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

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More than 31 million people in the UK are gamers. The average young person in the UK will spend 10,000 hours gaming by the age of twenty-one. What's causing this mass exodus? According to world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal the answer is simple: videogames are fulfilling genuine human needs. Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science and sociology, Reality is Broken shows how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy, and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments. But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone? In this groundbreaking exploration of the power and future of gaming, she reveals how gamers have become expert problem solvers and collaborators, and shows how we can use the lessons of game design to socially positive ends, be it in our own lives, our communities or our businesses. Written for gamers and non-gamers alike, Reality is Broken sends a clear and provocative message: the future will belong to those who can understand, design and play games.

354 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 2010

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About the author

Jane McGonigal

9 books391 followers
Jane McGonigal (born October 21, 1977) is an American game designer and author who advocates the use of mobile and digital technology to channel positive attitudes and collaboration in a real world context.

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Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,050 reviews4,119 followers
February 8, 2011
I’m in two minds about this ambitious beast. On the one hand, the author is clearly bonkers and operating on an epic bandwidth of partial megalomania. On the other hand, her enthusiasm and spirit of uncrushable optimism is a reassuring and powerful thing.

So. What to do? I love the premise of this book—taking games beyond the world of isolationist escapism and applying them to our real lives to bring some of their imaginative wonder to the world. I love some of her ideas. I find her relentless desire to improve and involve charming.

I don’t agree with her diagnosis. Games haven’t dulled our view of the world. The problem comes before games. If we’ve chosen to retreat into games to escape the world, it’s because we’re tired of our politicians, consumer society, our staid relationships with others. It’s natural we’d want some of the magic of gaming in our lives once we’ve started playing. But if we’re collectively depressed as a people, the problem runs deeper.

I digress. The main problem with this book is it’s poorly written. Jane puts her ideas forth like a motivational speaker, stuffing the prose with insufferable buzz words (fiero, epic win, blah blah—pick any page and you’ll find them), diverting our interest in these ideas with this constant yanking attempt to link her concepts and ideas together. Some sentences should simply be shot, such as: “Games help us work together to achieve massively more.”

She’s also far too obsessed with grandeur, using the word ‘epic’ on almost every page. Every single project she proposes requires a level of upbeat peppiness that gamers simply don’t have. She seems to have forgotten that a great percentage of gamers are teenagers, who only want to drink Pepsi and shoot zombies, not participate in epic strategies for saving the world. The scale of these ideas (saving the world for starters, curing global depression for afters) is insane. BARMY, do you hear me? It gets daft quite quickly.

This is the main problem. You can see on this video people struggling to take her seriously, and the slight air of the loony bin about her.

The second half of the book is basically a list of Jane’s own work and is a huge self-pluggathon. I feel these ideas might have been more successful if she was willing to poke fun at herself more—convincing people about this requires someone willing to admit to their madness, a little tongue-in-cheekiness, and let the ideas seep in after. I’m not convinced she has that level of self-awareness, so her sincerity may be her undoing.

Anyway, they laugh at all great visionaries to begin with. I’m backing Team Jane.
Profile Image for Adam.
66 reviews14 followers
June 24, 2012
Jane McGonnigal has become a figurehead for what has become known as the "gamification" movement. This movement posits that elements of game design should be incorporated into real life. The premise is that jobs, education, exercise, social life, and essentially any other human activity can be improved by studying the human propensity to play games and tapping into that propensity to improve quality of life. For McGonigal's part, gamification focuses on video games, because of her past involvement in video game design.

I am a lifelong gamer and I found McGonigal's book utterly unconvincing. While she is a very charismatic individual (look for her Ted Talk video for a summary of her theory), and while she is well educated (Ph.D. from Berkeley), her arguments are underdeveloped. One would think that a four hundred page book would leave plenty of room for strong, well-articulated proofs, but McGonigal spends the majority of the text gushing about successful video games and vaguely connecting gameplay statistics to her sweeping ideas about how to change human existence for the better. She excels at begging the question. My favorite example is when she shares the numbers of hours collectively logged worldwide by the players of Halo 3. She presents these numbers and how the numbers have been discussed by the Halo "community" as an example of how gaming draws people together. She then quotes a Halo aficionado who stated in an online thread that the ultimate experience would involve all of the earth's inhabitants playing Halo together. McGonigal heartily agrees with the quoted gamer and takes his idea a step further. Wouldn't such a shared global experience, she posits, bond the human race in an unprecedented and positive way? While I agree that such an event would be unprecedented, my response to her idea of such a happening being positive was resoundingly, no. The situation brings nothing to mind as much as the dystopian genre of literature and film. McGonigal doesn't offer an explanation as to why such an event as universal participation in a shooter would improve human relations--she just assumes that is the case. Such assumptive posturing characterizes the text.

For me, the great irony in reading this book has been my attitude to gaming. As I said, I've been playing video games my entire life. Reading McGonigal's book and picking apart her weak assertions that games make people better has forced me to reconsider why I game. I do not believe that I am smarter, more social, or healthier for playing games (all of which McGonigal asserts are benefits). I do believe that gaming has sometimes made me happier (which she of course points out). I also believe that I've occasionally gamed excessively and been unhappy as a result (which she glosses over). As a result of reading Reality Is Broken, I have decided to spend less time gaming and more time on living effectively in the real world. Thank you, Jane McGonigal.
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
974 reviews226 followers
August 26, 2016
As I said in my review of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do , my oldest son is a computer game addict, but my second son has a different approach to gaming: he's a designer. He doesn't get as much time on the PSP as his older brother because his school forbids it even at recess, so he came up with a different way to entertain himself: a whole series of games on paper. He's drawn maps, mazes, codes for weapons, and score cards for any of his classmates who care to play. Without ever seeing a game of D&D, my Hasidic son has become a dungeon master.

I suppose some parents might consider that worrisome, but I'm proud of his creativity. He says he wants to design games for a living when he grows up. So when I heard a radio interview with the author of this book, herself a professional game designer, I knew I had to look into it. The radio interviewer was skeptical of her thesis that games can fix the world, as was Steven Colbert, who also interviewed her. And every GR review I read warned me to take the book with a grain of salt, but - bad pun alert - I was still game. For one thing, the idea that we can solve problems through play is easy for me to accept. Little kids learn and grow through play, so why not adults? But the "improve the world" theme was really a secondary motivation for me in reading this book. I was reading to learn how to use my son's #1 interest to help improve his life.

The radio show on which I first heard the interview offered the book's introduction for free on its website, so I printed it out, read it, and then read it aloud to my son. It included an interesting story: that a certain dice-rolling game was invented during an 18-year-long famine in ancient Greece. It became national policy to eat one day and play the game the next. In other words, the Greeks used the game as a deliberate distraction from the pain of reality. Interestingly, my son showed about as much skepticism about this story as the interviewers and GR reviewers did about the book overall. The author herself said the story might be apocryphal, but it did illustrate the positive use of a game. As was also pointed out in Grand Theft Childhood, distraction through games can be good for mental health. The trick, of course, is not to overdo it.

I liked the introduction, so I got hold of the book, and found it equally interesting and readable, though, as was said by another GR reviewer, the author does come across as too much of a cheerleader sometimes. Early on, there was another "game theory" discussion which I also read aloud to my son, including the definition: "A game is a deliberate attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." I enjoyed watching him mull that over.

But for me, the middle is where it really took off; that's when she began describing the reality-based, save-the-world games. One of them is a Tetris-like game done with drawings of actual protein molecules. People's solutions to the "puzzle" actually help in cancer research. Even my PSP-addict was intrigued by that one. But my favorite by far was "Investigate Your MP," in which British citizens sifted through the expense receipts of their Members of Parliament, thereby catching a few in fraud. If they start something like that up in the U.S., I want to play! (And I hope there's a corporate welfare game to go with it.)

And therein lies the biggest compliment I can give this book. After reading it, I actually visited the author's website to "join the movement." A few weeks have passed since then, though, and I haven't done much. So yeah, the author's a cheerleader and I for one got caught up in her message. But other books have caught my interest since, so I guess that enthusiasm, as happens with all books, has gotten dimmed over time.
Profile Image for Barb Middleton.
1,759 reviews125 followers
August 19, 2016
I"m not a gamer, but I am a player of games from sports to board games to game-format lessons for students. Games are fun. Games are motivating. Games in cultures are thousands of years old. This book is about computer and video games. Video games have a bad rap in the U.S. The media has bombarded the public over the years about the negative effects of game addiction and violence. Lately, my students have been talking about Minecraft. They make good connections with the picture books I read and the game all the time. They've piqued my interest, especially when they were talking about architecture and buildings. It is the first time I've wanted to teach myself a video game. Before that, students have talked about Halo. Before that, World of Warcraft. Video games are here to stay. I picked this book up for a better understanding of the games that my students have passionately discussed over the years. I was not disappointed. Jane McGonigal gives compelling evidence that good game design connected with theories from positive psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, and sociology, make life more meaningful for gamers.

This book gave me ideas for improving some of the current games I've designed for library skill lessons. I took stock of the competitive versus cooperative ones and even how they tie in with character education programs. McGonigal lists games that enhance kindness and courage citing positive psychology research from the Values in Action Institute on Character. She defines from different sources and subject fields what motivates gamers and how it makes them happier by giving their life more meaning. Don't expect much of the negative side to gaming in this altruistic approach to gaming. Her book is meant to persuade the reader that gaming improves the quality of life, prevents suffering, and creates happiness. It takes courage to try and prove the world can be changed by gamers and go beyond escapist entertainment. This might be too out-there for some readers, but I was inspired. More importantly, it made me look at the games I use in the library and gave me ideas to create my own.

What makes a good game, according to McGonigal, is one that focuses on intrinsic rewards that are emotionally satisfying. McGonigal quotes a ton of research on what motivates and makes people happy. The main components of good game design are: clearly-defined goals with hard and interesting obstacles, fair rules, varied and intense feedback systems, and voluntary participation. She cites many examples on how to achieve this through games that address pyschological, social, and emotional issues. I hadn't thought about how hard obstacles are important to the goal in gamer satisfaction or how failure in a game can be positive versus negative because if the avatar dies spectacularly, the gamer finds it funny. Also, the real-time data in a game shows progress that results in the gamer focusing on the performance, not the outcome. You maybe died spectacularly, but you made it 30% through the game and these are your strengths and weaknesses. This made me think of how in sports, research shows that top athletes and good coaches get players to focus on performance and not winning which makes their internal talk positive; therefore allowing them to overcome obstacles that occur in games.

McGonigal is trying to prove that games can be a platform for change, but in order for that to happen they need to move from the virtual to the real world. In an amazing statistic, she says that by the time teenagers reach the age of 21 they will have spent 10,000 hours on gaming versus 2,000-3,000 hours on reading. The 10,000 hour threshold is quoted from Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers," that says the key to success is logging in this many hours on a task in order to have great success. McGonigal says the strength of gamers is working together collectively or "crowdsourcing" and that when harnessed they can accomplish huge tasks such as Wikipedia or the 2009 British parliament scandal. She explains how Wikipedia is set up as a game and how they get volunteers and information at scholarly levels; how in eight short years this cognitive technology created a collective wealth of information that would otherwise be unachievable. The British scandal, she explains, involved members of parliament making illegal expense claims and the Guardian newspaper uncovering the story. The problem was it required the newspaper to go through almost 500,000 scanned claim documents. The Guardian created a game and enlisted gamers to help go through the claims. In three days, more than 200,000 players analyzed 170,000 documents. All of it was voluntary and resulted in the resignation of many politicians. Games, McGonigal argues, can help the common good and be catalysts for change.

McGonigal wants to go beyond entertainment games and create antiescapist or alternate reality games (ARGs). ARGs are designed to be linked to intrinsic rewards that bring people the most happiness. Good game design for ARGs, McGonigal explains, gives more meaning in life because it is connected with a much larger goal that helps improve the quality of life and is for the common good of all. Research shows that people are the most happy when they are serving others and not themselves. ARG games should create satisfying work, inspire hope for success even if the goal seems impossible, and create strong social connections. She does make it clear that no single ARG exists that is changing the world; however, they are making differences in cancer research, hunger, and energy conservation. ARG's designed to appeal to cognitive, social, and emotional capabilities in humans make them a powerful source of enacting change with the masses.

While this book focuses mainly on positive aspects of gaming, it does give bits and pieces of the negative. Her book tries to counteract cultural taboos associated with the negative aspects of gaming. I would have liked more discussion on both sides of the issue, but I appreciated the inspirational effect of the text that targets positive aspects of gaming. What I did not expect was how her book made me think of ways to teach mundane skills in a more exciting way. If you've ever had to teach kids how to find books using the Dewey Decimal system, it can be unmotivating and boring as all-heck. I turned it into a board game and kids now ask me if they can play it. I'd like to create a video game that teaches how to shelf books or use Overdrive. It would be so much fun to tie a shelving game in with particular books. Maybe a student has to shelve Charlotte's Web and if they fail Charlotte can wrap them in a cocoon and put them in the rafters of the barn. McGonigal shows how failing spectacularly is one of the joys of video games. Whether you embrace it or ignore it, video gaming is a huge part of our culture. Game on!
Profile Image for Owen.
82 reviews29 followers
August 10, 2012
I kept reading this book hoping McGonigal would turn out to have written something else. It's all about how and why structured games are so compelling and powerful that we can (and should) use them to solve real-world problems. Sounds great, right? What I wanted was for her to tell me how to incorporate aspects of gameplay into things we already do, to make them more compelling. No, instead she swallows her own thesis that, objectively measured, there is nothing more compelling or fulfilling than a good game, and so what we should do is create new games—explicitly labeled and announced as games—with world problem-solving as their content. Nothing else in human arts & culture is up to the challenges of the future.
Games today often have content—serious content—that directs our attention to real and urgent problems at hand. We are wrapping real problems inside of games: scientific problems, social problems, economic problems, environmental problems. And through our games, we are inventing new solutions to some of our most pressing human challenges. [Kindle location 5722 or so]
The attraction is the game, not the content.

While she takes pains to include physical sports, both team and individual, strategy games, abstracted contests like chess, and various sorts of individual challenges, her big interest is in massively multiplayer games. Now, I know Worlds of Warcraft and Halo or whatever are the most mammoth arts/entertainment phenomena ever in the history of the world, at least as measured in dollars—I'll make up an exaggerated statistic, but it's probably true: let's say Halo sold 10x more in its first week than the entire global print publishing industry did that entire year. That still doesn't interest me in 1) a limited computer-simulated immersive environment instead of the real physical one; or 2) inventing an identity and having it interact in limited computer-simulated ways with endless strangers' invented identities.

But isn't that what you're doing here on Goodreads? you ask. No; this is not an immersive environment, nor is Facebook or Google+ or anything like that; they're not designed as and cannot be taken as simulations or substitutes of the real physical world. And while my identity here is inescapably selective, probably "improved" on reality, it's not a complete fabrication; and the people I interact with are not strangers but friends, in most cases people I already know well in the real physical world. There's certainly an aspect of gameplay going on here: trying to attract a certain quantity or quality of friends, getting people to respond to what you post, following the moves of others. McGonigal points out that Foursquare does this as a kind of gameplay structure for real-world social interaction, but my experience (living in a small town) was that it encouraged a small amount of commercial interaction and nothing social (since nobody else in town used it). Still, let's say Goodreads is using gameplay structures to encourage and support the reading and discussion of books: is anyone here because they were looking for a game, or are we all here because we wanted to talk about books?

Maybe I'm weird—OK, I definitely am—but I am never going to want to play a game for its own sake. I run for exercise; I play cards to structure social interactions; I do crosswords to challenge my language skills. Just because something is a game does not make it compelling. If it's already interesting, gamifying it can improve and focus the attraction, sure. So what I wanted to read—and this is a book which, until about 2/3 of the way through, I thought McGonigal might still be aiming to write—was ideas and inspiration for adding gamelike structure, focus, and attraction to already-existing artistic, cultural, and other human activities which don't seem to be compelling enough by themselves for some people. Not wrapping them inside a game (see the quote above), but wrapping games inside them.

Other than its thesis, McGonigal's book is very loosely written and repetitive (down to a "Conclusion" which does nothing but recap the preceding chapters). It's full of interesting stuff which is well-documented in the notes, but it's so in thrall to its thesis—and depends more and more on games McGonigal herself designed and analyzed—that I began to doubt that the other research was being accurately presented.
Profile Image for William Thomas.
1,231 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2011
This author is an anarchist and doesn't even know it. She's a populist and doesn't even know it. And she's very close to being bat-shit crazy, but gets a pass because of her mention of Herodotus.

You know those people whose entire life is work? And they can't talk about anything besides work? They eat, sleep, breathe their work. And when you try to talk to them, all of their stories and metaphors revolve around their industry and their office stories with a Jonestown-type smile in their face? This author is one of those people.

But if we can get past the fact that she has spent some 10+ years in the video gaming industry and most likely hasn't left her house to see what the real world looks like these days, then we can interpret the book in ways and on levels that the author most likely never intended and find some fantastic information and insight.

This book, which would have been a video game if it were up to the author, is brilliant for it's energy and it's thesis. But even with all of it's upbeat positivity and overwhelming energy, the book does not prove it's thesis, nor does it provide a convincing argument that it's thesis is attainable. And I think that it was her energy and positivity that had me blinded and dumbstruck for the first half of the book. And then I slowly realized that there were too many flaws to be so enamored.

I understand what she's saying. I get it. And I love it. We can use video games to achieve great things. We can use it to political ends that I personally have always dreamed of. Namely, popular democracy. We can use it to usurp the power of representative democracy and replace it with a bottom-up form of government. And she uses some staggering statistics to help prove my point. Not her point, but mine. She shows that player participation in online gaming is at a ludicrously high level. Between games like Halo and WoW, player participation is staggering in it's numbers. And she says we can use this model to increase participation in any real world activity from curing cancer (with games like "Folding Proteins") to cleanliness (with games like "Chore Wars"). And she tries to explain how to gain participation in real world activities with a mixture of psychology and gaming statistics. But she never really shows us how to cross that bridge between gaming and real life. She doesn't tell us exactly how to connect the two, only gives us "if, then" and a plethora of "maybe we can". And that's part of what impressed me and mostly what annoyed me. Her positivism has made her blind, but made her relentless.

The disconnect is the downfall of the book. It may show us some games that have real world effects- Folding Proteins allows gamers to aid scientists in literally folding proteins in order to help cure illnesses- but falls short of showing us how her big ideas can come to life. Just because there are 60 million gamers doesn't mean that we have 60 million people trying to cure cancer. We don't have 60 million people playing Chore Wars. We don't have 60 million people trying to solve the energy crisis or the deficit.

And that brings up a whole new question- should we have 60 million people trying to solve these big problems?

I'm writing this on my iPhone and my eyes are killing me. To be continued.
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,191 reviews1,077 followers
November 19, 2014
Western upper-middle-class privilege overflows from this book, dark brown and sludgy. Replacing social services for elders with untrained and unregulated volunteer labor in it for the virtual currency . . . how do I begin to describe why this is a bad idea?
Profile Image for Julie.
47 reviews2 followers
April 17, 2014
I find all the negative reviews that are listed for this book to be relatively amusing. It seems glaringly obvious from those who are providing these reviews that they are not part of the 176 million gamers currently residing in the western world.
I also find their conclusions and reasons for disliking this book bizarre and without any definitive specifics for why they disagree with the premise this book is based on. Resorting to calling the author names like "anarchist,"crazy," and "poor writer." That last bit seems redundant since if it was that poorly written why are you on Goodreads writing a review about it?

That aside, I may not believe that it is possible for Games to make reality better, but I DO agree that games are good for lifting yourself out of depression, changing your point of view and improving your mindset should it be mildly depressive. I game and I found her statistics enlightening and mildly over-whelming. Anyone who doesn't take the "mass exodus" of more and more people choosing gaming over social interactions seriously are missing the point of what Ms. McGonigal is trying to communicate.

It isn't just a book about games, gamers or how games can "fix" everything. It's a wake-up call to society in general that current and future generations are spending more and more time playing games which will ultimately damage our communities. It is a book about happiness and that gaming provides happiness to those who need it most while reducing their dependence on consumerist thinking that tells them more "stuff" will make them happy.

I feel that many who reviewed this book and gave it such negative comments and/or ratings, missed the point the author was making in each chapter independent of the title.

It is possible to read a book without making judgements about the author prior to finishing said book. I also don't think it necessary to name-call any author. Besides I find anyone who criticizes first-time authors ridiculous if you aren't also a published author. SOMEONE thought this was a good book otherwise it would never have been published in the first place.
Profile Image for Chip Huyen.
Author 8 books3,243 followers
May 20, 2022
The first half of the book is amazing. I learned a lot about what made a game good, what we can learn from that to make real life work more exciting, what game developers know about engineering happiness.

The second half of the book veered towards speculation, which was too anecdotal and fleeting to be convincing.
Profile Image for Gil.
36 reviews69 followers
June 23, 2014
You could say I came to this book with a lot of baggage.

I'm a game designer myself, with one board game published in 2010 and another shipping to Kickstarter backers now. I've been designing board games for about 15 years, and with all the playtesting I've done in that time, I think I've learned a thing or two about good game design.

There are lots of ways to divide games, but for the purposes of this book, there are two kinds of games that are relevant. On one hand, we have "recreational" games. These are most of the kinds of games you've probably played: Halo, Baldur's Gate, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Dungeons & Dragons, and Fiasco. On the other hand, we have "transformative" game. These range from educational games created specifically for the classroom to "art games" that are meant more to affect the player in some way.

As a designer and fan of recreational games, I've always slightly mistrusted tranformatives. They carry a lot of weight in the ever-growing world of gaming academia, but they don't seem to have made a dent in the popular consciousness, even in my relatively tiny corner of designer board games. And the examples of transformatives I've played or read about have not exactly blown me away, from the beautiful-but-not-really-a-good-game stylings of Passage to the sophomoric, self-absorbed histrionics of Brenda Romero's Train.

Recent events have caused me to reconsider my position, though. I am now curious about transformatives. Do they really have the power to change the world?

I'd heard of this book, and of McGonical in general, so I attempted to read (listen to) it with an open mind. McGonical starts out very strong. She is no slouch as a game designer, and her introductory definition of games (influenced by Bernard Suits' clever, classic definition of a game as "a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles") shows that she isn't someone who just blundered into the wrong room.

Alas, McGonical has a tendency towards hyperbole that's a little exhausting. When she talks about someone, it's never enough to say that person is a scientist or a game designer. It's always a "leading scientist" or "noted game designer". Once or twice would have been fine, but she uses this trick multiple times each chapter. It gets old.

She also is a video game designer by nature. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, of course, but in this book, her default scope for the word "game" is "video game". She does not mention board games other than a small bit about Scrabble, and she never even mentions roleplaying games.

This is a shame, as there are a ton of fantastic examples of good game design McGonigal could draw from, if she were more experienced in the field of games as a whole. Board games have gone a long way from Monopoly and Scrabble, as any fan of the Euro or Ameritrash school could tell you. Roleplaying games have had a similar Renaissance too, with old-school retro designs like Pathfinder contrasting with more narrative-based games like Fiasco. And a fan of transformative games should at least know about Nordic Jeepform LARPing; there are some intense, life-changing experiences that come out of that school of game design. So while video games are a broad topic in and of themselves, why limit yourself?

Third, while McGonigal defined games beautifully at the start of the book, she strays quite far in her examples of games that can transform the world. Foursquare's Mayor feature? Kind of a game. Folding@Home? Runs on a game platform, but presents no real obstacles for the player to actively overcome. You just install it and let it run. By McGonigal's own definition, it's not a game. Evoke seems like a classroom activity; as such, it is not voluntary (by any reasonable definition) and is therefore not a game. SuperStruct might technically be a game, but it seems about as fun as writing a thesis project. Which, granted, some people do find fun and engaging, but I don't think an activity that dry is going to gather that many "SEHI".

"SEHI", it turns out, stands for Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals, a group of optimistic people bursting with intelligence and initiative. McGonigal sees these people as being able to drive positive change into the world, activated by games.

Other than the whole Übermench-y feel of this whole enterprise, I find it a little strange that McGonigal never actually acknowledges the difficulty of actualizing gamers into positive, global change, other than the occasional mention of angry chatrooms. But the problem goes past fifteen-year-olds hurling homophobic and misogynistic insults at each other. Why is geek culture so skewed towards the straight white male? How can we carve out a safe place for women at game and comic conventions, where so many attendees seem to equate cosplay with consent?

McGonigal appropriates video gaming culture's terminology, like "Epic Win", but with that, you have to take the bad stuff, too. The childish macho posturing, the tendency towards extreme violence in AAA video games to substitute for things like plot and character, the ongoing, difficult integration of any perspective other than the straight white male. McGonigal would seem to have the perfect perspective to tackle this issues head-on.

Now, granted, this isn't exactly fair. This book came out in 2010, and the problems behind geek culture hadn't really been addressed. We had yet to deal with Mike Krahulik's shameful public examples of misogyny and transphobia (which, credit to him, he's finally trying to address), reports of convention security indifference to sexual abuse of cosplayers, game companies announcing reams of technical revolution in their upcoming games but claiming they have no available resources for playable women gamers, and the question of male geeks' feelings of entitlement to womens' bodies. So although this stuff was all there, it wasn't really public enough for discussion.

Also, this book was written before the word "gamification" was coined. And since then, gamification has lost its shine. It used to be that gamfication was the next big thing in marketing, but I think companies have backed off on it as a mainstream strategy.

Meanwhile, Zynga showed us that an addictive game is not necessarily a good game. Their behavioral manipulations masquerading as games have given a lot of casual game designers reason to pause when working out a "freemium" strategy. Is this the right thing to do? Is it right to keep players soullessly clicking on the next big reward?

And the low barrier to entry for casual and indie game designers has resulted in a glut of small mobile games. This is wonderful in many ways, but discovery is an absolute mess now. If you want to change the world by making a game, how can you get the world's attention to try it? This has never been a trivial question, but more than ever, it needs an answer. If the mobile world is facing an enormous developer cull, how would that affect transformative games?

So perhaps this makes the book a bit dated. If you want to tell me that gamers hold the key to saving the world (for a given definition of "saving the world"), I'll need to hear how gamers can fix their own issues before getting any further. I'd also want to hear how gamification will work in a post-Farmville world. And I'd want to know how a small game that encourages people to do good can possibly be noticed in a world where gatekeeping is lousy enough to that hastily-thrown-together game clones like 2048 and amateurish efforts like Flappy Bird outdo any number of more original, deliberately-executed game designs.

So far, this might all sound like a rip job. And truth be told, the last third of the book was a bit of a slog, because I just couldn't share McGonigal's enthusiasm and optimism. At worst, it came off as epic self-promotion, as she kept trumpeting her own creations.

But I gave this book three stars, because it's already had an effect on me. I used to have a dismissive view of transformative games. But two of McGonigal's games, Kind to be Cruel and Tombstone Hold 'Em, are phenomenal examples of recreational games with a significant transformative element. They're fun to play, but they also work for positive change. I never thought that was possible; the only transformative games I'd been exposed to have been art projects that have been interesting at best and puerile at worst, holding absolutely no engagement or recreational value. Those games showed me that large-scale art games do have a place in the world; they're not just magnets for seed money from starry-eyed VCs.

So I'm looking at games in a new light. I don't buy all of McGonigal's argument that games and gamers will make the world a better place. But I think we can do small bits of good with our games, beyond the regular escapism that a good game offers (and let's be honest: the feeling of oblivion one gets from a good game is freaking ecstatic).

I may not have agreed with a lot of this book, and a good part of it set my teeth on edge. But I am very glad I read it. It's good to know that there's room for positive change in the field that is closest to my heart.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,505 reviews230 followers
February 21, 2011
Reality is certainly broken. Leave aside the big problems like climate change, peak oil, political instability, and economic collapse, on a day to day basis, people are feeling alienated from their jobs, their communities, their very lives, and are fleeing into virtual worlds. Jane McGonigal makes the claim that this is not as bad as it appears, that in fact, games might save the world. Unfortunately, the book falls into the what I might call the Malcolm Gladwell (sorry, Malcolm) trap of thinking that an interesting idea and a bunch of anecdotes somehow adds up to a well-supported thesis.

McGonigal breaks the book into three sections. The first is about why we game. She brings into two unusual emotions, fiero, which is triumphant pride in victory, and naches the pleasure of helping someone else become accomplished to explain we find games fun. Games provide ample opportunities to experience these otherwise rare emotions. Games also help us bond, socially, in that they can be a shared interest, but also help us feel like part of a larger project. Just walking around World of Warcraft feels like being part of a community. The second and third part focus on Alternate Reality Games (ARG), which can be used to get people to help with everything from household chores (Chore Wars) to urban decay (Groundcrew.us). Another side of games is developing long term thinking, whether it be a World Without Oil, or SUPERSTRUCT.

Now, I'm going to be a little critical. One important question that McGonigal drops are if forms of community fostered actually as meaningful as 'traditional communities'. It's one thing if people are replacing watching Jerry Springer with gaming, it's another if it's replacing the traditional institutions of cohesion. My D&D group are some of my closest friends on campus, but it's not because we play D&D, it's because we sit around the table for four hours a week and talk, face to face (and as my players will tell you, I'm the worst for letting table talk interrupt the game.) I can't say that the virtual communities I've belong to have felt event a little bit as real.

On a related note, can games create valuable behavior? There are certainly lessons to be learned from game design about making boring tasks like work and school more interesting and intrinsically rewarding, but a fundamental facet of games is the freedom to leave. Can games replace other forms of organization with the going gets tough, or boring? Bruce Sterling said something like, "Good luck getting these twitterhead neterati to pay attention to anything long enough to govern it," in relation to the recent uprising in the Middle East. The same likely applies to game. Chapter 11, on the Engagement Economy, is one of the better ones in the book, but really deserves somebody with an economics PhD to flesh it out. Translating value between the game and the cash economy will be a perennial problem for serious game designers, and is one that McGonigal sidesteps.

Finally, there is the idea that games can reprogram us, to be be nicer, more collaborative, or wiser. Certainly, gamers have created immense things, after Wikipedia, most of the the large wikis on the web are about videogames, but questions of external value still apply. Futurism is hard work, and while you can say "crowd-sourced many-eyes good-results", I'm not sure if these kind of open scenario exercises actually inspire true reflection or wisdom, or merely reinforce pre-existing biases.

I wanted to like this book. Games are important, as the ever increasing number of game players demonstrates, but we need to have a clearer conception of what they can and cannot do. Uncritical cheerleading doesn't help; the topic deserves a better book.
33 reviews
December 30, 2011
I went into this book with a high degree of cynicism. I think video games are fine in moderation but…video games can change the world? Really? In the book she describes a game put on by the Guardian UK newspaper called Investigate your MPs Expenses. The government released millions of un-cataloged receipts for various MP expenses saved as images. The reporters knew they just didn’t have the manpower to read every image so they put all the images online and created a massively multiplayer online video game. They had a leader boards for both number of documents read and number of red flag documents found. At least 28 MPs were forced to resign when ridiculous ‘business’ expenses were found.

I think she does overstate her case BUT someone needs to make up for all the anti-video game hand-wringers out there so I'm giving it 5 stars. Yes, video game addiction is a problem. So what? Drunk driving is a problem but I’m not going to give up either my car or the occasional glass of wine.

She had many fascinating examples of using video games for good. Chore Wars was an interesting example. It is a friendly competition to see who can do the most household chores. I had also never heard of many of the games designed to motivate one to exercise. Who [in our gaming group] can do the most workouts per year? If we all work together how fast can we get to 1000 miles run?

Another game I had never heard of is Foldit. The author describes it as a 3D version of Tetris. It was designed by a team of medical scientists and computer scientists. They are using the brain power of gamers to learn how to fold digital proteins by hand. Right after I read the book I read this article: Gamers Unlock Protein Mystery That Baffled AIDS Researchers For Years

Profile Image for Philip Cherny.
40 reviews34 followers
February 22, 2012
Pretty much a quasi-self-help guidebook. I’m sure many readers will find the worldly advice McGonigal has to offers quite useful. Personally, there’s nothing in this book that wasn’t already obvious to me: you can make not-so-fun things fun if you turn them into games. Wow, really? Games are an alternative way to face challenges, conquer tasks in creative ways, develop problem-solving skills, blah blah blah. Okay thanks for the chestnut! I cannot believe you stretched that out into an entire 300ish-page book. The parts of this book that aren’t boring are annoying, sometimes even a bit disturbing.

You can tell she’s a follower of Bernard Suits of whom I’m personally not a fan. Suits places teleological emphasis on games, overlooking the process (what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”) of play for the end result of winning or losing.

I find it a little scary how optimistic this author is about the wholesale gamification of life: “And so while others might distinguish between ‘serious’ ARGs and ‘entertainment’ ARGs, I prefer to look at all ARGs as having the potential to improve our quality of life” (126). She does not critically address the limitations of alternate-reality games: who does it not work on (I’m sure some people simply do not like games), or what areas in life that really do not lend themselves over to gameification. It’s crap like this that is responsible for all the bullshit corporate “friendly-competition” events designed by HR to make workers more motivated to work efficiently. Nothing wrong with setting goals and achieving them, but I pity those who feel the need to construct teleological aspirations for productivity in order to find life engaging. There is more to life than being productive. I don���t equate happiness and wellbeing with achieving goals and consuming products. Not all tasks should be “conquered.” I guess my issue is this whole book feels extremely “how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people”-esque. “ARGs are designed to make it easier to generate the four intrinsic rewards we crave—more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and more meaning—whenever we can’t or don’t want to be in a virtual environment” (125)—this kind of stuff really makes me cringe, but maybe I’m too being sentimental, too sardonic, too harsh towards faux enthusiasm?

Some more really annoying parts:

* “Rai is “questing” before she even gets to school. She’s working on a secret mission, a math assignment that yesterday she discovered hidden in one of the books in the school library. She exchanges text messages with her friends Joe and Celia as soon as she gets up in order to make plans to meet at school early. Their goal: break the mathematical code before any of the other students discover it” (129)

* "So what is stealth social innovation? In the world of EVOKE, social innova- tors tackle social problems with superheroic secrecy and spectacle—public and yet mysterious, like Batman or Spider-Man—in order to capture global imagination so that the solutions have a real chance to catch on and spread virally. EVOKE superheroes are particularly known for applying an innovation method referred to by real development experts today as “African ingenuity.” (334-5)

* “In other words, they became what futurist Jamais Cascio calls “super- empowered hopeful individuals,” or SEHIs. A SEHI (pronounced SEH-hee) is someone who feels not just optimis- tic about the future, but also personally capable of changing the world for the better.” (315) oh and then she contrasts those with terrorists who are “super-empowered angry individuals (SEAI)

This book if full of crap like this that makes you want to bang your head against the wall and scream, ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?

To make matters worse, you would think that in these 300ish pages McGonigal would include some substantial statistical data or empirical to back up her claims, but nah! She’s just going to rely primarily on anecdotal evidence and her own projects. E.g. there does seem to be a motivation gap among students that needs to be addressed. But applying “alternate-reality games” to education is not some panacea to ameliorate all our education problems. In fact it may make matters worse. I recall in public school, I was typically the oddball student who would naturally be interested in the subjects presented in class, until teachers try to dress it up and make it look fun like it wasn’t already interesting, in which case I would instantly get annoyed or bored.

This is more of a rant than a book review, but honestly, I haven't had such an agonizing read in a long time. I close with a link: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology....
Profile Image for Forrest.
122 reviews7 followers
May 27, 2011
It’s almost painfully clear that Jane McGonigal has never written anything for a wide audience before. It isn’t that her book is poorly written or that it doesn’t make its point well, but somewhere in her blissful vision of a future where gaming is the new paradigm, McGonigal forgot that if you’re trying to make a convincing point, you need to focus on that point. Reality is Broken is the worst kind of populist non-fiction because it is trying so hard to be universally relevant.

That being said, the book has a great point to make. Games are great tools for productivity. If we could channel the effort and skill that gamers bring to their favorite pastime, we could accomplish some truly mind-blowing things. It really is unfortunate that the book does such a poor job of focusing on this central conceit because when it gets down to business, it’s a really convincing piece of literature.

Jane McGonigal is a bit of a superstar in the field of game design, but her forte isn’t the games that make sales headlines like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. She specializes the blending of the real world with digital games, sometimes called Augmented Reality gaming. In particular, she’s good at blending gaming sensibility with everyday challenges. So when she says that reality is broken, she is implying that we could be a lot more productive and engaged by our lives if they were handled more like games.

The combination of stimulating feedback, challenge and the sense of competition is a great recipe for increased productivity. Managers have been using pieces of this formula for years, but the complete implementation of game design in the workplace has been illusive. McGonigal has a truckload of research supporting her claims, but much of it is glossed over in the text in favor of optimistic rhetoric. The book does have an extensive footnote section, but it doesn’t really excuse the lack of useful research in the main text. There is a critical point where the conclusions you draw from research need to be supported with numbers immediately, or the average reader will just dismiss the citation.

McGonigal also wanders off on some strange tangents. In one chapter she praises the Halo 3 community for uniting to get 10 billion NPC kills. She claims that while these accomplishments don’t have any real value, the people who contributed to them do get meaning out of being a part something bigger than themselves. A nice sentiment perhaps, but the chapter is ultimately meaningless to her argument that we should be deriving real value from game design, rather than false meaning from real games.

It’s frustrating that the really good central idea is compromised by bad organization and writing. Listening to McGonigal talk in any of the venues she’s visited in the past few months reveals a much clearer picture of her goals than her book does. She could have cut it in half and still had too much fluff. Still, gamers should take a close look at Reality is Broken, if only because it affirms what we’ve known all along: Gaming is good for the soul.
Profile Image for James.
Author 11 books92 followers
January 31, 2013
A surprisingly good book - surprising not because I didn't expect it to be interesting and well written, but because of the breadth of ground the author covers.
McGonigal starts by making a convincing case that playing computer games (up to 20 hours a week or thereabouts) actually improves the mental capabilities and the individual and collective quality of life of gamers; she draws on a fair amount of psychological research data with which I was already familiar via my training and reading as a psychotherapist and with which I was actively working immediately before I started this book.
She goes on to present the theme that games, properly designed, can mobilize the efforts and imaginations of millions of people worldwide to try to solve pressing real-world problems like hunger and the looming energy crisis driven by climate change and the depletion of available fossil fuel reserves.
She wraps up by giving examples of ways people have actually begun doing this, and offering web links (what else?) to sites documenting some of the projects cited and inviting the reader to participate.
Some time back I had the idea of getting involved with video game design with the goal of creating games that would teach children and adolescents pro-social behavior and healthy values like empathy, cooperation, and independence of thought. This book convinces me that people are already doing it, and that it's working. A great read for any gamer, or anyone with a gamer in his/her life, or anyone with a social agenda related to solving big problems or achieving big goals.
Profile Image for Jamie.
Author 5 books169 followers
March 4, 2011
Unlike people who apparently pay attention to what’s going on in the gaming industry, I only recently became aware of Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. in Performance Studies best known for designing alternate reality games and thinking really big thoughts. After reading her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World, McGonigal strikes me as part cheerleader, part social scientist, part entrepreneur, and part that crazy lady in the downtown L.A. parking lot that would always throw pigeons at me. It’s an interesting combination.

I was interested in Reality is Broken here because McGonigal does, among other things, what I do on my blog: she examines the intersection of psychology and video games. Only where I tend to look at the larger world and apply theories about human behavior to explain game design and player behaviors, she does the inverse by starting at maxims of game design and player psychology to understand how we do things in the real world.

Or rather, how we should do things in the real world. The central thesis of the book is that reality –that is, everything that’s NOT a game– is inferior to games in many ways and we can learn a lot about how to make reality better by looking at what makes games so wonderful. This idea is codified in fourteen different “fixes” for real life, such as getting in a epic mindset (Fix #6), opening yourself up to having fun with strangers (Fix #9), and doing work that’s intrinsically satisfying (Fix #3). The book is at its best when it draws these straight lines from the things that make video games great to ways to improve our work, philanthropy, and relationships outside of games. Specific, actionable goals subject to clear feedback, for example, is something that every game designer aims for and every player seeks out, and to the extent that we can adopt those same standards in real life and frame our everyday activities in game-like terms, we can be happier and more productive.

That’s a pretty cool thought, and I have to admit that McGonigal has a knack for drawing these parallels in ways that are really clear and make you think “Yeah, I can see that!” This made the early chapters of the book grouped under the heading “Why Games Make Us Happy” my favorites, since they focused on building her argument and really nailing in a clear way many of the things about video games that can make us happy and mentally healthy. The second group of chapters (“Reinventing Reality”) start to deal with applying these rules to alternate reality games. My favorite one of these was “Cruel to Be Kind,” which was a re-purposing of the basic gameplay of the old “Assassins” game that many of us played on college campuses. The difference is that instead of sneaking up to people and squirting them with water pistols, C2BK players would perform random acts of kindness –such as a warm greeting, a helping hand, or a kind compliment– in order to take each other out of the game. Only you never knew who your fellow players were, so many perplexed but pleased bystanders are often caught in crossfires of friendly words and offers of aid. It’s the kind of thing that perfectly captures the kind of “let’s make the WHOLE WORLD totally awesome HELL YEAH!” attitude that McGongal is so well known for.

Things start to fall apart in the third section of the book, however, which includes description after description of McGonigal’s various other alternate reality and crowdsourcing projects. It’s here that I kind of started to lose the thread, because describing things like Wikipedia other collective intelligence projects as “games” starts to strain credibility and the premises put forth earlier in the book. How exactly did we get from “Players seek out experiences that create psychological flow” to “Let’s get gamers to blog about solutions to the energy crisis?” Is that really a game the same way that Halo or The Sims is? It sure doesn’t feel like it, and that’s kind of where I think Reality is Broken is itself a little broken.

I think the author should have endeavored more to create an overall model of game and gamer characteristics and how they can lead to better health, happiness, and life in the real world. She does some of this by listing out her various “Fixes” but I have to wonder if the book would not have been more compelling if it were structured more around these ideas instead of having the Fixes sprinkled throughout to serve whatever points she wanted to make. The back third of the book suffered from this particularly, to the point of feeling meandering and more than a little self serving.

Still, it’s a very interesting book, and it gave me some great ideas. I should also mention that McGonigal’s tone takes some getting used to and more than a couple of pinches of salt. She obviously believes these big thoughts and thinks that games can serve as models for making the world better, to the point where she (somewhat infamously) thinks there should one day be a Nobel prize for game design. But like I said her claims sometimes strains credibility and you often wonder what the point B between points A and C looks like, because you apparently missed it. But at the very least, the chapters on what makes games work are worth reading, and the rest of the book will at worst make you feel pretty good about being a gamer. Still, her joy and optimism are infectious, and having champions like McGonigal for our hobby is hardly a bad thing.
Profile Image for Zach Freeman.
509 reviews5 followers
May 11, 2012
I saw the author speak at SXSWedu this year and found her really engaging as a speaker but very light on actual substance. Her ideas definitely got my attention though. Her central point (both in the lecture I saw and in this book) seems to be: Is it possible to harness the power of games (and gamers) to help make the world a better place? It's a worthwhile topic and definitely something worth investigation. After reading her book, though, it seems like maybe she would be better off getting someone else to investigate and document the concept for her as I wouldn't say she's really up to the task of presenting this information in a realistic way. Her writing kind of captures her presentation style: heavy on motivational speak, buzz words, qualitative info and overblown conclusions while remaining really light on substantive studies, quantitative data or realistic expectations.

One of the big flaws of the book (in my mind) is that she spends a lot of time attempting to address the negative connotations of the word "gamer." While I think this is a worthwhile effort, she goes too far. She attempts to paint a picture of gamers as ideal human beings who have entered into the gaming world to compensate for how reality has failed them. They are all brilliant, driven, motivated, helpful, cooperative, friendly people who really want to help save the planet but just aren't being motivated enough because of the failings of the real world. This characterization is just as incorrect as the view that she claims to be addressing of gamers as lazy introverts. I'm not sure why she couldn't just point out that gamers are normal people who happen to have gaming as their hobby and move on from there... This book could almost be called "Gamer Apologetics" for how much time she spends building up gamers (to the detriment of anyone who is NOT a gamer, I might add).

Another major flaw is how quickly she draws overblown conclusions. There are plenty of examples of this but the one that sticks out in my mind is on page 235. Here she describes an online game called Free Rice and how many people have logged into the site to play the word game featured there (earning 10 grains of rice to be donated to the United Nations World Food Programme). This is obviously a great cause, but she tries to say that the number of people playing on the site "irrefutably shows that gamers are, on the whole, happier when a good game also does real-world good." How does it show that? Is there any evidence that the people playing this game are "gamers"? Is there any evidence that this game makes people "happier" than any other game? None of these questions are addressed. These types of unsubstantiated claims are riddled throughout the book and really sank the whole concept for me.

Additionally, most of the games that she uses as examples of how games can change the world are games that she worked on. This leads to skewed descriptions and overblown usage characterizations. Something as simple as the game she calls "SuperBetter" is described as a game that will "help anyone recovering from an injury or coping with a chronic condition get better sooner - with more fun, and with less pain and misery, along the way." But really it's just a method she used to cope with her own concussion that involves making a list of things to accomplish and asking friends for help. After she tweeted about it some people asked her for the "rules" of her "game." Turning that simple activity into an example of how games make life better is quite a stretch.

Finally, the premise just doesn't pan out. Do some people enjoy game worlds more than the real world? Obviously. But does that mean that reality is broken? Of course not. She tries to connect games to the human experience by starting out with a Greek history that has games at its core. The problem is that she then jumps all the way to the present day and uses online games for almost all her examples. Especially because of this heavy reliance on online games the entire book is too directed at a specific audience (those dealing with boring work, loneliness, etc.) to ever really address its premise of how games can "change the world."

Just like her speaking, the writing is engaging, but there's just not enough substance to make it meaningful. This doesn't feel like a well-researched book - it feels more like a stream-of-conscious diatribe from someone who loves games, gamers and self-promotion in equal measure.
Profile Image for Michael.
274 reviews784 followers
September 1, 2012
I love Jane McGonigal's creativity in finding ways to reinvent gaming. She is clearly an intensely creative designer with an eye on the bigger picture of what games might be able to help the human race accomplish.

That said, I felt the potential was being overstated through a glossing over of details. Here's my favorite example (and this is a paraphrasing):

According to a book called Outliers, people who are absolutely brilliant at something have invested roughly 10,000 hours in developing the skill by the time they are 21. Since the 80's, 21-year-olds have on average spent 10,000 hours playing video games. Therefore, many people are brilliant at the skills taught by video games.

Video games, among other things, teach cooperation and collaboration. Therefore, we have tons of people who are absolutely brilliant at collaboration. These people can use their powers of collaboration to save the world if given the right context for doing so.

Here's the problem I'm seeing in sentence 3: As far as I can tell, video games teach a broad range of skills because they are different from one another. While my time playing strategy games has developed a certain skill set, my time playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game has taught me about timing, and about how many times you have to jump-kick Rocksteady in his head to kill him. Granted, if someone spent 10,000 hours playing World of Warcraft, they would undoubtedly be a brilliant WoW-player, and would know all the ins and outs of raiding, duels, guild dynamics, and a variety of other complex skills.

But if you've spent 10,000 hours playing Resident Evil, you're just good at killing zombies with a knife. This skill could come in handy during the inevitable zombie apocalypse, but it's not collaboration. In summary, it doesn't make sense to say all of your gaming experience is building upon the same skill. This is like saying 10,000 hours spent in national parks makes you a brilliant botanist.

That aside, I really find what I learned in this book invaluable. Reading about the innovative games that have been created for the sake of (a) making people happier, (b) enhancing reality, and (c) saving the world, has given me a lot of new ideas to think about in my search for ways to teach sustainability through video games. Now, I realize that some people are already finding new solutions to environmental problems through creative gaming. This is an incredibly inspiring thought.

My favorite new discovery is the game now known as "Sparked." In this game, you are a superhero capable of rescuing real people with real problems. Players can broadcast their availability to save the day, as well as things they need in order to be 'rescued.' In real life, you are capable of helping people who for one reason or another are unable to accomplish something on their own, and you can gain recognition and "level up" as a superhero through these efforts.

Really, this game does nothing but make it easier and more fun to help complete strangers. And this is awesome.

Jane McGonigal views game design as a dynamic field which has more untapped potential than any other medium for making social change. On this, I totally agree. If you're a gamer, or someone who is under the mistaken impression that games are a waste of time, read this book.

Profile Image for Paul.
2,143 reviews
January 28, 2016
By their 21st birthday, a young person will have spent around 10,000 hours playing video games on a console, phone or other device. According to some, mostly parents, video games are a waste of time and effort, that could be better spent elsewhere. McGonigal has a very different view of this and with evidence from numerous disciplines, like cognitive science and psychology, she puts forward the case that video games are actually good for us.

Using various case studies and examples, she shows just how useful games can be in learning how to, solve problems, develop brand new ideas and collaborate. There are example of games that make people think about energy usage, and survival, she writes when a new game is launched just how fast it is written about and documented on Wiki’s to help those new to the game. There is a chapter on the game, Halo 3, and how gamers across the globe have managed to achieve the unbelievable target of 10 billion kills in the game with teamwork and concerted effort. Even a few minutes on a day on a simple game can do much to relieve stress.

McGonigal is a renowned game designer who has worked with organisations like the World Bank and the UN to develop online problem solving websites aimed at tackling potential problems that humanity will face in the future. She offers a compelling argument that a sensible amount of time spent playing computer games actually has many benefits and positive outcomes. I must say that I tend to agree with a number of the points that she makes, but gaming should be a part of someone’s activities not the whole focus. Worth reading if you are into technology and modern day culture.
Profile Image for Katie.
409 reviews5 followers
December 26, 2016
As I read this book I seemed to oscillate between "UGH WHY" and "DANG YES" so reviewing it is a special challenge. I started it a loooong time ago in a galaxy far, far away (seriously I think it was five years ago) and I think if I had finished it then my career trajectory would've changed dramatically. Or maybe I was depressed by the juxtaposition of the book and my actual experience in the game industry and that's why I put it down. I SUPPOSE I SHALL NEVER KNOW.

I feel like this book might be absolutely mind-blowing for someone who isn't a gamer. Or at least would be a very interesting study of games and their application or potential application in the real world. For me it felt like an alternation between "yes I know this already" and "DUDE THAT'S COOL WHY DIDN'T I KNOW THAT." Overall I felt that the book was longer than it needed to be and the filler parts were what made it a challenge for me to finish this book. Also several of the examples are now out of date or nonexistent so that's a bummer.

All that being said this book was very optimistic, had some really interesting design ideas, and a lot of tips from psychology on how to "design" your behaviors to experience more joy. So if that sounds good, grab a copy!
Profile Image for صدرا.
28 reviews
June 12, 2019
سه و نیم؟ سه و بیست و پنج؟
پیشنهاد می‌شه ولی کلی حرف دارم که دربارش بزنم!
اگه خداوند راضی باشد با ریویو برخواهم گشت
+ بالاخره یه کتاب انگلیسیِ کوفتی خوندمممممممممم
Profile Image for Ryan.
617 reviews29 followers
July 27, 2017
Being a developer of games and simulation/training software, myself, I think that this book delves into an important question: why do we play games? After all, when one thinks about it, most games are simply work, a series of repetitive tasks. What makes them *fun*? And why doesn’t work we do in real life engage us in the same way? Why do people enjoy doing chores in The Sims and Farmville, but hate doing their actual dishes and laundry? Why are X-Box first person shooter matches so popular with soldiers in Afghanistan, who presumably get enough of the real deal?

If you can mentally compensate for the author’s extremely starry-eyed view of gaming and gamers, she does raise some interesting points. There’s no question that games tap into our neurochemical wiring, stimulating our brains' reward systems with bite-sized challenges and constant feedback. We enjoy the competition and freedom of experimentation that games offer. Playing them also has more meaningful benefits, such as building self-confidence, providing healthy escape from stress, allowing us to explore and experiment, fostering community and connection, even creating a feeling of connection to something bigger.

This leads to the book's central questions: how can we apply what works in games to make aspects of the real world more engaging? How can we use game-like systems to solve problems that really matter? Would we have more fun with reality if it was more benignly competitive, more open to experimentation, more full of positive feedback for doing the right thing? If you weren't familiar with buzzy terms like "augmented reality" or "massively single-player", you will be.

While McGonigal probably won’t sell you on the notion that games can solve humanity’s problems, her anecdotes about successful projects make a convincing case for their future potential. Yes, many of the cutesy social apps she described, such as the one that rewards users with virtual prizes for jogging, seem a little inconsequential, but the point is the *possibility* they imply. If we're using smart phones to manage our lives anyway, why not make the experience fun? I was fascinated by the use of crowd-sourcing to unravel a British political scandal (with astonishingly effective results) and McGonigal's assessment of wikipedia in gaming terms. The World Without Oil game and some similar experiments show a potential role for gamelike collaborative systems in addressing widespread political disconnect.

The author also provides a sense of the sheer energy, enthusiasm, and range of interests of gamers themselves. Let’s face it, if hundreds of millions of people across the Earth are using computers and playing games every day, this represents a huge mindshare that might be tapped. Sure, not all of their skills translate to real-world problems, but many do. As I’ve seen in my own line of work, part of the reason that game-based military simulations are so effective is because they leverage an already-existing base of skills found among most young people who join the US military (and I don’t mean shooting stuff, but navigating virtual environments).

McGonigal’s unbridled excitement may not speak to every reader, but I think that most who have had a more-than-casual experience with gaming will understand where it's coming from. Even if you decide not to read the book, I recommend googling some of the author’s talks and projects.
Profile Image for Sharon Dodge.
Author 2 books5 followers
March 4, 2011
Jane McGonigal is a fascinating person - the kind I'd like to have over for dinner - and I desperately wish this book were required for everyone I've known who mocks video games and gamers.

Her explanation covers so, so many levels of both the importance, the history, and the potential of games, and while I doubt she would approve of my brief breakdown, I came away with something like this:

Productive bliss comes from doing something we're good at, which we get regular feedback on and which harnesses our talents, is within our ability to perform, and also constantly keeps us on the edge of our talents. Reaching that blissful state of flow usually requires mastery - approximately 10,000 hours of study before the age of 21 - but with video games, you can have instant "flow," because video games are tailored to give you that experience with minimal effort.

Even more fascinating, gamers are not loners anymore, but increasingly highly social in their game playing, and exceptional collaborators. Best of all, most folks born after 1990 will have 10,000 hours of video game mastery by age 21, preparing them for a kind of incredible positive collaborative mastery previously unknown. And modern games, increasingly designed to improve the human condition, take advantage of incredibly basic human abilities and amplify them tenfold, and she walks you through all the many ways we've utilized that ability, from creating a healing system to increasing volunteering to superior education systems to simply creating joy - all through games.

I love books like these: books that challenge your understanding and broaden your perspective of human capabilities, and casting a beautifully positive light on something so much of academia is so happy to mock and degrade. A fascinating, wonderful book.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,586 followers
May 4, 2011
In this book, games are defined as realms where people voluntarily overcome obstacles. McGonigal shows how all games meet these requirements for being a "game". In the beginning of the book, she describes some of the all-time most popular computer games; Farmville, Halo, World of Warcraft. By the age of 21, many young people have logged over 10,000 hours in these games--so they have learned how to cooperate for the greater good. McGonigal shows that the number of people playing World of Warcraft (11.5 million) is exactly equal to the number of registered contributors to Wikipedia. Yet, the immense amount of time spent on the development of Wikipedia is spent every three and a half days on World of Warcraft! What if all of this effort could be harnessed for truly improving the world?

In the second half of the game, Jane McGonigal describes games--not necessarily computer games--that have some positive impact on society. She herself designs games that have been played by large groups, with some positive impacts on people. She shows how a crowdsourced game, organized by The Guardian publication, helped to reveal corruption in the British Parliament. She shows how a puzzle game played mostly on the PSP3 is helping to save lives, by finding solutions to protein folding problems.

To some extent, this book seems to be Pollyannish; but the writing exudes idealism and enthusiasm that are hard to resist.
Profile Image for Christian.
663 reviews
April 17, 2011
This book is THE awesomesauce. What educator wouldn't want their students to be as ravenous and as persistent in their studies as video games? Now, to be clear, McGonigal does NOT say that games replace reality but can enhance reality. If we can apply the principles in video game design to education or social reform it can be a very powerful, potentially the MOST powerful tool, in the inventory of human thought. I see my son wake up every day and he plays at life with great zest. What happens to us when we go to school that that sense of wonder and play is crushed out of us? That is stupid and wasteful! I look at my friends and have always been struck by how smart they are! I'm NOT kidding; BUT if you compared some of our academic records it does not favor my smart friends. I think that in many, admittedly not all though, ways, the structure of school failed them. If school was presented with the engrossing and personally meaningful principles of good video game design, many of my friends might have found school a better experience. I really REALLY like many parts of this book. Very stimulating and thought provoking read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Rachel C..
1,835 reviews4 followers
September 16, 2015
This book is not just for gamers and nerds. LOTS of interesting ideas about the psychology of motivation and engagement; collaborative online environments; creative problem-solving.

Lots of cool factoids for my trivia brain, too. Did you know that people have collectively spent almost 6 million years playing World of Warcraft? That's as much time as we've spent evolving as a species. Dude.

Jane McGonigal talks about lots of areas of reality where we might try to import the virtues of gaming. The one that spoke the loudest to me was work. "It turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work. ... The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression."

Imagine a workplace where - like games - rules, goals and achievements are clear; where we can leverage our individual strengths to maximum effect; where we're in control of work flow; where anyone can increase capability and achieve success if they work at it long enough.

Sounds pretty awesome, doesn't it?
Profile Image for Mike.
396 reviews14 followers
May 31, 2011
She has some interesting ideas, but overall it seems like she's trying to justify the existence and popularity of video games to her grandmother while wearing a cheerleader outfit. You heard me.
Profile Image for Justin.
454 reviews41 followers
June 28, 2014
2014 update: I flipped through the paperback after a presentation and signing with McGonigal, and noticed an appendix that addresses nearly every criticism I had during my first reading. Awesome.

This book floated at the periphery of my awareness for a while, before a television interview finally motivated me to seek it out. McGonigal has an impressive resume: game design lead, TED presenter, admitted gamer, and inexhaustible optimist. It honestly wouldn’t take much to get me to read a book about video games, but McGonigal’s mission to make gaming a socially meaningful exercise (or, at least, to achieve more recognition for its inherent social impact) made me intensely curious. While I’m not quite sure what to think about it now that I’ve finished it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

McGonigal begins this book on familiar ground: the staggering numbers of hours that a typical gamer spends planted in front of a screen, and the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies such figures. Rather than play the same sensationalistic game that many play with that information, though, she springboards into some rather bold assertions. First, she claims that these numbers exist because games are ultimately more rewarding than real life. Further, she insists that the mental energy being expended in game worlds is ripe and waiting to be harnessed to improve society as a whole. At this point, gaming Luddites are cued to scoff, unbelieving. Meanwhile, I and other gamers immediately shudder at the thought of engaging the sociopathic mutants that comprise a wide swath of our fellow players any more than we must. McGonigal’s hypothesis is carefully crafted, though; what follows is an illuminating look into the psychological mechanisms of contentment and happiness, and how close we already are to merging games and social action.

I found the first third of the book to be particularly fascinating, and ironically enough, it only tangentially involved video games. McGonigal cites numerous studies that point to a profound fallacy perpetrated upon us: the notion that we are wired to work only in order to amass the things we need to survive, and that “happiness” as we understand it is found in the rewards we accrue from our work. These studies suggest that it’s the work itself which actually defines our happiness, but with some very specific caveats; namely, the work must be entirely voluntary, the obstacle must be unnecessary to some degree, and the reward must be both explicitly apparent and customized to our particular needs. In short, we are wired to be the most energized and content when we work hard at a task we choose to undertake of our own volition, and can see the direct results of that work. This idea is the backbone of the book's thesis, which is that we spend so much time playing video games because the games are magnitudes better at delivering this kind of happiness than our real lives. Life is too often filled with work we are compelled to do in order to fulfill someone else’s goals, with no appreciable reward or positive impact other than the ability to pay our bills (and, of course, buy a new video game).

That’s a weighty and interesting notion, and it carries the whole book through some rather high-minded suggestions and improbable scenarios. McGonigal is an avowed futurist who works in the business of alternate reality games, and thus has a lot to say about how games can be leveraged to do things like promote happiness, collaboration, and social action. She gives plenty of concrete examples, many of which are interesting in their own right, and is careful to acknowledge that games like these are still on the fringe of gaming consciousness and highly experimental in nature. But she uses their various successes to weave together a path to what she believes to be the destiny of gaming: the application of the contentment and flow of gaming to fixing problems in the real world.

Thankfully, she has no illusions about how improbable such a thing is; in fact, it’s quite clear that the skepticism she gets in response to her goal of a game designer winning a Nobel Prize only goads her on further. McGonigal is endlessly upbeat about the positive power of gaming, which is initially compelling, and makes it hard to dismiss the optimistic visions she describes (especially considering the evidence she provides along with them). But I have to say, all of that optimism started to grate on me after a while. Part of that may be that I am a longtime gamer and this book is geared towards those who aren’t gamers at all, necessarily, so I got fed up with the novelty of gaming terms like “epic win” rather quickly.

But a larger problem I had was that the optimism wasn’t balanced out by the healthy dose of realism it needs. I have no doubt that McGonigal is realistic about the work she does, considering that she is a gamer herself and is immersed in it within her professional life, so I’m forced to wonder at the odd omissions in this book. No mention of gaming addiction, for instance, or of professional gaming. There's a cursory mention of how "playing games" is typically used as a derogatory phrase, but no acknowledgement of how game theory is behind zero-sum mayhem in everything from relationships to international politics. She mentions Xbox Live in passing and I assume she’s used the service before, but I wonder at how her experience can differ so radically with mine. I have my online friends, and enjoy myself online, but the shining moments of collaboration, bridging the geographical gap between me and my erstwhile companions, applying our natural talents to overcome obstacles in a brilliant starburst of pride and goodwill? That is not my normal experience. My normal experience is having someone go on a headset tirade and/or send me a message that consists largely of the word “fag,” followed by a ragequit if I happen to be winning. I’m willing to bet that is the normal experience for most other players, too.

But again, this is probably due to the book being meant for an audience that is as inclusive as possible, and focusing on the stereotype that many people have about gamers (which is not entirely without merit) would only get in the way of McGonigal’s message. I was initially confused about the lack of any mention of I Love Bees, an alternate reality game that McGonigal helped design for the release of Halo 2, since it is arguably the most mainstream example of a collaborative ARG. There is an entire chapter on the gargantuan reach and mighty gaming achievements of the Halo community; was it not socially conscious enough, I wondered, to mention the vast storytelling effort that was related to that community but was first and foremost a marketing tool? Then I did some research and found that she had written an academic paper solely on I Love Bees, at a level far beyond what the casual reader or nongamer would have any interest in absorbing. Meanwhile, the Olympics ARG makes the cut for the book, since everyone knows about the Olympics.

There were moments when I started to tune out a little, but the overarching idea of this book is fascinating. Like many, I can’t help but be somewhat skeptical, especially at the end when we start looking at global “games” and the line between game-playing and scenario analysis becomes so blurred as to be nonexistent. But the force of McGonigal’s enthusiasm is hard to ignore, and I can’t help but be a little excited at the prospect of her best-case scenario. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a fresh perspective on gaming, or anyone who wants to get to the root of “gamer guilt” and reconcile their hobby with their desire to do something meaningful with their time. Video games aside, though, this is worth reading just for the interesting stuff at the beginning about how we react to immediate feedback and the difference between working for external and intrinsic rewards. There’s some stuff to nitpick at, and I actually didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, but this is an interesting read by a smart, dedicated author.
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