Is Reality Broken?

Is reality broken? I’ve been grappling with the idea ever since reading “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, who argues that games provide a better, more motivating version of life than reality. Almost inherent in her description of gameplay is the social component, as the vast majority of her examples involve games people play together -- usually virtually.

Much of the book is enlightening, such as when McGonigal discusses how some real-world movements and daily routines have become more meaningful by judiciously incorporating game mechanics. Elsewhere, however, I found myself sulking over her vision of reality. Below are ten passages from McGonigal, followed by why they are so troubling:

1) “The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community: Reality, compared to games, is broken.”

Why must we always be happy? This is part of a bigger social problem. Sprinkles Cupcakes was designed from the ground up to make us happy, but it’s a bad idea to eat there daily. Filling out timesheets isn’t fulfilling, but I can put my happiness on hold briefly to support my colleagues.

2) “We are starving, and our games are feeding us.”

Games often feed us empty calories.

3) “Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.”

It’s twisted logic to call gaming the opposite of depression. Gaming isn’t the same as actual work. The purpose matters. Saving a fictitious planet is different from supporting a family.

4) “We’re much happier enlivening time rather than killing time.”

Playing games doesn’t always enliven time. It’s often a drug hit or cheap thrill compared to fulfillment from doing something meaningful.

5) “Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy.”

This statement is depressing. How does one get out of bed in the morning thinking like this?

6) “…Beyond a certain playing threshold—for most gamers, it seems to be somewhere around twenty hours a week—they start to wonder if they’re perhaps missing out on real life.”

It’s hardly shocking, but that is a high threshold to trigger gamer’s remorse.

7) “Gamers, without a doubt, are reinventing what we think of as our daily community infrastructure. They’re experimenting with new ways to create social capital, and they’re developing habits that provide more social bonding and connectivity than any bowling league ever could.”

Bowling is a sport -- a physical activity that brings people together face to face. Similarly, my Madden NFL prowess does not give me more social capital than Eli Manning.

8) “…It’s no accident that Halo players are so inclined toward collective efforts. It’s the direct result of the game’s epic, and awe-inspiring, aesthetic. Today’s best game designers are experts at giving individuals the chance to be a part of something bigger…”

Collective efforts are not inherently positive. Nazi Germany, the Cultural Revolution, and Al Qaeda all offered ways for people to be part of a larger movement.

9) “Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology and the author of Generation Me, has persuasively argued that the youngest generations today—particularly anyone born after 1980—are, in her words, ‘more miserable than ever before.’”

Aren’t these the people who have grown up playing digital games?

10) “How would it feel to get constant, real-time positive feedback in our real lives, whenever we’re tackling obstacles and working hard? Would we be more motivated? Would we feel more rewarded? Would we challenge ourselves more?”

If we got a “like” or “+1” for everything we did, we’d start setting expectations too high. Did you ever post something on Facebook you were sure would be “liked” a lot but was largely ignored? It’s a brief letdown, and too many such disappointments can add up if one tries too hard to get a response.

Despite the critiques, there’s plenty to love in the book. Consider one of her conclusions: “We have to be thoughtful about where and when we apply game-like feedback systems. If everything in life becomes about tackling harder challenges, scoring more points, and reaching higher levels, we run the risk of becoming too focused on the gratifications of positive feedback. And the last thing we want is to lose our ability to enjoy an activity for its own sake.”

I could like, +1, tweet, pin, tumble and stumble that passage. I could send McGonigal a digital or physical sticker commending it. I could create a badge for her website. None of that, I hope, remotely approaches that feeling of accomplishment she must have savored when releasing her idea to the world.

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4 comments about "Is Reality Broken?".
  1. Kory Kredit from Connection Point Interactive , May 8, 2012 at 1:46 p.m.
    David - While it seems somewhat counter-intuitive to respond to this article that talks about the dangers of our growing need to require instant feedback, I couldn't resist. I always enjoy reading your articles but this may be my favorite. Excellent critique of the flawed logic in this book. It may be the altered reality that the author lives in, but it ultimately leads to an empty existence with nothing show for your "accomplishments" expect for a lot of empty Mountain Dew cans and a reduced capacity to interact with and contribute to what is going on in the real world.
  2. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link , May 8, 2012 at 4:41 p.m.
    Beautiful, David. Well done.
  3. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc. , May 8, 2012 at 5:36 p.m.
    I agree with your take on McGonigal's book -- as, in fact, do most of the high-level game developers I know. Gamification smells like an easily-corrupted idea: i.e., it's very pretty to think that dull workplaces and vast, beneficial projects can be energized by making them more gamelike. But it's also easy to imagine gamification trivializing work, down-inflecting human dignity, smokescreening real workplace problems, and eventually becoming a nightmare treadmill conditioning people to vie for points and social props by climbing the asymptotic hill to infinite productivity (as one gamedev friend says: "Never forget -- In prison, people will kill you for a pack of cigarettes. So the intrinsic value of tokens doesn't matter -- only context matters.") Nonetheless, I think it's an important book for several reasons. First is its social critique -- at least from the perspective of one remove, where -- while one may dispute that reality itself is broken, it's hard to argue that we haven't created a growing population for whom it seems to be, and a system of immersive and consuming outlets for their unused energies. This is the same proposition offered by Ted Castronova in "Exit to the Virtual World" -- and Castronova puts some economic teeth in his analysis that makes it more convincing (and chilling) than McGonigal's. Second, McGonigal's book points out ways in which gamelike activities actually can have profound and positive real-world effects -- and it's important not to ignore these. This past weekend, the New York Times Magazine published a very interesting piece about research around so-called "N-back" games that appear to (very reliably, quickly, and repeatably in increasingly-stringent experimental conditions) increase scores on gold-standard IQ tests. Stuff like that is potentially a huge boon to humanity, and shouldn't be overlooked in rejecting gamification without some qualification.
  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 9, 2012 at 7:11 p.m.
    Standing Ovation for David !