers frequently to flow, and while I can see how video games might bring about a sense of flow in players, I question whether there are more useful activities in which a sense of flow could be developed.
People who feel that their work in Guitar Hero makes them comparable to a real guitar player annoy me. McGonigal flirts with this idea by suggesting that such a game allows you to ‘master’ a song. This is a complete misrepresentation of the game; you are not mastering the song, you are merely mastering the game of the song. The items are not the same. Towards the end of the chapter she backpedals a bit, saying that many people who play games like Rock Band eventually decide to learn how to actually play an instrument. She also talks a bit about the social aspects of ‘playing music’ with your friends. I admit that it can be fun to play the game with friends, but I cannot accept it when such games are compared to musicianship and the rigorous practice needed to play a musical instrument well. It belittles the art of playing an instrument, and it is clearly something with which McGonigal has no experience. It would be best if she hadn’t made such comparisons.
I thought her quotes from high-level executives and other workers who play video games to relieve stress were practical. Casual gamers such as these are rarely mentioned in the book, but I think they represent a much larger population than we realize. Mobile technologies have the most potential to reach casual gamers but do these short gaming excursions have life-changing power? I would say most of us are just looking for a stress reducing distraction, not deeper meaning in our lives through games.
Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success.
I think games can be good tools for practicing something in which failure in the real world is deadly (think pilot training), but this doesn’t mean that reality is hopeless. After all, if your avatar in a video game can be killed (and usually it can) that seems pretty hopeless.
We must all confront the danger of enthusiasm when we write about something for which we have strong, or in the case of Reality is Broken, unusually strong, passion. Such unguarded bias towards a way of thinking, learning and living cannot be disguised. And it is here that I must admit my bias in writing a review of this book. I find McGonigal’s writing style lacking in depth and it is completely lacking with regards to scientific credibility. While I respect her decision to write a book that would appeal to the general public, it is disappointing that she never mentions any methodology or method when discussing her own research, and it is here that, in my opinion, the book has an epic fail. She almost never gives any data to support her claims, some of which border on outrageous. It is, for the most part, a book that is carried by a mythic kind of optimism, an evangelical belief that games will essentially solve all the problems in the world. And if she repeats this belief enough times, it will eventually be true. This may seem to work in politics, but I cannot let is pass here. I am interested in her ideas and look forward to her developing them in a more scientific way. Until she does that, I’ll pass on the feel good ideology that guides her current work.
Not sure where you fall in Jane’s world? This might help:
This is all in fun! This is not scientific mind you!