Palo Alto Weekly

- February 4, 2011

A case for good gaming

Palo Alto researcher argues that video and computer games can lead to sweeping societal change

by Rebecca Wallace

"Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," by Jane McGonigal; The Penguin Press, New York; 388 pp.; $26.95

There's a reason why many people who play video and computer games are always calling things epic, Jane McGonigal says.

The most popular games are played on an enormous scale. The role-playing game World of Warcraft, for instance, has some 12 million subscribers. Countless other people favor different games, from your mother duking it out with Spider Solitaire to what McGonigal calls "the largest army on earth" making more than 10 billion kills of evil aliens in Halo 3.

More than simple numbers, though, is the epic possibility that McGonigal sees in games and gamers. In her new book, "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," McGonigal makes a nearly 400-page case that game-playing can fix society.

Such an assertion can seem silly at worst and overly ambitious at best. But McGonigal, the director of game research and development at Palo Alto's Institute for the Future, makes a clearly written and surprisingly compelling case.

McGonigal begins by illustrating why games make players feel happy, productive and part of something larger than themselves, then moves ahead to detail several ways that games are already changing the world. By the time she's finished, she's imagining "The Long Game" that would last a thousand years: People would play for their entire lives, solving crowdsourced challenges and connecting with others through social rituals.

Along the way, McGonigal offers up 14 "fixes" to improve reality based on lessons learned in the game world, including: "Activate extreme positive emotions" and "Develop massively multiplayer foresight."

McGonigal, a longtime game designer, brings authority and passion to her subject. Her conviction is evident when she writes: "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."

The author also has a personable, persuasive voice that makes the reader open to looking at games, even old familiar ones, in new ways. Using the example of the popular puzzle-pieces-falling game of Tetris, McGonigal points out that not all games are about winning. In fact, in Tetris you will always lose.

And yet you still keep playing, she writes, because you get immediate feedback of three kinds: visual (completed rows of pieces disappear), quantitative (your score goes up), and qualitative (the game feels more and more difficult over time).

"In other words," she writes, "in a good computer or video game you're always playing on the very edge of your skill level, always on the brink of falling off. When you do fall off, you feel the urge to climb back on. That's because there is virtually nothing as engaging as this state of working at the very limits of your ability — or what both game designers and psychologists call 'flow.'"

Reality, McGonigal argues, is rarely so engaging. It doesn't always give us clear goals, like getting the high score in Tetris or completing a quest in World of Warcraft. "Playing World of Warcraft is such a satisfying job, gamers have collectively spent 5.93 million years doing it," she writes.

McGonigal brings in other voices to back her up, like that of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As early as 1975, he was writing that the type of rewarding work and goals provided in the game world could help with feelings of depression and helplessness. McGonigal also gives examples of how game designers today use positive psychology in their creations.

The author then takes the next step: If gamers feel motivated to complete tasks that feel meaningful in the game world, why not create games that get us to accomplish societal goals?

Enter Chore Wars, one of McGonigal's most entertaining examples. This is an alternate reality game (one that's played in real life as well as online) in which players create avatars and gain experience points for completing "adventures" such as emptying the real-world dishwasher. When roommates or siblings are especially competitive, that house can get really clean.

McGonigal plays this game with her husband, Kiyash, and includes a funny anecdote about Kiyash sneaking out of the bedroom early on a Saturday morning to be the first to scrub the bathtub. In a small but very concrete way, this game has improved their household reality.

"I've lived in this alternate reality long enough to have developed a highly effective counterstrategy," she writes. "I clean the bathroom at odd hours in the middle of the week, when he's least expecting it."

As the book continues, McGonigal's examples get larger, with games that change the world in increasingly dramatic ways.

SuperBetter, the author's own creation, helps people cope with chronic health conditions by enlisting allies and setting goals. Fold It! allows players to solve protein-folding puzzles to aid the advancement of science. In the forthcoming Lost Joules, players will be able to bet against each other to see who can reduce their real-world energy consumption more.

The book suffers a bit from anecdote overload, but for the most part McGonigal succeeds in conveying both the games' entertainment value and importance. These games have made a difference, she writes, because they're designed to do so, and because they take advantage of the huge potential of the engageable hordes of gamers across the world.

"Gamers aren't just trying to win games anymore," she writes. "They have a bigger mission. They're on a mission to be a part of something epic."

And so are game designers, she adds. "Right now, it's easier and more fun to be a superhero in a video game than it is to help solve real global problems in everyday life." But many games, she writes, "are starting to tip the balance: soon, we may find ourselves able to do both at the same time."

McGonigal makes thorough, reasoned arguments. But the book might have benefited from a more thoughtful treatment of the problems associated with gaming.

Gamer addiction and "happiness burnout" — the exhaustion that can come after overplaying — are real problems, as is the "gamer regret" some people feel after having spent big chunks of their lives in a virtual universe. There's also an argument against turning everything into a game: People risk forgetting how to enjoy an activity for its own sake. McGonigal makes a few references to these issues, but they feel glossed over.

But she also gives readers a chance to make up their own minds about gaming by ending with an appendix titled "How to Play," giving links to the games she's promoted. In a book that seeks to enlist the crowd in problem-solving, connecting and seeking out epic wins through games, the message is clear: Experience it for yourself.

Editor's note: Jane McGonigal is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. March 9 at the Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. To register for the event, go to http://computerhistory.org or call 650-810-1898.

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