Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reality is Broken

Next up, a remarkably original and riveting book by Janet McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

I got interested in reading this because I thought that games were increasingly a source of purpose and motivation in modern life. As monetary incentives and material scarcity became less important, other things might become more important to people as a way to fill their lives. Games are concrete in a way that more abstract statements of purpose are not.

I said:

So maybe these questions of purpose and meaning and incentives are better thought of as finding the right games for people to play. People want a set of game rules to give the effort meaning. ... In many ways games are an alternative or substitute for work.

McGonigal is an experienced video game designer and a Berkely PhD in performance arts. She develops the thought that games give people motivation far more than I had even imagined.


She brilliantly links the new positive psychology findings on motivation and happiness to the science of optimizing video games and the possibilities opened up by the internet for social collaboration and purposefulness.


She gives us a remarkably stimulating account of how games - video games, alternate reality games - actually fulfill many of the criteria for happiness that positive psychology has been developing in the last twenty years.

Yes, it might look to the uninitiated like a colossal waste of time, something for geeky male teenagers with no girlfriends.

But if nothing else (and she thinks there is much more to it, as we will see) they make tens of millions of people happy.

Gamers want to know: Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favorite games.


And it is much more than just pimply youths playing the games. The game industry is starting to overtake other major media which we acknowledge changed the culture, like TV. Major games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 outsell the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. The average American 21-year old, she says, has spent more time playing games than sitting in school.

So what is a game?

all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

A definition (from earlier writers) could be:

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.That definition, in a nutshell, explains everything that is motivating and rewarding and fun about playing games.


But why bother?

But this definition leads us to a perplexing question. Why on earth are so many people volunteering to tackle such completely unnecessary obstacles? Why are we collectively spending 3 billion hours a week working at the very limits of our ability, for no obvious external reward? In other words: Why do unnecessary obstacles make us happy?

Game designers have cannily learned lots of tricks about motivatng and stretching people, so that they are in a condition of engagement and flow. People like to be challenged.

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


This is why reality is broken. For many tens of millions of people, playing games provides more work satisfaction than work. Too many real jobs provide little real challenge, stimulus, direct feedback or opportunities to grow skills and contribute to a larger cause.




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