Ryan's Reviews > Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal
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Nov 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfic-issues, nonfic-computation, female-author

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.
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